Councils lack 'essential safeguards to prevent corruption' in planning | Strategic Network news

Councils lack 'essential safeguards to prevent corruption' in planning

Local authorities across England "lack essential safeguards to prevent corruption in the planning process", new research has warned.

Permission Accomplished, by Transparency International UK, details how individuals and companies may seek to corrupt major planning decisions through generous gifts and hospitality, lobbying key members in secretive closed-door meetings, and hiring serving councillors with inside knowledge to help secure development consents. 

These risks are compounded by weak safeguards against major conflicts of interest, such as councillors working for developers on the side, combined with a lack of meaningful sanctions to deter misconduct.

Transparency International UK assessed 50 councils in England with planning responsibilities for housing and scored them on how well they manage corruption risks using a scale of 0 (poor) to 100 (meets good practice).

  • All show significant room for improvement, with an average score of just 38 out of 100
  • 84% of these councils scored less than 50
  • More than half scored under 40

The report identifies five key corruption risks relating to councillors’ involvement in major planning decisions, including:

Alleged bribery and excessive gifts and hospitality

  • A £500m+ development in Tower Hamlets is under investigation by the National Crime Agency over the alleged solicitation of bribes for councillors.
  • A planning Chair in Westminster council was forced to resign over excessive gifts and hospitality worth over £13,000.
  • A developer giving a series of political donations to the local branches of a political party around the same time in which they were applying for planning permission within the same local area.

Secretive lobbying

A £200m+ development in Liverpool is under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office, with no minutes taken at meetings between the developers, councillors and their officials.

Conflicts of interest

We found 32 councillors across 24 councils holding critical decision-making positions in their local planning system whilst also working for developers.

Duncan Hames, Director of Policy at Transparency International UK, said: "Given the controversy often surrounding major developments, the evidence we have gathered makes for worrying reading.

"Poor practice can give residents the overriding impression that decisions are being taken to benefit powerful and wealthy interests at the expense of delivering much-needed, truly affordable homes. Failing to recognise these concerns threatens to further erode trust in the planning system and undermine billions of pounds of investment.

"Many will be disturbed to hear that there are those entrusted to decide on major planning applications who also work part-time for developers as their clients. 

"Allowing such a clear conflict of interest for those holding senior roles does nothing to address concerns that the planning system is open to abuse. Councillors working for developers in their private time should not be allowed to influence or determine any major planning applications.

"Fortunately, most of these issues can be easily addressed by local authorities without the need for a change in the law. While our recommendations are not a silver bullet, for many councils they would represent a major improvement on the measures currently in place."

The organisation makes 10 practical recommendations that would be "relatively inexpensive, easy for local authorities to implement and would improve transparency and strengthen oversight of the planning process".

These recommendations are:

  • Minute and publish all meetings with developers and their agents for major developments
  • Prohibit those involved in making planning decisions from accepting gifts and hospitality that risk undermining the integrity of the planning process
  • Prohibit all councillors from undertaking lobbying or advisory work relating to their duties on behalf of paying clients
  • Stronger leadership from the industry on ethical lobbying
  • Improved management of financial interests
  • Increase transparency over gifts and hospitality
  • Manage the revolving door between the elective office and private business.
  • Provide clear guidance and boundaries for councillors so they can better understand what is and is not acceptable behaviour
  • Provide a meaningful deterrent for serious breaches of the code of conduct
  • Increase transparency over investigations and enforcement action