Telegraph exposes councillors lobbying for planning development
One of Enoch Powell's themes in opposing what is now called the European Union was how lobbyists are enriched by it and have a vested interest in it growing in power.
Quite apart from politicians, there is the multitude of lobbyists, purporting to represent almost every interest with which the Common Market might interfere, who have thus gained an illimitable extension to the parasitical profession of go-betweens and know-somebody-who-knows-somebody else.
Mr Powell added that "great corporate voices" such as the National Farmers Union and the Confederation of British Industry would be part of a new bureaucracy "public and private, to handle relations with the new seats of power at Brussels. Those thus engaged become advocates of the indispensibility of the institution with which they operate, especially as their activities, in common with most political acivities on the continent, tend to be lushly remunerative."
I was reminded of this by a piece in the Telegraph this morning about Indigo Public Affairs and other firms of consultants who advise companies on planning applications. This firm employs councillors. Councillors sitting on Planning Committees are unable to vote on applications they have a financial interest in. But they are allowed to offer advice to firms making planning applications to other councils. I do not object to this. It helps improve planning applications, making them more likely to be of an acceptable standard. This avoids delay and appeals. If firms are given good advice it helps the system to work.
What is more dubious is if a councillor is a paid consultant for a planning application within his own local authority. Even if he is not on the planning committee, he will know others who are. This is something that councillors, including Cllr David Archer of Elmbridge Borough Council, have been happy to boast about to undercover Telegraph reporters they thought were clients.
Cllr Graham Brown of East Devon District Council runs a planning consultancy called Grey Green Planning. He says he won't take work for applications within his "constituency" - by which I think he means his ward. But that he will help with applications for other wards in East Devon. If Cllr Brown worked on planning applications for Mid Devon or North Devon I think that would be all right. For him to be doing so for East Devon doesn't really pass the "smell test" does it?
There was also a Lib Dem councillor from Newcastle, Cllr Greg Stone, who works for Indigo who talked about knowing people on other councils who are part of a "network." That somebody will know somebody who knows somebody."
There is always a tendency for lobbyists to exaggerate their clout, of course. Wouldn't a conscientious councillor on a planning committee look at whatever presentation a property developer made regardless of whether or not they had a lobbyist intermediary?
What is the answer? Maybe the rules could and should be tightened so councillors can't take on work for applications covering their own local authorities. I suspect that instances of councillors on planning committees taking a bung to vote through an application are pretty rare these days - certainly the Telegraph didn't identify any such instance.
But the main answer is to simplify the planning process. If planning applications are incomprehensible then councillors will be bewildered and rely more heavily on the views of others. The more regulations there are the more property developers will depend on consultants to guide them through it.
Planning lobbyists thrive on red tape. The irony is that the Daily Telegraph has been leading the campaign against the Government reducing planning bureaucracy. As with the EU the more planning rules you pile on the greater the growth opportunities for lobbysists.
So don't blame firms using consultants like Indigo, or Indigo recruiting councillors or councillors taking the work. Blame the complexities of the system which creates such a job creation scheme.
The Managing Director of Indigo Richard Patient said:
“The Telegraph is completely misrepresenting what we do. The situation is that we help developers consult with and listen to local communities and their elected representatives to find out what they actually want when new developments are proposed.
“Councillors have a clear choice about whether to talk to developers or not and they have the same choice with community groups. After hearing from both sides, councillors on planning committees can make a well-informed choice about whether to accept or reject schemes.
“At our company, our clear code of conduct goes beyond all legislative and regulatory requirements. Staff who are also councillors don’t work on schemes where the decision will be taken by their own local authority.
“The Telegraph’s story contained no evidence of improper activity about our company. It just reflected their stance against development. But without development, you don’t get regeneration, jobs, homes, investment and infrastructure to take us out of recession.”