Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Is the planning system corrupt?

A recent investigation by the Daily Telegraph has drawn attention to the shadier side of town and country planning. I suspect that full-blown bribery is still fairly rare in this country, although if you read Private Eye’s “Rotten Boroughs” column you may well suspect that unethical conduct is rather too prevalent in local authorities around the country.

Outright bribery and corruption may be comparatively rare, but there is strong anecdotal evidence that there has been a sort of ‘low level’ corruption in the planning system for many years – one councillor doing a favour for another councillor or for his family and friends. It seems to go on in rather too many councils. Declaring an interest and withdrawing from the discussion makes no difference, as Councillor X can usually rely on Councillor Y to make sure the scheme in which Councillor X has declared an interest goes through anyway.

What is new (at least to me) is councillors doing this for ‘consultancy fees’. Frankly, this comes too close for comfort to outright bribery, and may well cross the line of criminality. When this sort of thing is going on, alarm bells begin to ring very loudly. I am no great fan of the Daily Torygraph, but I think they are on to something here.

But there is really no need for developers and landowners to employ shady PR companies, local councillors or serving local government officers to advise them how to get planning permission. There are plenty of legitimate planning consultancies whose full-time paid staff are perfectly capable of advising on the planning process and who can steer development proposals through the planning system. The development management system is complex and bureaucratic, but it is not an arcane mystery, and doesn’t need unqualified wheeler-dealers or Mr Fix-its to get planning permission for largely undeserved fees. If you employ a proper planning consultant (usually a chartered town planner or possibly a chartered surveyor or architect) to act for you, you will get a proper professional job done, and will have a better chance of achieving a successful development than is likely if you go to the sort of charlatans that the Daily Telegraph investigation has uncovered.

I strongly suspect that local councillors who are alleged to be offering their services as ‘consultants’ know a lot less about the planning system than they claim. Nothing can beat the professional experience and expertise of a legitimate planning professional who works full time in that capacity. Landowners and developers would be well advised to steer clear of amateurs, moonlighters and part-timers.

There certainly needs to be some tightening up of the system so far as the conduct of councillors and local government officers is concerned. It is easier to deal with the case of local government officers than that of councillors. Officers’ terms of employment should already preclude any ‘moonlighting’, and if they do not do so, the nationally settled standard terms of employment should be amended to ensure that officers cannot engage in any other paid work, or act in any other capacity, whether paid or unpaid, which could involve them in doing anything that might give rise to a conflict of interest. Breach of such a condition of employment should be regarded as gross misconduct leading to summary dismissal.

It is perhaps arguable that councillors (or council candidates) whose professional or business activities could give rise to conflicts of interest should be disqualified from being elected members of councils which exercise a development management function, although it would admittedly be very difficult to know precisely where to draw the line when determining whether professional or business activities might or might not give rise to conflicts of interest. Too strict a rule could be detrimental to the local democratic process.

Even if there is no blanket disqualification of this sort, there should be a strict rule that no councillor should communicate in any way with any other councillor or officer in a case where any conflict of interest could arise. What constitutes a ‘conflict of interest’ should be widely defined, and should go somewhat beyond those interests that are currently required to be declared. What I am suggesting is that simply declaring an interest would not be enough; a vow of complete silence would have to be observed at all stages during which a planning application is in the system.

There really need to be strict sanctions to enforce this discipline, and here we come across a problem created by the present government. There was just such a system in place until the coalition government came to power. However, they scrapped the established Standards Board regime, which had ensured there was a centrally prescribed model code of conduct and standards committees with the power to suspend a local authority member, plus a central standards board to ensure uniform compliance throughout the country with prescribed standards of conduct. The government may come to regret having removed this essential disciplinary machinery.



  1. Some people will never achieve a favourable result simply because the applicant or someone close has challenged the chief planner with evidence that shows he has been very naughty indeed.

    I was well aware of councillors offering their services but it isn't advice they are selling, in many cases all you need is the nod from the Committee members, as long as the plans are acceptable you should be home free.

    I wasn't aware of planning officers running a private consultancy practice, that sounds a bit dodgy to me. However I am fully aware of bribery playing its part in determinations, seen it happen many times since the day I started work for an architect in 1971.

    I'm not saying corruption is endemic in the planning process but it is far too common with planning officers and councillors from the parish to the county level looking after themselves and their friends.

  2. I have just applied for costs against a planning committee overturning an officers recommendation, twice on entirely different (ever-changing) grounds.

    A former senior member of that planning committee was an employed lobbyist and certainly did not his planning committee role in marketing consultancy services (i have phrased that very politely). Now conveniently moved to a housing portfolio, the said Member is applauding Council-led housing schemes that are very similar to the ones that his planning committee colleagues are refusing against officer recommendation.

    We should not forget that Members are behaving equally inappropriately when they refuse a scheme on non-planning grounds, simply to help out a local friend / resident / voter.

    Sadly the threat (and available scope) of costs is no real deterrent. With appeals taking at least 6 months for even the most basic procedures; there should be a review of the scope for the costs regime to be escalated to cover wider damages, eg, interest on lost profit and / or paid on extending finance.

    The threat of being able to surcharge the Members directly might persuade them to act appropriately.

  3. In some Authorities Councillors who are on the Planning Committee are allowed to also act as Planning Agents, submitting applications in their own Authority area. All such applications go before the Planning Committee as a matter of course, at which meeting they would declare an interest and leave (after speaking as agent). Somewhat dodgy already you may think, but at least they leave the room. What is not controlled however is their discussions with other Members beforehand, or how they vote on other applications in other Committee meetings to try to set precedents for decisions on applications similar to schemes that they are shortly to submit for other sites. Unfortunately this was not considered by the Standards Board to represent any conflict of interest.


  4. Posted on the Telegraph item yesterday and I have drawn the attention of readers to your piece (the email alert appeared in our 'inbox' today.)

  5. Live opposite a councillor with a council where it's you scratch my back I'll scratch yours means you can be sure obtaining any planning consent will cost you dearly in terms of time and unnecessary costs.
    Our complaint regarding this same councillor interfering with our application resulted in the monitoring officer informing us it was not in the public interest to pursue a decision as the councillor had agreed to undertake retraining!
    He consequently suffered no adverse publicity and the LA planners continue to be vulnerable to wrongful pressure from councillors with their self interests at stake.
    His interference occured 3 days after the Standards Board was dissolved!

  6. [Declaring an interest and withdrawing from the discussion makes no difference, as Councillor X can usually rely on Councillor Y to make sure the scheme in which Councillor X has declared an interest goes through anyway.]

    Or doesn't go through or an attempt is made to sabotage the application with a condition!

    We have just had Costs Award in our favour after a condition was unnecessarily applied to our application, by the Planning Committee, against officer advice.
    Our costs were minimal due to our going alone on this occasion although I did receive brief but helpful advice from Planning Aid.

    A Cabinet Councillor then claimed it was his job to decide whether a Costs Award was reasonable and he,acting as a twin hatted Town Councillor, publically claimed he intended to take the matter to Judicial Review!
    It has to our knowledge gone no further and we have received our £400 costs but the point is that all the Councillors conspired in this undemocratic and nasty ploy in order to support their colleague,the Councillor who lives across the road.
    Politics does not come into this they all seemingly work together privately.

  7. What is your view of Council planning officers and conservation officers who work part-time in those roles for local Councils, but the rest of the time work as planning consultants for external agencies? Surely allowing officers to work part-time in external roles such as these is wide open for abuse and likely to lead to many conflicts of interest arising? In your opinion, should a Council conservation officer be allowed to make recommendations on applications which have links to architects and/or firms that they have worked with in their non-Council role as a planning consultant?

  8. The key to this question would seem to lie in the Council’s terms and conditions of employment. I can see that conflicts of interest might potentially arise, but it would be for the Council’s senior management to monitor the position.

    The officers concerned would also be bound by the professional standards of any professional body to which they belong (eg. the RTPI). However, if the officers concerned observe proper professional standards, they will take care to ensure that conflicts of interest do not arise in practice.

  9. A planning application has been submitted by a planning consultant. I understand from a local authority councillor that the planning consultant is working with the same local authority and where applications may have a conflict of interest then the application will be referred for a planning committee decision as opposed to a delegated officer's decision. But how can I be sure what criteria is used to establish if there is a conflict of interest ? My concern is that a planning application proposal to use land to site 9 holiday lodges within the definition of a caravan, will not be referred for a planning committee decision as it has been assessed by the local authority that there is no conflict of interest. However, the same planning consultant is also involved with another hybrid planning application (yet to be decided) that includes in excess of 80 holiday lodges and 80 static caravans that are within 0.6 mile of the land proposed to site 9 holiday lodges. My point is should there be 100% transparency about the work that is being undertaken by the planning consultant ?

  10. Questions of the sort raised by my anonymous correspondent of 20 February are primarily for the council’s Monitoring Officer, and should be raised with that officer in the first instance. It sounds as though this authority has a settled procedure for dealing with cases of this sort, but I am not in a position to comment on the adequacy of those arrangements.

    Bias or the appearance of bias can be the basis of a legal challenge to the grant of planning permission, by way of an application to the High Court for judicial review, but this procedure is extremely expensive and the chances of succeeding (particularly in relation to alleged bias) are very slim indeed.

  11. As this discussion is still live, I thought I'd mention that this very matter is being discussed by the Welsh Petitions Committee on Tuesday, 19 March 2019:

    P-05-845 End Conflict of Interest in Local Authority Constitution

    Fingers crossed they'll take the petition further!