Notorious ex-councillor Graham Brown died in March 2019

News has only just reached Owl (via a notice to anyone interested in making a claim against his estate in an Archant publication) that notorious ex-Councillor Graham Brown died on 16 March 2019.

As far as Owl can recall, this was not marked by East Devon Conservatives. But then, of course, he did have to resign from the party after many years loyal service to it.

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

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

Councillors and developers – a (happy for them) marriage made in hell

Journalist Anna Minton wrote a damning report in 2013 (“Scaring the Living Daylights out of People”) heavily featuring the chilling antics of the East Devon Business Forum and its disgraced Chairman, former EDDC councillor Graham Brown and mentions this in today’s article in The Guardian:

Click to access e87dab_fd0c8efb6c0f4c4b8a9304e7ed16bc34.pdf

This article on the politicisation of planning is reproduced in its entirety as there was not one sentence that Owl could cut. Although the article concentrates on cities it applies equally to areas such as East Devon.

“The politicisation of planning has come with the growth of the regeneration industry. While once planning officers in local government made recommendations that elected members of planning committees generally followed, today lobbyists are able to exert far greater influence.

It’s not easy to see into this world, but there are traces in the public domain. Registers of hospitality, for example, detail some of the interactions between councillors and the commercial property business. Take a week in the life of Nick Paget-Brown, the Kensington and Chelsea leader who resigned in the aftermath of the Grenfell fire. In October last year he had lunch at the five-star riverside Royal Horseguards Hotel courtesy of the property giant Willmott Dixon. The previous evening he had been at a reception put on by the business lobby group London First, whose membership is dominated by property and housing firms. He had breakfast with the Grosvenor Estate, the global property empire worth £6.5bn, and lunch at Knightsbridge’s Carlton Tower Hotel. This was paid for by the Cadogan Estate, the second largest of the aristocratic estates (after Grosvenor), which owns 93 acres in Kensington, including Sloane Square and the King’s Road.

Rock Feilding-Mellen, the councillor in charge of the Grenfell Tower refurbishment, who has stepped down as the council’s deputy leader, had his own list of engagements. As the Grenfell Action Group noted earlier this year, he was a dinner guest of Terrapin, the firm founded by Peter Bingle, a property lobbyist renowned for lavish hospitality.

Bingle is also a player in the other big regeneration story of recent weeks: Haringey council’s approval of plans for its HDV – Haringey development vehicle. This is a “partnership” with the Australian property developer Lendlease, a lobbying client of Terrapin’s. The HDV promises to create a £2bn fund to build a new town centre and thousands of new homes, but local residents on the Northumberland Park housing estate, whose homes will be demolished, are vehemently opposed. The Haringey leader, Claire Kober, has lunched or dined six times at Terrapin’s expense.

In Southwark, just as in Haringey and Kensington, there is a revolving door between politicians and lobbyists. The former leader of Southwark council, Jeremy Fraser, went on to found the lobbying firm Four Communications, where he was joined by Southwark’s former cabinet member for regeneration Steve Lancashire. Derek Myers, who until 2013 jointly ran Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham councils, is now a director of the London Communications Agency, a lobbying agency with property developers on its client list. Merrick Cockell, the leader of Kensington and Chelsea until 2013, now chairs the lobbying firm Cratus Communications, which also specialises in property lobbying. In Westminster, the hospitality register for the last three years of its deputy leader, Robert Davis – chair of the council’s planning committee for 17 years – runs to 19 pages.

Cities other than London and rural areas also provide examples of worrying relationships. In East Devon a serving councillor was found in 2013 to be offering his services as a consultant to help developers get the planning decisions they wanted. In Newcastle a councillor who worked for a lobbying company boasted of “tricks of the trade” that included making sure planning committees included friendly faces.

Meanwhile the culture of regular meetings and socialising does not stop with councils. The diary of David Lunts, head of housing and land at the Greater London Authority for the first three months of 2017, reveals a lunch in Mayfair with Bingle, a VIP dinner laid on by a London developer, another meal paid for by a housing giant, and dinner on Valentine’s Day with a regeneration firm. Consultants and a developer furnished him with more meals before he headed off to Cannes for Mipim, the world’s biggest property fair. He also had dinner with Rydon, the firm that refurbished Grenfell Tower.

Further up the food chain, it was only because of Bingle’s boasts that we heard of a dinner he gave the then local government secretary, Eric Pickles. Held in the Savoy’s Gondoliers Room, it was also attended by business chiefs, including one who was waiting for a planning decision from Pickles’s department. The dinner was never declared on any register of hospitality because Pickles said he was attending in a private capacity.

Lunt’s former colleague Richard Blakeway, who was London’s deputy mayor for housing until last year, and David Cameron’s adviser on housing policy, became a paid adviser to Willmott Dixon. He is also on the board of the Homes and Communities Agency, the government body that regulates and invests in social housing. Its chair is Blakeway’s old boss, the former London deputy mayor for policy and planning Ed Lister, who is also a non-executive director of the developer Stanhope.

The MP Mark Prisk, housing minister until 2013, advocated “removing unnecessary housing, construction and planning regulations” as part of the government’s red tape challenge. He became an adviser to the property developer Essential Living, eight months after leaving office. Prisk advises the firm on legislation, providing support for developments and “brand” building. Essential Living’s former development manager Nick Cuff was also a Conservative councillor and chair of Wandsworth’s planning committee. A colleague of Cuff’s, who spent 30 years in the south London borough’s planning department, now works for Bingle’s lobbying firm, Terrapin.

This is the world that Kensington’s Paget-Brown and Feilding-Mellen, Haringey’s Kober and countless other council leaders inhabit. Socialising between these property men – and they are mostly men – is used to cement ties, and the lines between politician, official, developer and lobbyist are barely drawn. This culture, and the questions of accountability it raises, must be part of the public inquiry into Grenfell. It is perhaps no surprise that the government doesn’t want it to be.

• Tamasin Cave, a director of the lobbying transparency organisation Spinwatch, contributed to this article”

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/14/grenfell-developers-cities-politicians-lobbyists-housing

AONB – pah, build, build, build!

“A loophole in planning rules is allowing developers to build housing estates in England’s finest countryside.

Ministers are waving through applications for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) despite promising to protect them.

The High Weald in Sussex, the North Wessex Downs and the Cotswolds are among the protected areas being built on.

Six hundred homes, a hospice and a school were approved last month near Pease Pottage in the High Weald despite objections from Natural England, the government’s advisory body on protecting the natural environment.

Campaigners said that the rules were being swept aside in the rush to meet housing targets. Ministers are threatening councils with a “presumption” in favour of development unless they allocate enough land.”

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/protected-beauty-spots-are-sacrificed-to-build-houses-tw2jjrk5r

Recall that, when EDDC dragged out its Local Plan process for years and years (abandoning the first secret attempts run by Councillors Brown and Skinner and starting again) developers had a free run in East Devon.

Should we find that we do NOT have a 5 year land supply when the Local Plan comes up for review (due every 5 years so we should be starting now) then, presumably, that will happen all over again.

Recently (November 2016) EDDC brought up the idea of external auditors being consultants for the review, but the auditors themselves quickly pointed out that they had no experience in such projects and it should be led by an organisation with proper expertise:

“Problem (page 134 of agenda papers):
“Undertake a Review of the process for writing the Local Plan in future”

The solution
“A meeting has been held with our external auditors to scope out this review but it was quickly determined that they are not the right people to undertake this review due to their lack of knowledge of the plan making process. Other options including using the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) are now being pursued.”

Click to access 241116-scrutiny-agenda-combined.pdf

Things seem to have gone quiet again since then, with no public announcement of a new consulting organisation.

Questions: Shouldn’t external auditors anyway be at “arms length” from council business? Which bright spark thought of offering them the job?