Permission Accomplished – Assessing corruptions risks in local government planning
Transparency International have just published their latest report on corruption in planning in England under the above title.
Long standing readers of local blogs such as “Sidmouth Independent News” may recall a 2013 report by the same organisation entitled “Scaring the living daylights out of people” – the Local Lobby and the failure of Democracy – with a whole chapter devoted to East Devon: [Chapter III. ‘The Local Mafia’ Conflicts of interest in East Devon].
Overall, nothing very much has changed.
The publication comes just as EDDC’s Strategic Planning Committee has recommended withdrawal from the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan (GESP) largely because of the lack of transparency involved in the process of what is seen as a “Developers’ Charter”. It also coincides with an article published on East Devon Watch that discusses the improvements to transparency and public involvement that could be made in the planning “Pre-Application” process. That article concluded that public trust must be at the forefront of Planning.
After this short summary Owl reproduces the full set of recommendations – How does East Devon measure up?
This report focusses on specific corruption risks in major planning decisions, an area where there is often a large amount of money at stake. It is also very contentious, with many new developments resulting in a net loss of social and genuinely affordable housing, which in many areas are in short supply.
To understand what could undermine openness in the planning process and what local authorities are doing to stop this, we have collected evidence from across England. Although there are some examples of good practice, generally the results make for a worrying read.
Unminuted, closed-door meetings with developers and excessive hospitality undoubtedly undermine confidence in the planning process, yet too many local authorities have weak rules to stop this from happening. Even fewer councils have control measures for major conflicts of interest, with far too many decision-makers also working for developers on the side. Moreover, when councillors behave badly, there are no clear or meaningful sanctions available to councils that could act as an effective deterrent against serious misconduct by them or others in the future.
To address these issues we propose ten practical solutions, none of which are beyond the means of those who need to implement them. All reinforce existing guidance and good practice recommended by anti-fraud and corruption initiatives here and internationally. Some even reflect existing practice in particular parts of the UK, such as Scotland.
Report recommendations in full
RISK 1: THE PERCEPTION OR REALITY THAT DECISIONS ARE UNDULY INFLUENCED BEHIND CLOSED DOORS OR IN RETURN FOR PAYMENTS IN CASH OR IN-KIND
Holding meetings behind closed doors fuels suspicion about the integrity of important planning decisions.
Recommendation 1: Minute and publish all meetings with developers and their agents for major developments. To help provide greater confidence in interactions with those seeking planning consent, councils should ensure all meetings between councillors, developers and their agents in major planning decisions are:
- attended by at least one council official,
- recorded in detailed notes, and
- published online with the planning application file.
Managing gifts and hospitality
Those involved in planning decisions accepting gifts and hospitality from developers or their agents can easily give rise to the perception that their judgement is being unduly influenced.
Recommendation 2: Prohibit those involved in making planning decisions from accepting gifts and hospitality that risk undermining the integrity of the planning process. To help prevent the perception of undue influence over planning decisions, councillors should be prohibited from accepting any gifts and hospitality that could give rise to:
- real or substantive personal gain; or
- reasonable suspicion of favour or advantage being sought.
Reporting gifts and hospitality
Inconsistent reporting thresholds for gifts and hospitality that are accepted provide confusion for the public and councillors (especially those ‘double hatting’ i.e. councillors in district and county councils). Also, publishing registers of gifts and hospitality as PDFs and in other nonmachine-readable formats do not meet good practice standards for transparency.
Recommendation 3: Increase transparency over gifts and hospitality. To help present a clear and consistent view of corruption risks across local government, local authorities should be required by law to establish a register of gifts and hospitality. This should apply to all gifts and hospitality over a value of £50, or totalling £100 over a year from a single source.
This should apply to anything received by all councillors, their family members, or associates that could reasonably be regarded as given in relation to the councillor’s role as an elected official.
We support the CSPL’s (Committee for standards in Public Life) recommendation that local authorities should publish registers of gifts and hospitality as structured open data – for example, a CSV format that can be opened in an Excel spreadsheet – and maintain them in a central location on their websites.
Leadership from industry
The lobbying industry sets out its code for managing its members’ conduct, but this should be improved to help reduce the risk of it being implicated in future impropriety.
Recommendation 4: Stronger leadership from the industry on ethical lobbying The Public Affairs Board (PAB) should include explicit provisions within the public affairs code to:
- Require members to conduct engagements with elected or public officials openly and transparently.
- Prohibit members giving any gifts and hospitality to elected or public officials that could give rise to a real or substantive personal gain; or a reasonable suspicion of favour or advantage being sought.
Managing private interests
RISK 2: THE PERCEPTION OR REALITY THAT COUNCILLORS ARE PUTTING THEIR PRIVATE INTERESTS OVER THE PUBLIC’S
Financial interest transparency
If a councillor has other outside employment and interests, which is not unusual, these should be made available for public scrutiny. This is required by law. However, publishing registers of financial interests as PDFs and other non-machine-readable formats do not meet good practice standards for transparency. Financial interest registers that are poorly formatted and decentralised limit the public’s ability to properly hold elected officials to account. The more easily accessible they are the greater transparency and accountability there is over these interests In some instances declaring interests is not sufficient enough and councillors should not be involved in a decision due to apparent bias
Recommendation 5: Improved management of financial interests. To help improve the management of potential conflicts of interest, we support the CSPL’s recommendations that:
- Councils should publish registers of financial interests as structured open data – for example, a CSV format that can be opened in an Excel spreadsheet – and maintain them in a central location on their websites.
- Section 31 of the Localism Act is repealed and replaced with a new requirement for councillors to remove themselves from decisions where there it can reasonably be regarded that they hold a significant conflict of interest that could prejudice their judgement.8 Managing conflicts of interest with current outside employment It is not good practice to allow elected officials to lobby or provide advice on lobbying other elected officials. Permitting this creates the obvious risk that they abuse their position for their commercial benefit and the private gain of their clients, potentially at the public’s expense.
Recommendation 6: Prohibit all councillors from undertaking lobbying or advisory work relating to their duties on behalf of clients. To help provide confidence that councillors are working in the public interest, members should be prohibited from:
- lobbying councils on behalf of paying clients, and
- providing paid advice on how to influence councils. The PAB should also amend its code of conduct to, as soon as reasonably practicable, prohibit its members from employing sitting councillors, as it does for other forms of elective office. Managing the revolving door Moving through the revolving door between public and private office can be beneficial to both sides, improving understanding and communication between public officials and business, and allowing sharing of expertise. However, the revolving door brings risks that the interests of past or prospective employers could influence officials in their decisions.
Recommendation 7:Manage the revolving door between the elective office and private business. To help reduce the risk of councillors abusing their movement between public and private office, local authorities should:
- Provide advice, guidance and training to those involved in making decisions on planning applications about the risks involved.
- Prohibit those who have recently worked as lobbyists for developers, or for developers seeking planning permission (for example within the prior two years), from sitting on planning committees or receiving executive responsibilities relating to planning.
- Require councillors to report any offers of employment to their Monitoring Officer, including details of any interaction they have had with their prospective employer.
RISK 3: WEAK OVERSIGHT DOES NOT PREVENT OR DETER MISCONDUCT
Clear advice, guidance and protocols
There are some good examples of local authorities providing mandatory training and clear guidelines on conduct for those involved in making planning decisions. However, there are still many that do not.
Recommendation 8: Provide clear guidance and boundaries for councillors so they can better understand what is and is not acceptable behaviour. To inform councillors about the boundaries of acceptable conduct in the planning process, all local authorities should introduce:
- Compulsory training for those on planning committees or with executive functions relating to planning, including specific modules on ensuring integrity in the process and the factors they should take into account when making a decision.
- Establish a dedicated planning protocol, with proportionate sanctions for non-compliance.
Clear and credible deterrents against serious misconduct
In its 2019 report on ethical standards in local government, the CSPL highlighted there are not enough options for sanction when a councillor has committed a serious breach of the rules that falls short of criminal conduct.9 Unless a criminal offence is committed (for example, an offence under the Bribery Act 2010 or the common law offence of misconduct in public office) there are currently insufficient deterrents against particularly egregious behaviour; for example, significant breaches of the rules on declaring financial interests or disclosure of confidential information. Opaque investigations and sanctions in concluded cases of misconduct also weaken the deterrents local authorities have.
Recommendation 9: Provide a meaningful deterrent for serious breaches of the code of conduct. To provide a meaningful deterrent against impropriety in the planning process, we support the recommendations from the CSPL that Government should legislate to:
- Give local authorities the power to suspend councillors, without allowances, for up to six months with the ability to appeal the decision to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman for England
.• Clarify beyond doubt that local authorities may lawfully bar councillors from council premises or withdraw facilities as sanctions.
- Require councils to prepare and publish a sanctions policy explaining when they will use their enforcement powers, and what independent safeguards they will use to protect against their abuse
Recommendation 10:Increase transparency over investigations and enforcement action. To help provide a greater understanding of the level of alleged misconduct and to provide a greater deterrent against future breaches of the rules, local authorities should regularly publish in a central location:
- Anonymised details about allegations made regarding councillors’ alleged misconduct, including any grounds for rejection; for example, they were malicious or unfounded.
- Summary statistics on the number of investigations underway, including their status.
- Full details of substantiated breaches, including the councillor concerned, and any sanctions imposed.