Never mind the quality, feel the width

The following anonymous comment was received today:

“Democracy is a wonderful thing and Pratt won fair and square. But seeing as you pride yourself on ‘keeping a close eye on our district’, how did you possibly miss that the last councillor failed to show up to any meetings?”

(Councillors must attend one official meeting such as a Cabinet meeting per six months (this does not include think tanks, informal meetings, etc )

Owl responds:

Quality not quantity, dear boy (or girl). One of EDDC’s most assiduous councillors – turning up at anything and everything and with fingers in many, many pies such as the Local Development Framework and the notorious East Devon Business Forum was long-time Conservative councillor Graham Brown and look how that panned out:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9920971/If-I-cant-get-planning-nobody-will-says-Devon-councillor-and-planning-consultant.html

“Home builders’ lobbyist pushed council leader to ‘sort’ and speed planning”

Is this any different to having a (Tory) COUNCILLOR in charge of planning running his own planning consultancy AND chairing an influential business forum? And if this expose came about from a Freedom of I formation request about events in Wandsworth in 2011 and 2013 …..

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9920971/If-I-cant-get-planning-nobody-will-says-Devon-councillor-and-planning-consultant.html

“A lobbyist for some of the UK’s biggest property developers used a direct communication channel to the leader of a flagship Conservative council to help push through planning applications for luxury apartment developments.

Peter Bingle used his longstanding relationship with Ravi Govindia, the leader of the London borough of Wandsworth, in attempts to circumvent council officials he believed were being obstructive to his clients, including over the size of payments due to public projects.

Bingle’s access has been revealed in a cache of emails released under the Freedom of Information Act that show him asking Govindia, a former flatmate, to smooth the passage of planning applications for hundreds of luxury homes between 2011 and 2013. Govindia responded in some cases by promising to chase officials and fix meetings.

Berkeley calls affordable housing targets ‘unviable’ as chairman earns £174m

Bingle is a former Conservative councillor at Wandsworth and was chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, once one of the country’s biggest lobbying firms. He set up Terrapin Communications, whose clients have included Ballymore and Bellway, the housebuilders, and Royal Mail when it was selling off its land for housing.

When Royal Mail complained about the junior rank of the planning officer assigned to its application and having to repeat details of its plans to officials, Bingle emailed Govindia: “This wouldn’t have happened under the old regime. Your help would be appreciated in sorting things out.”

Bingle later forwarded the Royal Mail’s plan for its presentation to the Wandsworth planning committee to Govindia asking “What’s your advice?” Govindia replied two minutes later: “Will call as soon as I finish this meeting”.

Nearly 100 London councillors have links to property industry

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing, but the correspondence provides a rare window on the methods developers use to apply pressure to politicians behind the scenes to speed up high-stakes planning decisions and to reduce infrastructure payments. An investigation last week revealed how Berkeley Homes, one of London’s largest developers of luxury homes, routinely told local authorities that their affordable housing targets were unviable.

In April, the Guardian revealed planning lobbyists regularly entertained Robert Davis, Westminster city council’s former planning committee chairman. Davis received hospitality or gifts 893 times over six years, frequently from developers and their agents, including Bingle. He has since resigned as deputy leader.

The emails relate to when Bingle was working as a lobbyist for the Royal Mail, which had submitted plans for a 1,800-home development on its site close to Battersea Power Station. In one email to Govindia he lambasted the council’s handling of a negotiation about how much his client should pay to the public purse as “chaotic and shambolic”. He told Govindia it “does nothing for Wandsworth’s reputation in the property world … Something has gone seriously wrong.”

The planning application was eventually approved. Royal Mail last year sold part of the site to US investors for £101m.

Bingle chased Govindia for updates on progress of another 252-home application at Battersea for another client, complaining about “non-committal” planning officials. He applauded the leader when a separate application for 104 private flats in Putney by Berkeley Homes was approved, signing off an email: “Many thanks for a great result.” It had no social housing.

Bingle has denied exerting any undue influence and Govindia said he made no apology for delivering more homes for Wandsworth.

Public records show Bingle has entertained at least 31 councillors in different London boroughs in recent years, taking some out for lunch or dinner more than a dozen times. When Govindia, who was among those he entertained, was awarded a CBE in 2017 Bingle said: “Never has an award for services to local government been more deserved.”

Govindia did not sit on Wandsworth’s planning committee, but Bingle repeatedly urged him to help, often simply forwarding on complaints from property developers.

In January 2012, Royal Mail was concerned about what the council wanted in terms of payments for schools and education. Bingle forwarded an email about that directly to Govindia saying “Ravi, Views?”

Govindia replied later that day: “I will chase the education chaps”.

By March, the development consultant on the scheme asked Bingle to “prod Ravi that we need to get on with this”. Bingle forwarded the email to Govinidia saying “I thought it simplest just to forward this to you”.

When Bingle sent an email asking: “Leader, Can we get a meeting with you in the diary for next week? This scheme is now stuck,” Govinida replied: “I have asked for an update from planners next week.”

Asked about the relationship Bingle said: “The fact that this information came from a freedom of information request shows that it was always available for scrutiny in the public domain. And rightly so. Having been a long-standing friend of Ravi I know it is impossible for anybody to have undue influence over him. Since his earliest days on Wandsworth as a backbench councillor he has always resolutely defended his own viewpoint even if it meant voting against the Conservative group.”

Govinidia said: “It is first and foremost the job of any council leader to press those on all sides to deliver improvements to their borough and improve the lives of their residents. To do the job effectively you need to listen to all voices and make sure that when problems or snags arise that you are on top of them and that you can secure solutions to drive forward and deliver these improvements. I make no apology whatsoever for fulfilling my role as a council leader to deliver more homes, more jobs and more opportunities for our residents.”

He said the Royal Mail development will deliver 318 new affordable homes, a higher number than the developers were originally offering.”

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/sep/13/home-builders-lobbyist-pushed-council-leader-to-sort-and-speed-planning

Should local party members elect council leaders?

So says a writer (Labour) in a Huffington Post blog. No problem in East Devon – most of the dwindling local Tory party membership are already councillors!

Some of the comments seem quite pertinent to East Devon:

” … a council leader who oversees a large budget and thousands of local government workers, is only selected by the party members who live in their individual ward to be a candidate for councillor, from there a vote of councillor colleagues takes place behind closed doors. There is no mechanism for members to have a say on who should be the Labour [or other political party] group leader or to debate the principles, priorities and policies they will lead before they are in place. In practice, there is no recourse for members if the leader chooses to act in a way that undermines the values our party is founded upon – other than to deselect them as a candidate to be councillor when they are next up for election, which may be four years away. …

[Ah, yes, who can forget Diviani being told to save community hospitals at EDDC and voting to close them at DCC]

… Too often we see Council Cabinet members dependent on the grace and patronage of their leader for their income and livelihood – no Cabinet position means no job, and as such very little dissent. In some places even scrutiny chairs – the name should give away what they’re there for – are put in place by the very leadership they are supposed to scrutinise. …”

[Scrutiny – we never did manage to get to the bottom (or even very slightly below the surface) of the relationship between disgraced Councillor Graham Brown, the council and their relationship with the East Devon Business Forum]

Source: Huffington Post

Swire thinks planning officers are poorly trained and don’t stand up to developers

Hugo Swire:

“My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be aware of my view—as he and I have discussed it—that most objections to large planning developments are based on the fact that the developments themselves add nothing to the local vernacular, do not acknowledge it and are often poorly built. That is partly owing to a lack of local planning officers and the fact that planning officers are poorly trained. Could the Government consider affiliating some of them to the Royal Institute of British Architects or the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, and empowering them so that they can stand against the volume house builders?”

Owl says: What about councillors who roll over to have their tummies tickled by developers – or who are developers themselves!!!

Or even those in your own (Tory) back yard in East Devon, who run their own planning consultancies and boast they can get planning for anything but don’t expect to be paid peanuts for it:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9920971/If-I-cant-get-planning-nobody-will-says-Devon-councillor-and-planning-consultant.html

“KPMG singled out in critical report on audit industry”

KPMG were, until recently, the auditors of East Devon District Council. Let’s hope that Grant Thornton (now back in the frame at EDDC) perform better – but who recalls their pitiful performance when they “investigated” the disgraced Councillor Graham Brown affair and found ….. nothing.

“KPMG, the accounting firm that signed off the books in the years leading up to Carillion’s collapse, has been singled out by the industry regulator in a report that says the overall quality of the audit profession is in decline.

The Financial Reporting Council, the watchdog for the UK’s accountants, said the profession had demonstrated a “failure to challenge management and show appropriate scepticism across their audits”.

There have been calls for the “big four” accountants – KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers, EY and Deloitte – to be broken up to spur competition and improve standards.

All four gave Carillion financial advice before the construction and outsourcing company failed. MPs accused the four of “feasting” on Carillion, whose finances proved far less healthy than directors had suggested.

The FRC reported a decline in the quality of the work of all four, with KPMG performing the worst. The watchdog is already investigating KPMG over its role in the collapse of Carillion and it said on Monday there had been an “unacceptable deterioration” in the quality of its work.

The FRC cited figures that showed half of KPMG’s audits of firms in the FTSE350 index had required “more than just limited” improvements, up from 35% in the previous year.

“The overall quality of the audits inspected in the year, and indeed the decline in quality over the past five years, is unacceptable and reflects badly on the action taken by the previous leadership, not just on the performance of frontline teams,” the regulator said.

“Our key concern is the extent of challenge of management and exercise of professional scepticism by audit teams, both being critical attributes of an effective audit, and more generally the inconsistent execution of audits within the firm.”

It added: “[KPMG] agrees that its efforts in recent years have not been sufficient; the FRC will hold KPMG’s new leadership to account for the success of their work to improve audit quality.” …

The FRC said it would now scrutinise KPMG more closely as a result of its findings. It will inspect 25% more KPMG audits than before and monitor the firm’s plans to improve the quality of its work.

In the FRC’s overall assessment of eight accountants, it found that 72% of audits of all firms, including those outside the FTSE350, required no more than limited improvement, down from 78% last year. While only half of KPMG’s FTSE350 audits were deemed satisfactory, rivals scored far higher, although all showed declines and fell short of the FRC’s target of 90%.

Deloitte scored 79%, down from 82% last year, EY fell from 92% to 82% and PwC was down from 90% to 84%. The four firms immediately below the big four – BDO, Mazars, GT and Moore Stephens – were told that the quality of their audits had generally improved.”

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/jun/18/kpmg-singled-out-in-critical-report-on-audit-industry

Sidford Business Park – a grubby history

Tim Ford, once a much-respected plumbing and electrical contactor in Sidmouth, is renewing his controversial application to build a business park in the AONB at Sidford. (18/1094/MOUT)

Incredulous locals wonder how it was possible for a council to allocate an ‘employment site’ in its local development plan that is on a flood plain, is a rich wildlife habitat, and whose main access would be a narrow street where two lorries can’t pass without mounting the pavement!

For the dominant Tory group on East Devon District Council it was easy!

First, they let landowners and developers decide where to build. In 2007 they asked East Devon Business Forum how much employment land the district would need over the next 25 years. EDBF was a lobby group which included the Carters of Greendale, the Stuarts of Hill Barton and Tim Ford of Sidmouth. Their answer was predictable: lots and lots!

Second, they put Chair of EDBF, Cllr Graham (‘I ain’t doin’ it for peanuts!’) Brown:

https://eastdevonwatch.org/2017/12/17/the-disgraced-ex-eddc-tory-councillor-graham-brown-if-i-cant-get-planning-nobody-will-scandal-refuses-to-die/

in charge of quietly asking landowners where they would like to build. Apparently, the proposal for a Sidford business park was first mooted at one of these confidential meetings in July 2010.

Third, in 2011 they elected Paul Diviani, founder member of EDBF, as leader. Under him the District Council became what many saw as a ‘Development Corporation’, the planning system became less about protecting the environment and more about encouraging building.

Fourth, they didn’t listen to the public or community groups whom they ignored or misrepresented. Sidmouth Chamber of commerce said the business park would be catastrophic for local businesses, Council minutes recorded the Chamber as supporting it!

Fifth, they whipped their large political majority to vote through the Sidford allocation. When hostile public reaction worried them just before the 2015 council elections they voted to ‘remove it’ from the Local Plan. Universal Rejoicing! But in 2016 the Inspector kept it in the Plan. Why? Because East Devon’s chief planning officer had not been instructed to give the Inspector reasons for the council’s change of mind!

Former EDDC Leader Diviani is now EDDC’s representative on the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan. In its confidential meetings he is helping to oversee a gigantic overspill project along the A3052 in the west end of the District where hundreds of acres of land are being earmarked for a massive expansion of business parks and thousands of new houses.

Indeed one such expansion was announced only this weekend near Cranbrook, where the developer is quoted as saying:

“The first, ‘Scenario 1’ is a response to existing market demand with the provision of a single large unit of around one million square feet (92,9000 sq.m.).

‘Scenario 2’ would see the site offer a multi-unit option, providing a range of sizes and configurations informed by ongoing market need.”

http://www.midweekherald.co.uk/news/huge-distribution-centre-near-cranbrook-is-given-the-nod-by-planners-1-5564832

Which all makes the wretched Sidford application even less necessary!

Would you choose immediate A-road and motorway access to Exeter and the M5 or access down a country road where two medium-size vehicles cannot pass?

“Sleaze watchdog to look at tighter curbs for councillors”

” … The inquiry comes after a government adviser warned that the Coalition “threw out the baby with the bathwater” when it abolished the controversial Standards Board for England that enforced a nationwide code of conduct for councillors.

Dr Jane Martin, the member of the Committee leading the inquiry says she “regularly receives correspondence” from the public expressing concern about councillors’ behaviour. …

There are concerns that council standards committees can only “censure” politicians, rather than suspend them in the most serious cases. …”

Source: Sunday Telegraph

Owl says: once again, too little too late:

See and hear our own disgraced Tory ex-councillor Graham Brown (ex-chief of the equally disgraced council-run East Devon Business Forum) explaining that “if I can’t get planning, nobody will” but that he won’t work for peanuts:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9920971/If-I-cant-get-planning-nobody-will-says-Devon-councillor-and-planning-consultant.html

and the chapter on East Devon in Anna Minton’s Spinwatch report “Scaring the living daylights out of people – the local lobby and the failure of democracy”:

https://www.annaminton.com/single-post/2016/03/21/Scaring-The-Living-Daylights-Out-Of-People