Telegraph undercover planning investigation: A summary

A guide to the Telegraph’s undercover investigation into planning reforms, which exposed how councillors across England were offering to help people take advantage of relaxed planning laws.

The Telegraph exposed how councillors across England were offering themselves for hire to property developers who were hoping to take advantage of a relaxation in planning laws. An undercover investigation published in March 2013 showed how councillors traded on inside knowledge of the planning system to receive fees of up to £20,000 for advice on how to get developments approved.

“If I can’t get planning, nobody will,” boasted one councillor to undercover reporters, adding that he didn’t “come cheap”. He later resigned after his council reported him to the police.

Another councillor gave tips on how developers could “prepare the ground” before a planning application to a council, including cutting down trees so neighbours or interested parties did not get a chance to apply for protection orders.

One councillor who also sat on the council’s planning committee described himself as “Mr Esher”. He told undercover reporters that he was the man to go to for securing planning approvals.

Another councillor for hire confided that even if certain councillors would not talk to them about a planning application, there were certain “tricks of the trade” which offered “a good way of, of getting round this”.

The same investigation also found that planning officers were offering to draw up applications for developers who could then take advantage of “vulnerable” councils in the wake of the relaxation of building laws

After the publication of these revelations, the investigations team obtained a recording of a meeting between Nick Boles and some of the country’s biggest property developers in which the Planning minister privately promised to relax laws to allow them to begin a house-building boom.

The investigation prompted an appeal to Telegraph readers by Eric Pickles, who mounted a defence of the government’s proposed planning reforms.

The increasing controversy over the Coalition’s planning reforms eventually prompted Labour to pledge to scrap them altogether.

Hilary Benn, the Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, wrote an article for the Telegraph condemning the reforms and promising to overturn them.

Council anti-corruption report slated by campaigners

A report into the ‘governance’ of East Devon councillors following the resignation of former councillor Graham Brown has been criticised by a campaign group as ‘a waste of council-tax-payers’ money.’

The report, by South West Audit Partnership (SWAP) into Governance Arrangements-Councillors was published last week, but only after pressure from independent councillors Claire Wright and Roger Giles. It examines the adequacy of council controls and procedures to ensure that councillors act appropriately and ethically. There is, it says, a ‘low risk’ that ‘councillors might use their positions unfairly for personal gain’ or that ‘the Council might be criticised for poor decision-making’.

Ian McKintosh, Chair of the East Devon Alliance, a campaigning umbrella organisation uniting community groups throughout the District, commented:

“This is a naively complacent report at a time when the reputation of East Devon District Council is severely damaged by the Graham Brown affair and widespread distrust with the planning system. It will do nothing to reassure the public or the vast majority of hardworking, dedicated councillors.

The SWAP Report appears to be largely a box-ticking exercise based on conversations with council officers. No evidence is presented to justify sweeping conclusions such as ‘All council members, management and staff were found to be diligent…’

The auditor fails to question the Council’s decision not to implement immediately the robust national guidelines on Probity in Planning produced by the Local Government Association. These provide an obvious template for effective council governance.

Instead the Report proposes superficial ‘safeguards’ against some serious risks. For example, it claims that invitations to councillors to attend voluntary ‘personal development reviews’ will seriously deter them from acting ‘ unfairly for personal gain’, despite some councillors not accepting the invitations. It also suggests that somehow, merely listing the attendees at meetings will avoid criticism of poor council decision-making.

Most crucially, it fails to address burning questions raised by the Brown affair, and revelations concerning the activities of East Devon Business Forum. These include not only issues surrounding the Council’s relations with developers, and councillors’ conflicts of interest, but also concerns over the way council leaders have responded to criticism.

This unconvincing Report will confirm suspicions that it is impossible for an audit partnership- that includes EDDC as a partner and has a council representative on its Board – to conduct a truly independent investigation”.

The SWAP report will be discussed at next Thursday’s meeting (14th November) of EDDC’s Audit and Governance Committee at 2pm at Knowle. The public can ask questions, and a lively debate is expected.