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A slur against planners sparks uproar

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Commentary on how many have leapt to the defence of a cruelly maligned sector

“The depressing truth is that corruption is endemic in Britain’s bureaucratic planning system. In every corner of the country, you can find stories of bribery, with local councillors and officials rigging the planning process for their own gain.”

A worrying statement indeed. However, the article in which these sentences appeared contains little specific to back up the claim, beyond the naming of four areas alleged to have problems.

The article, from this week’s Sunday Times, came a week after the paper alleged a £2m planning scandal at Tower Hamlets LBC. The council told LGC it had referred the case to the Serious Fraud Office a year ago and it was now being dealt with by the National Crime Agency. Its planning committee had refused the development in question.

The author of this week’s piece isn’t the usual sort of usual newspaper columnist who you might expect to take advantage of the fact that councils can’t sue for libel as corporate bodies to make unsubstantiated claims – it was Rohan Silva, a tech entrepreneur and former adviser to David Cameron when he was prime minister.

The thrust of Mr Silva’s argument runs as follows: the Attlee government’s Town and Country Planning Act forms the basis of today’s planning system. It “took land development rights away from property owners and gave them to the planning authorities. It was another form of nationalisation, in other words”.

“Ever since, when you buy a piece of land in the UK you receive its property title, but you have absolutely no idea what you’re allowed to build on it — that’s up to planning officials in the local council,” Mr Silva wrote. The fact that property value can go up immensely as a result of planning decisions means the “incentive for corruption among low-paid officials and councillors is overwhelming”.

All this “bureaucracy” explains why so few homes are built and why new buildings are rarely innovative. Mr Silva endorses a US-style system of property rights in which you know what you’re allowed to build on your land.

So there’s quite a lot in the article besides corruption claims, chiefly a call to implement a more laissez faire attitude to planning.

Planners are among the most maligned people in the public sector. Their underappreciated role has become harder as their departments have been hit by intensifying cuts. Their work is not noticed until the town centre withers, the light is blocked out from your house, your village loses its traditional character or your drive to work doubles in time because no one has ensured the roads are there to support the new homes.

Mr Silva’s article will no doubt contribute to this sense in parts of the broader population that the planning system is responsible for many ills. Too few homes get built – and some councils most definitely have a nimbyist outlook. However, let us note that Local Government Association research last year showed planners had given permission to nearly half a million dwellings that developers had not got round to using.

In the aftermath of the article local government sprang to the defence of its planners.

Mid Devon DC chief executive Stephen Walford tweeted that planning committee members have “among the toughest roles” and their decisions could frequently lose them both friends and seats.

“Extraordinary that @silva thinks he can accuse whole of #localgov of corruption in planning based on one case in London borough with past problems with corrupt mayor,” tweeted Wyre Forest DC chief Ian Miller.

Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers managing director Graeme McDonald tweeted: “The degree to which a recent senior adviser could be allowed to be quite so out of touch is the real scandal here.”

And LGA chief executive Mark Lloyd described Mr Silva’s aim as a “crude attempt to undermine the planning system to allow unfettered development without local scrutiny” and urged him to “take evidence to the police as fast as you can… rather than make unfounded accusation of endemic corruption”.

Mr Silva gives no detail of the “corruption” in his article although a Google search of the places he mentions uncovers two convictions more than a decade old, the acquittal of a former council leader in a third and the fourth resulting in a councillor accused of questionable practices resigning.

Claims of endemic corruption add to perceptions and clichés which blight our planning sector and, in turn, harm the identity of our country and the quality of life of future generations.

Nick Golding, editor

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