“Wine and dine democracy is now on trial – and about time”

There wasn’t a paragraph in this article that could be edited out – truly we are in The Swamp:

“Each time a US gunman goes berserk, the British media erupts in fury at the money the gun lobby can devote to its lethal interest. To be sure, big time lobbying is the occupational disease of American politics. In the US, it can have murderous consequences. Still, on matters of principle, Britons would do well to watch their hypocrisy.

The sums spent by property companies on lobbying Westminster city council’s planning committee – revealed in Tuesday’s Guardian – may be dwarfed by those spent across the Atlantic. But the hospitality showered on the committee’s chairman for 16 years, the amiable Robert Davis, was breathtaking. Five-hundred freebies, including 10 foreign trips, in just three years. At least 150 of these were from a who’s who list of property industry figures. Even Harvey Weinstein is on the list. Entertaining Davis was clearly a Westminster cottage industry. He can hardly have had time to down one glass of champagne before raising another.

Everywhere money is at stake, those regulating it will be open to temptation
Meanwhile in the planning committee, the London Evening Standard’s Jim Armitage – there as a local resident objecting to a planning application – watched planning approvals get ticked off mechanically. He noted that not a single objection was upheld. Members “looked at the ceiling, buffed their nails and scratched their noses” as each was nodded through.

Westminster council asserted this week that all hospitality was received during “meetings”, and the idea that any of its councillors “could be bought by the property lobby was demonstrably untrue”. The meetings apparently took place at Wimbledon, at a performance of the musical Hamilton, and in the south of France. There is nothing wrong in this, provided gifts and hospitality are declared. But this assumes that what is declared cannot be considered, under the 2010 Bribery Act, a “financial or other advantage” offered or accepted to secure “improper performance”. Transparency is not enough.

Davis’s most extraordinary case was that of the late Irvine Sellar’s 72-storey “Paddington Pole”. This required the demolition of an Edwardian baroque sorting office and the erection of a gigantic tower, within the boundary of a conservation area and towering over Brunel’s Paddington station. Proposed in 2016, it breached every conceivable principle of good planning, but Sellar entertained Davis and apparently secured his approval for the pole Davis later described as a potential masterpiece. Sellar added seven more storeys to his plans. A public outcry led eventually to plans for the pole being withdrawn, but only to be replaced by a proposal for a bigger in volume but lower glass box. This was waved through the planning committee against all local opposition after Davis had publicly hailed it as a “game-changer”.

What is highly questionable is what happened next. Protesters pleaded for a meeting with the council but were ignored. Despite the obvious unsuitability of a vast box in a conservation area, Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, declined to intervene. That decision was followed by a similar refusal by the planning minister, Sajid Javid, who declined to give his reasons for doing so. This is most unusual for such a controversial project. The Shard, also developed by Sellar, was, in contrast, subject to a lengthy public inquiry. Protesters are trying to take Javid’s refusal to explain why he declined to intervene to the court of appeal.

British planning is a mess. It is awash with political donations and lavish lobbying as the construction industry wrestles to capitalise on the Conservatives’ “let-rip approach” to urban and rural development. Before the 2010 election, the Conservative Property Forum is recorded as donating £500,000 to the party.

The Cameron government duly dropped proposals for local appeals against development from its planning framework document. Lobbyists from the British Property Federation and others were effectively invited to rewrite the framework for themselves. The industry then donated a further million pounds to stave off higher council tax banding in response to Labour’s mansion tax.

This is hardly unique to planning. The NHS is awash in inducements to doctors to prescribe branded medicines. Arms company boards are stuffed with generals. The banks that fund private finance initiatives keep the Whitehall doors revolving. Declarations of interest by members of the House of Lords read like a lobbyists’ congregation. It clearly pays companies to lobby. The irony is that it was David Cameron who made great play of curbing this in his Lobbying Act. It was, he said, “the next big scandal waiting to happen”. Yet the only scandal was how the act was watered down, and how Cameron’s transparency register for lobbyists was lobbied to oblivion.

British lobbying is not as blatant as Washington’s infamous “Gucci Gulch”, where interest groups stuff the pockets of congressional lawmakers. Corruption in Britain is rarely through payments to individuals, and public officials seldom indulge in the log-rolling – legislators trading support for each other’s pet projects – seen in American politics. But the risk of bias and partiality exist in parts of the public sector. Of these, property planning, where huge sums of money can be involved, is the most obvious.

Everywhere money is at stake, those regulating it will be open to temptation. That is why oversight is crucial. But oversight of British local government is currently on a par with a banana republic. The Standards Board for England was abolished in the course of Cameron’s “quango cull” in 2012. It supposedly monitored the ethical performance of officers and councillors in local government. It was criticised as cumbersome, meddlesome and bureaucratically intrusive. Few mourned the board’s passing. Each local council was then expected to make its own arrangements.

The minister at the time said there was a need “for a light touch”. Westminster council took him at his word. It might have been a good idea to see the Standards Board go, but it should have been replaced with something. Even the most ardent localist cannot expect councils to float free of any oversight. Millions of pounds can turn on a planning decision. Anyone who knows these local controversies will attest that many stink to high heaven.

Davis has denied any wrongdoing and nobly referred himself to Westminster’s own “monitoring officer”. It is hard to see how this meets any plausible test of independence. Much now rests on the shoulders of this officer, as it does on the judges reviewing the Sellar glass box decision. The Paddington horizon will be their memorial. Everyone is now on trial, not least local democracy.”