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Monday, March 11, 2013

Councillors for hire

Today's Telegraph story that Councillors across England are offering themselves for hire to property developers is actually quite shocking. It is simply not good enough to say that Councillors cannot involve themselves in planning applications in which they have an interest. Lines can become blurred and as one councillor in the article admits,  although he has to follow rules on planning, there are ways around the formalities.

The paper says that these local government politicians are trading on their inside knowledge of the planning system to receive fees of up to £20,000 for advice on how to get developments approved. They say that one lobbying company is boasting to potential clients that it employs councillors who sit on local authority committees:

An undercover investigation by this newspaper also found that councillors who have set up their own consultancy services are offering to help push through planning applications.

One Tory councillor in East Devon, Graham Brown, boasted: “If I can’t get planning, nobody will.”

The councillor claimed he preferred to keep a low profile, but had “access to all the right people for the right clients”. He added: “[I] don’t come cheap. I mean, there are jobs that I do for £1,000, and there are jobs that I do for £20,000 … if I turn a greenfield into a housing estate and I’m earning the developer two or three million, then I ain’t doing it for peanuts.”

There are strict guidelines on how councillors deal with planning applications. It is my view that even though this activity is legal, it verges on an abuse of the spirit of those guidelines. By all means act as a consultant once you have ceased to be a councillor but to do so whilst still a member with all the privileges and access that entails just leaves too many unanswered questions about propriety and transparency as well as what clients think they are paying for.
I stood in the local elections in 2008 in Ciliau Aeron ward on Ceredigion council and lost to the Plaid candidate. Just over a year later I was told he was in trouble for having an interest in a planning application and late 2010 he was forced to resign. When I stood in Llansantffraed ward last year several people asked me "Are you opposed to this planning application that is causing a lot of complaints?". I explained that I could not offer a comment as I could prejudice myself if I was elected and asked to sit on the planning committee. I am of the opinion that if a councillor does anything like the allegations in East Devon, that councillor should be sacked without question.
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