Planning Decisions Open to Secret Lobbying, Conflicts of Interest & Bribery says Report

THE PLANNING PROCESS in local authorities across England lacks essential safeguards to prevent corruption, new research warns.

The Permission Accomplished report by Transparency International UK (TIUK) details how individuals and companies may seek to corrupt major planning decisions. This can be done 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.

Added to these risks are 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.

TIUK 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 per cent of these councils scored less than 50
  • More than half scored under 40, indicating worrying gaps in corruption safeguards

Key corruption risks

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

Alleged bribery and excessive gifts and hospitality

A £500 million+ 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.

Secretive lobbying

A £200 million+ 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

There are 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.”

Guarding against corruption

TIUK make 10 practical and relatively inexpensive recommendations for local authorities to implement to improve transparency and strengthen oversight of the planning process, including:

  • 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 risks undermining the integrity of the planning process
  • Stop all councillors from doing lobbying or advisory work relating to their duties on behalf of paying clients

Official data shows that for the financial year ending March 2019, there were over 7,000 major planning decisions made by 317 different local authorities in England.

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