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Anti-corruption group report warns on risks to local government planning process

Anti-corruption organisation Transparency International has said research into what could undermine openness in the planning process – and what local authorities were doing to stop this – had revealed some examples of good practice, but that "generally the results make for a worrying read”.

Transparency International said its report, Permission Accomplished: Assessing corruption risks in local government planning, had identified five key corruption risks in England:

  1. Opaque lobbying.
  2. Bribery and excessive gifts and hospitality.
  3. Conflicts of interest.
  4. Abuse of the ‘revolving door’, ie the movement of individuals between positions of public office and jobs in the private sector, in either direction.
  5. Weak oversight.

The organisation said: “Unminuted, closed-door meetings with developers and excessive hospitality undoubtedly undermine confidence in the planning process, yet too many local authorities have weak rules to stop this from happening. Even fewer councils have control measures for major conflicts of interest, with far too many decision-makers also working for developers on the side.

“Moreover, when councillors behave badly, there are no clear or meaningful sanctions available to councils that could act as an effective deterrent against serious misconduct by them or others in the future.”

The report sets out what Transparency International UK believes to be ten practical solutions, “none of which are beyond the means of those who need to implement them”. The report’s recommendations are:

Recommendation 1: Minute and publish all meetings with developers and their agents for major developments. Councils should ensure all meetings between councillors, developers and their agents in major planning decisions are: attended by at least one council official; recorded in detailed notes; and published online with the planning application file.

Recommendation 2: Prohibit those involved in making planning decisions from accepting gifts and hospitality that risk undermining the integrity of the planning process. Councillors should be prohibited from accepting any gifts and hospitality that could give rise to: real or substantive personal gain; or reasonable suspicion of favour or advantage being sought.

Recommendation 3: Increase transparency over gifts and hospitality. Local authorities should be required by law to establish a register of gifts and hospitality. This should apply to all gifts and hospitality over a value of £50, or totalling £100 over a year from a single source.

Recommendation 4: Stronger leadership from the industry on ethical lobbying. The Public Affairs Board should amend the public affairs code, amongst other things to require members to conduct engagements with elected or public officials openly and transparently.

Recommendation 5: Improved management of financial interests. The report backs the Committee for Standards in Public Life’s call for councils to publish registers of financial interests as structured open data, and for s.31 of the Localism Act to be repealed and replaced with a new requirement for councillors to remove themselves from decisions where there it can reasonably be regarded that they hold a significant conflict of interest that could prejudice their judgement.

Recommendation 6: Prohibit all councillors from undertaking lobbying or advisory work relating to their duties on behalf of clients. Members should be prohibited from: lobbying councils on behalf of paying clients; and providing paid advice on how to influence councils.

Recommendation 7: Manage the revolving door between the elective office and private business. Local authorities should: provide advice, guidance and training to those involved in making decisions on planning applications about the risks involved; prohibit those who have recently worked as lobbyists for developers, or for developers seeking planning permission (for example within the prior two years), from sitting on planning committees or receiving executive responsibilities relating to planning; require councillors to report any offers of employment to their Monitoring Officer, including details of any interaction they have had with their prospective employer.

Recommendation 8: Provide clear guidance and boundaries for councillors so they can better understand what is and is not acceptable behaviour. All local authorities should: introduce compulsory training for those on planning committees or with executive functions relating to planning, including specific modules on ensuring integrity in the process and the factors they should take into account when making a decision; establish a dedicated planning protocol, with proportionate sanctions for non-compliance.

Recommendation 9: Provide a meaningful deterrent for serious breaches of the code of conduct. Transparency International UK support the recommendations from the CSPL that Government should legislate to: give local authorities the power to suspend councillors, without allowances, for up to six months with the ability to appeal the decision to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman for England; clarify beyond doubt that local authorities may lawfully bar councillors from council premises or withdraw facilities as sanctions; require councils to prepare and publish a sanctions policy explaining when they will use their enforcement powers, and what independent safeguards they will use to protect against their abuse.

Recommendation 10: Increase transparency over investigations and enforcement action. Local authorities should regularly publish in a central location: anonymised details about allegations made regarding councillors’ alleged misconduct, including any grounds for rejection; for example, they were malicious or unfounded; summary statistics on the number of investigations underway, including their status; full details of substantiated breaches, including the councillor concerned, and any sanctions imposed.

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