Major developers and lobby groups are being given privileged access to officials at the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and are making decisions about government policy on planning and development OurCity.London can reveal.
In a departure from usual practice on lobbying, advice being received by the DCLG from a select group of interested parties is kept confidential, and major developers and lobbyists are being treated as civil servants for the purposes of policy formulation.
These revelations have come about as a result of freedom of information requests submitted by OurCity.London to the DCLG.
A sounding board and more
Who should make decisions about government policy on planning and the built environment? government ministers accountable to parliament, or representatives of private interests?
The answer should be obvious, however, documents obtained by this website suggest that the DCLG has handed over decision making on the reform of the planning system and ‘live planning policy issues’ to a hand picked group of developers, lobby groups and external experts.
The revelations centre around a group called the “Planning Sounding Board”, a hand picked group that meets within the DCLG four to five times a year.
According to the terms of reference, which were disclosed by the government under a freedom of information request, its purpose is to, “foster open and honest discussion between DCLG’s Planning Directorate (PD) and key representatives from the world of planning, on live planning policy issues and reform of the planning system.” [su_pullquote align=”right”] “We should no longer be surprised when policies to tackle the housing crisis fail to materialise. Where are the affordable and social housing advocates? Who is representing the public interest here?” – Tamasin Cave, Spinwatch[/su_pullquote]
However, this group is much more than a talking shop. The terms of reference also state that senior officials at the Planning Directorate will “ensure that key Board decisions and agreed actions are communicated to their teams and implemented”. In other words, the Planning Sounding Board is doing much more than providing a sounding board, they are directing civil servants.
The origins of the group
The “Planning Sounding Board” was originally a group of four ‘experts’ set up by the Conservative party in opposition to advise it on planning policy ahead of the 2010 election. The four were Mr John Rhodes, Director of the planning consultancy Quod, Simon Marsh, Acting Head of Sustainable Development at the RSPB, Councillor Gary Porter, Leader of South Holland District Council and Chairman of LGA Environment and Housing Programme Board and Peter Andrew, Director of Land and Planning at Taylor Wimpey UK.
Of course, in opposition parties are free to take advice from anyone they please, but governments are held to a higher standard of accountability. There are long and well established procedures on how to select people with influence over government policy making. The importance of following such procedures is neatly summarised on the website of the Commissioner for Public Appointments:
Public bodies take decisions on a daily basis which affect every aspect of our lives: the price of gas and electricity, the quality of our hospitals and schools, standards and ethics in public life; the quality and availability of sports, arts and culture. It is in all our interests, as citizens, that those appointed to serve on public bodies are skilled, experienced and understand the public they serve. They should be recruited from a diverse range of backgrounds. The Commissioner’s Code of Practice sets out the principles that all Government departments must follow to ensure the process of appointment is fair and open and that those appointed are selected on merit.
On entering government the four members of the Conservative’s Planning Sounding Board were invited to form the Practitioners’ Advisory Group, which was tasked with drafting the National Planning Policy Framework. In 2012 an Institute for Government report noted that the selection of the four was entirely ad-hoc, there was no announcement that this group had been tasked with this important role and no hint that their appointment followed the usual principles of public appointments. The report also noted that the key ask from the RSPB had been dismissed at an early stage.
In the end the draft of the NPPF was a disaster. Widely seen as a developer’s charter to tear up the countryside publication provoked a large and immediate protest. Organisations such as the National Trust and the Daily Telegraph, who should have been natural supporters of the Conservative party, launched high profile campaigns against the NPPF. The resulting public consultation on the draft elicited over 250,000 responses from the public and the government was forced into a series of U-turns.
However, undeterred, it seems that the Planning Sounding Board was not left there but revived, expanded, embedded in government and given more power. Like with the Practitioners’ Advisory Group this appears to have happened without any due process. Despite the fact that the board has now been up and running for several years, search for the Planning Sounding Board on the .gov website and you will find nothing but the odd oblique reference to it. There is no announcement of its formation or the roles it has been given. No call for applications to be part of the board.
Today’s board is dominated by the development industry, with the odd birder and planner thrown in as a fig leaf. Members include employees of British Land, the Home Builders Federation and London First. An analysis of the membership of the board, which was released to OurCity.London shows that of the 14 members who are not employed by DCLG or the Planning Inspectorate 6 are from the development industry, 2 represent the planning profession, 2 are academics, 2 are from local government, one is an NGO (RSPB) and one is from Public Health England. Other parties with an interest, architects, for example have not got a look in.
Tamasin Cave, from Spinwatch, highlighted the issue, telling OurCity.London,
“We should no longer be surprised when policies to tackle the housing crisis fail to materialise. Where are the affordable and social housing advocates? Who is representing the public interest here?”
So what advice is the government now receiving from this group? OurCity.London asked to see the agendas of meetings, minutes of decisions taken and any written advice received by the department from its members. These requests were refused. The DCLG informed us that although decisions of the board are supposed to be implemented by senior civil servants, no minutes of meetings are taken. With regard to written advice provided by the Board the DCLG has claimed that the members are to be considered civil servants for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act, and therefore any advice they provide is exempt from disclosure under the internal communications rule.
After an appeal on the grounds that 1. disclosure was obviously in the public interest, and 2. the idea that employees of British Land and London First are considered civil servants for the purpose of formulating planning policy is absurd, an official from the DCLG told us:
I agree that there is a strong public interest in transparency where third parties have or appear to have privileged access to government and where they are able to influence or directly influence the formulation or development of government policy. However as previously stated the purpose of participation of external board members is in a personal capacity and not to facilitate preference to certain organisations in the policy making process.
So the argument of the DCLG is this. The members of the Board are only there in a personal capacity and not as representatives of their employers.
Melanie Leach, Chief Executive of the British Property Federation, is a member of the Planning Sounding Board. The BPF describes its role as follows:
We represent and promote the interests of all those with a stake in real estate in the UK – owners, developers, funders (equity and debt), agents and advisers.
We work with government and regulatory bodies to help the real estate industry grow and thrive, to the benefit of our members and the economy as a whole. Because our membership is industry wide, we can provide government and regulators with the knowledge they need to make decisions.
Now, I have nothing against Melanie. I’m sure she knows her stuff. But the idea that she is going to simply detach herself from the organisation she runs, a lobby group, and act with a completely independent mind when being invited into speak to the very people it is her job to influence is absurd. It is especially absurd when we consider that she does this on time paid for by her members (meetings of the Planning Sounding Board are during the working day). In fact, it would be a complete dereliction of duty on her part if she didn’t advance the interests of her members at meetings of the Planning Sounding Board. But that is what the DCLG is asking us to believe in order to protect the secrecy of their proceedings.
Tamasin Cave from Spinwatch is less than impressed with the arrangements. She told OurCity.London:
“We’ve moved way beyond lobbyists having to petition government. Lobbyists are now inside government, playing host to civil servants, and collaborating on policy. The fact that DCLG won’t allow scrutiny of its close working relationships with industry makes a mockery of the government’s very public commitment to transparency.”<
Commenting on how the DCLG has refused to disclose information to OurCity.London she said:
“It is laughable to say that professional lobbyists are acting in a personal capacity. Their members pay them to represent their industry’s interests. If government is going to appoint lobbyists to these policy-making groups, it needs to do so with full public scrutiny. Parliament should look into it as a matter of urgency.”
Clearly, the existence of the planning sounding board, the apparently powerful influence it has on government policy, the secrecy of its proceedings, and the lack of transparency over how its members are selected raise some very serious questions about the way government policy is formulated.
Given the vast public interest in planning matters, and the impact that planning policy has on all of our lives, it is obvious that the public has a right to know what decisions are being made and in whose interest.
Picture Credit: Steve Cadman, from Flickr under the Creative Commons Licence