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.
© MARTIN H GOODALL