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:

https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/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.”

http://eastdevon.gov.uk/media/1926418/241116-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?

Ware Farm – back on the estate agent’s website

Although it was not found on Symonds and estate agent’s website after its brief appearance in one edition of the Midweek Herald, Ware Farm is now being given its appropriate exposure.

Ware Farm

The farm, belonging to former disgraced District Councillor Graham Brown is advertised not only with details of its agricultural tie but also with the comment:

“Basic Payment Scheme
The vendors will endeavour to transfer the entitlements under the BPS, with the purchasers being
responsible for the agents costs involved.”

These are, of course, the Basic Payments received from the European Union for farming subsidies that ex-Councillor Brown neglected to mention when he applied to East Devon District Council to have his agricultural tie lifted saying that he had not practised farming on the land for many years.  The council refused the application as “[it] was not satisfied as to the lawfulness at the date of application of the use specified in the application”.

see: Planning Application 14/2032/CPE

http://planningapps.eastdevon.gov.uk/Planning/StreamDocPage/obj.pdf?DocNo=1634135&PDF=true&content=obj.pdf

And just to be absolutely clear, the brochure says:

Planning
The house was built subject to an Agricultural Occupancy Condition. Planning Reference 00/
P0940/01309 which states that “The occupation of the dwelling shall be limited to a person solely or
mainly working, or last working, in the locality in agriculture as defined in Section 336 of the Town
and Country Planning Act 1990, or in forestry or a dependant of such a person residing with him or
her or a widow or widower of such a person”.

Ottery St Mary farm for sale with agricultural tie – or is it?

Former East Devon District Councillor Graham Brown’s home was apparently briefly on the market this week. The home, with its agricultural tenancy, was advertised as up for sale for £1 million plus. Here is where it appeared in a local newspaper on 11 May 2016:

image

However, if you are interested in buying it, that may prove to be a little difficult, as it does not appear on the Symonds and Sampson estate agent website, nor on either of the major property websites Rightmove and Zoopla and Google searching does not bring it up.

Ex-councillor Brown attempted to remove the agricultural tie a year or two ago saying that he had not farmed the land for many years, but his application was refused after EDDC received evidence that the land had been receiving EU farming subsidies.

Removal of an agricultural tie can add at least 40% to the value of a property.

There are companies that will work on a “no win, no fee” basis specialising in removing such ties, but rules say that the property should be marketed first with its tie for a reasonable price and continuously for a reasonable period of time, usually at least six months.

As it seems to have been marketed only for a very short period before disappearing completely from the internet, it seems that the owner must have decided to stay put or perhaps he has decided to change estate agents and to market it again later.

Update: The property was on offer in March 2013 for £1.55M via Hall and Scott. See

http://www.rightmove.co.uk/property-for-sale/property-41090060.html

Note that at the time the spec was for approx 25 acres — but now it’s being advertised at 22 [sic] acres – and that it was clear that “Ware Farm is subject of an Agricultural Tie”.

Self-evidently if that tie were lifted, the owner should expect to get substantially more than the £1.55M asking price of three years ago. That wouldbe a nice little earner.

External auditors: watchdogs or bloodhounds?

Interesting article in Sunday Times Business section with the boss of former external auditors Grant Thornton (Sacha Romanovich, who lives in Exmouth and London). EDDC were forced by new government rules to change to KPMG recently.

The reporter quizzes her about several recent alleged failings at Grant Thornton (including a very high-profile law suit taken out against the company involving alleged pressure used by the company with the Serious Fraud Office to do with a property tycoon) and reveals that the Financial Reporting Council fined the firm £1m over flaws in its auditing of a Manchester building society.

She points out that the company has more than 40,000 clients so this should be put into context.

She ends her interview by saying: ” … audit is a watchdog, not a bloodhound. If people have deliberately gone about their affairs to hide things, it won’t always be found by a statutory audit … “

which then begs the question – so how will it be found?

Grant Thornton were criticised in East Devon for producing a very superficial consultants report into whether disgraced ex-councillor Graham Brown (who chaired the first iteration of the Local Plan committee and was Chairman of the East Devon Business Forum) brought too much influence to bear on the council after he was secretly filmed telling Daily Telegraph reporters how he could influence planning but “didn’t come cheap”.

Here is an extract from the Daily Telegraph front page expose almost exactly three years ago:

Another councillor in Devon appeared to use his position in a similar way. Graham Brown has been a Conservative councillor for Feniton and Buckerell ward on East Devon district council for more than 10 years.

He is also chairman of East Devon Business Forum, a member of the council’s overview and scrutiny committee and the business and tourism champion.

“I’m the best,” said Mr Brown at a meeting with undercover reporters in Devon last month. “If I can’t get planning, nobody will … I’m low-profile, have access to all the right people for the right clients. Don’t come cheap.” He said he was no longer involved in planning decisions and would need to be careful when talking to other councillors about projects he was involved in, but he was clear about what benefits he would bring.
“I know — without trying to be clever — I know more than most of the councillors, and I know more than most of the officers.”

When a reporter asked what his “strategy” was when it came to winning approval for a planning application, Mr Brown explained: “Where I’m good, I know all the different people to go to … Like if you came to me with a set of problems, I’d say, ‘Right the first thing we do, we need to go and talk to, say, the economic development manager’.

“So I’d pick up the phone to [name removed for legal reasons] and I’d say, ‘I’ve got a project, I want to talk to you about it.’ And it’s about almost kick-starting a dead motorbike”. Mr Brown told the undercover reporters that Devon had traditionally been one of the hardest areas in which to obtain planning permission for new developments, but that it might change because the council had not met its targets for land supply, meaning it was “quite vulnerable to any planning application that can be seen as sustainable”.
Mr Brown explained why this might be useful for the overseas developer the reporters were purporting to represent.

“What it means is — or what it could mean, and I can’t tell you definitely yet because it could get a deal worse or a deal better depending on — I’ve talked to three Government ministers about it because I’m reasonably — I sound terribly pretentious but I’m not — but you know, I’ve spoken to three individual Government ministers I know because I’ve been sort of in the Tory party for a long time and — how can I say it without sounding – I bet you go away and say, ‘that fat arrogant bastard’.”

“It sounds like you’re very well-connected?” the reporter suggested.
“Let’s take that for granted then,” Mr Brown said.

“Which means that whereas East Devon was traditionally one of the three hardest areas in the country to get planning permission, that will change … They will retain within the rules the ability to refuse things which fall down like if the design is poor, certain green belt areas, there will be certain areas so I don’t see it as the floodgates opening, but I do see a stampede coming.” His costs would vary according to the project, but he said he was normally paid £80 an hour or between £1,000 and £20,000 for a project.

His fees would vary “depending on the viability of the scheme, if we get it, like if I turned a green field into a housing estate and I’m earning a developer two or three million, then I ain’t doing it for ­peanuts … especially if I’m the difference between winning it and losing it.”

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

Whose fault is it the Local Plan took so long? Sidmouth says EDDC’s Mark Williams!!!

Not the false start made by the first Local Development Framework group, which spent 2-plus years visiting sites of favoured developers.

Not the East Devon Business Forum and its Chairman disgraced ex-councillor Graham Brown which attempted to get an iron grip on it.

Not the officers and councillors who employed consultant after consultant until they found one they agreed with.

Not the same officers and councillors who had their drafts thrown out twice by the Planning Inspector.

NO! NO! NO! IT IS ALL THE FAULT OF – SIDMOUTH!!!

Sidmouth delayed the Local Plan! and Mark William’s loses it!

At a heated meeting of EDDC councillors tonight to approve the Local Plan, CEO Mark Williams lost control of himself in a big way.

In response to a fairly conciliatory speech from resident Richard Eley, on behalf of Save our Sidmouth, a furious Williams lambasted Sidmouth for delaying the Local Plan and increasing the number of houses in it!

“But for Sidmouth we would have had a local plan three years ago,” he ranted, adding that “the end result of all your objections is that we’ve ended up in the local plan with more houses than originally proposed.” (Gasps of astonishment from the public and cries of “rubbish” and “nonsense”.)

A few minutes later he rounded on Richard Eley again accusing him of “churlishly” calling the Inspector “idiotic”. Eley sprang to his feet and angrily denied he had used that word about the inspector, and demanded an apology – supported by more cries of “scandal” and “apologise” from the public.

He insisted on reading the offending part of his speech again which proved his point that the i-word was never used. In fact, he described the decision to include land at Sidford for a business park as “stupid”.

After more moments of mayhem and shouting from the public, a reluctant apology was extracted from the CEO.

Many observers were left wondering if Mr Williams might not need a long rest –as in retirement on a generous pension………

Feniton, tanks, the stump and ex-Councillor Brown – oh, and voting!

The latest blog post of Independent Councillor Susie Bond:

It’s been a fascinating run up to the 2015 election.

I’ve enjoyed dropping off my leaflets to the houses in Feniton, Gittisham and Buckerell and chatting to those who were at home and had time to talk to me. People are really engaged with this election and want to talk about national issues as much as local ones … and there was a lot of interest in the ‘rise of the Independents’, as one resident described it.

There were several recurring themes which were of concern to everyone in my ward … planning inevitably being at the top of the list.

On the stump, Question 1:

What about the attenuation tanks?

This is a continuing issue in Feniton, where developer Wainhomes eventually succumbed to pressure from me, the Parish Council, EDDC and the media, and provided the attenuation tanks which were required of them following the planning inquiry in 2012. However, the Parish Council is not happy with the system the developer was forced to install and has grave concerns that the tanks will fail. This is an unresolved issue and a great worry to those who live ‘downstream’ of the site.

There is quite reasonably very little faith in developers and the promises they make to sweeten the offer of concreting over precious sites. Residents still bemoan the loss of the tennis courts which were such a feature of life in Feniton before the developer of the existing Acland Park site bulldozed them in pursuit of profit. Promises were made that they would be reinstated, but the tennis courts never reappeared.

On the stump, Question 2:

Whatever happened to the Graham Brown affair?

The police investigation into former Councillor Graham Brown was closed with no action taken in 2014 as there was insufficient evidence to take the case forward. End of story.

My concern is not with the individual, but what process allowed anyone whose main source of income was building and development to be put in a position of such authority (he was for some time Chairman of the Local Development Framework panel, the committee set up to steer the Council towards adoption of a Local Plan, identifying possible sites for development and deciding on strategic allocations for development within the district), and who must have found it extremely difficult not to confuse the two roles. I have called on a number of occasions for an internal inquiry at EDDC to look into the lapse in decision-making which allowed this to happen. Each time I posed the question, I was met with the response that the matter was in the hands of the police and therefore any internal investigation would be inappropriate.

At the full Council meeting in February, and given that the police investigation had concluded, I asked the question again.

I was surprised on this occasion when my request for an internal inquiry was met with the minimal response, ‘Why?’, with no further explanation. In other words, whether the former councillor was charged with any misdemeanour or not, EDDC never had any intention of conducting a full internal inquiry.

Something to think about for the next council.

On the stump, Question 3:

What is the East Devon Alliance?

There was lots of interest on the doorstep in this umbrella organisation formed to support independent candidates.

It’s a lonely business being an Independent.

I chose to stand as an Independent in 2013 so that I was not constrained by party politics which, to my mind, should have no business in local government. But standing alone means that you don’t have the backup of the party machine to write your leaflet for you and even pay for it to be printed, as well as the advice of those who have been councillors before.

Had it existed at that time, I would have welcomed the help and advice of the East Devon Alliance to steer me through the minefield of the election process. Two years on and EDA candidates have the support of their leader, Cllr Ben Ingham, whose 25 years of experience is invaluable to those who don’t know how the system works. Their excellent website (http://www.eastdevonalliance.org.uk/) has given the candidates an on-line profile and their YouTube videos have reached a wide audience.

Once elected, every ‘Independent EDA’ candidate will work hard in their ward and represent that ward at Council. No Party Whip to ‘encourage’ them to vote in a particular way and no question of being lambasted by senior party figures if they fail to conform.

Final thoughts

Don’t forget to voteBut whatever the issues and whatever hue your politics, the main thing is to make your voice heard and Remember To Vote. The turnout at elections has fallen steadily from an all-time high of 83% in 1950 to just 65% in 2010, reflecting disillusionment and mistrust of party politics.

If you want to change the status quo, Thursday 7 May is the day to make a difference!

https://susiebond.wordpress.com/2015/05/02/on-the-stump/