But was he a lone wolf? – Owl
Chair of the East Devon Alliance, Martin Shaw, writes for the Herald.
Ten years ago this month, a journalist from the Daily Telegraph secretly recorded the Conservative councillor for Feniton, Graham Brown, boasting that he could obtain planning permission in return for a substantial payment. “If I can’t get planning, nobody will,” he claimed. “If I turn a green field into a housing estate and I’m earning a developer two or three millions, then I’m not doing it for peanuts.”
Brown was forced to resign and the Tory-controlled council washed their hands of him. However it was obvious that he couldn’t have been acting alone. Since he wasn’t on the planning committee at the time, his claims only stacked up if other councillors or officers were in on the act. Indeed Brown was chair of the East Devon Business Forum, a body that linked councillors with development interests, from which EDDC had to withdraw its support after he was exposed.
Brown’s disgrace made East Devon a national byword for dodgy dealings in local government. It also brought to a head the disquiet with planning in local communities. Thousands of people had protested in Sidmouth the previous autumn and there was a battle to save the Seaton-Colyford Green Wedge. In these circumstances a group of local activists set up the East Devon Alliance (EDA) – then a protest group, but now, a decade on, a key part of the new ruling coalition at EDDC, with its co-founder Paul Arnott leader of the council.
In 2013, even EDA thought that the Tory-run EDDC was an extreme case and didn’t actually call it “corrupt”. What a difference a decade makes.
In 2023, according to polling, the majority of voters think the whole Conservative Party is ‘institutionally corrupt’ and Transparency International, which measures corruption in different countries, has rated the UK as a country which has rapidly become more corrupt under the Tories.
Indeed Tory corruption is now so commonplace it’s difficult to keep track of. This week, it’s Nadhim Zahawi trying to breeze off the huge penalty he had to pay to the tax authorities for being ‘careless’ about millions of pounds of tax he owed. He thinks he’s hard done by and the fault lies with the media for exposing him (funnily enough, that was Graham Brown’s line back in 2013, too). Last week, it was the Chair of the BBC governors who got the job after he helped fix an £800,000 loan for Boris Johnson. Obviously Johnson thought that was all above board.
Rishi Sunak reluctantly sacked Zahawi but his own record is hardly spotless. As Chancellor, he presided over the ‘Fast Lane’ which allowed Tory cronies priority access to Covid PPE contracts. It’s now been established that £15 billion was wasted in the PPE operation, money which could have been used to restore the NHS and pay the nurses properly.
Corruption, once accepted as a way of doing things, can be difficult to root out. When the East Devon Alliance set out, in the wake of the Brown scandal, to restore standards to our district’s local government, no one knew quite how it would be done. Serious work on reform could only begin in 2020 when Liberal Democrat and Green councillors joined EDA in a coalition to run EDDC. Local residents should not underestimate its achievements – it’s no small thing to turn things round after 45 years of one-party control.
Ending corruption in national politics will be a much bigger job. Some of our institutions are deeply contaminated – the House of Lords is stuffed with peers appointed because they have given hundreds of thousands to the Conservative Party. Powerful monied interests have got used to the idea that they can literally purchase influence at the highest levels. Yet with an election due in less than two years, we can start to prepare.
When I first moved to East Devon and was contemplating making a planning application, the very first thing I was told about the East Devon Planning system was that it was corrupt. Years later, after spending a lot of effort attempting to hold EDDC Cabinet and Senior Officers to account, I still had no hard evidence that I could show to a court, though I had spoken with several people who wouldn’t go on the record but who told me about their first-hand experiences of corruption under the Tory administration, and I had a list of at least 6 or 7 cases where there appeared to be collusion between EDDC and Devon & Cornwall Police and / or where D&CP did not properly investigate formal allegations made to them (with the Graham Brown case being the only one where they even pretended to investigate).
Rumours / hearsay included embezzlement by a senior officer, election tampering, several cases of planning improprieties (Graham Brown being only one of these), and a confidential statement made to D&CP being made public by the EDDC CEO and used to bully a councillor.
Similarly the number of cases of apparent corruption by central Tory government reported in recent years beggars belief, yet in the same way they seem to be getting away with many of them without proper investigations (or half-baked investigations by the police e.g. Partygate).
The common factor here is obvious – The Conservative and [sic.] Union Party – with a common attitude of distain for genuine democracy and the electorate at every level.
THIS IS NOT HOW A GENUINE DEMOCRACY IS SUPPOSED TO WORK. In a genuine democracy, there must be transparency, with an unbiased official authorities and media investigating allegations and holding politicians to account for their actions.
(There also needs to be integrity and truthfulness that allow the electorate to make a genuinely informed vote in elections (and referendums) in the knowledge that the elected government does not have secret policies that were not included in their manifesto. The 2016 General Election was notable in that Academy Schools were NOT even mentioned in the manifesto, yet almost immediately after the election an Act was rushed through parliament in an attempt to privatise the education system without a mandate from the electorate. This is a disgrace and makes a complete mockery of democracy – as does a lot of other actions by the Conservative Party like targeted lies using Social Media, gerrymandering electoral boundaries, gerrymandering by requiring photo ID which disproportionately targets non-Tory voters, unfair election expense rules that benefit the large parties, taking massive donations from obscenely rich individuals who then dictate government policy etc. etc.)