Planning has always been the hottest of all local government topics. It’s the one most likely to stir the passions of local people and yet no sooner have those passions been stirred, do residents realise that their actual control over the process is fairly limited.
Over the years, The Shepway Vox Team has reported on various planning applications made by the planning committee of Folkestone & Hythe District Council. Many have; and continue to stir the passions of residents across the whole district.
In July 2020 Transparency International (TI) released their latest report into transparency in the planning system – Permission Accomplished. It assesses corruption risks in local government planning.
Folkestone & Hythe District Council was one of the 50 councils used in their research.
Their research identified five key corruption risks relating to councillors and officers involvement in major planning decisions.
Our Council received a D grade. TI found that all 50 named councils had significant room for improvement.
The first transparency concern assessed by TI was lobbying.
Lobbying is when interested parties put forward their views to councillors and officers, which is a healthy part of the planning decision-making process. However, when done behind closed doors and through privileged access, it can lead to the perception or reality that big decisions are distorted in favour of powerful, private interests.
In early autumn 2014, Sajid Javid, then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was invited to Folkestone by Damian Collins MP. He took a tour of various pieces of art around the town and the Creative Quarter. The Secretary of State was shown around by Damian Collins MP, Sir Roger De Haan and Alastair Upton from the Creative Foundation.
In early 2015, the Folkestone Seafront Development, following extensive public consultation and years of planning, received outline planning for mixed-use residential and commercial development. The site has been in the ownership of Sir Roger De Haan’s companies, since 24.04.2007, and cost £21,339,500.
In April 2018, the developer – was granted a controversial s73 minor amendments’ application for the site. It took two attempts before the s73 consent was given by the planning committee.
The first planning committee attempt on the 3rd April 2018, deferred the application so the council could seek legal advice on whether it ought to be a s70 (substantial) or s73 (minor) application. Reconvening on the 24th April, Cllrs on the committee never got to see the legal advice.
Former Cllr Russell Tillson who was away for the second committee made clear in his statement read out at the committee:
It has not escaped my attention that in Section 6.4 it is conceded that independent legal advice from LSR [the Councils solicitors] made it clear that it would have been preferable to consider the original amendments proposed under Section 70 rather than Section 73. Given this is the case, I am bound to remain of the view that there should have been appreciably greater consultation with residents over the amendment (be they minor or substantial), in addition to that provided for statutory bodies. I believe that much of the vocal protest would then have been avoided.
The initial s73 application for Minor Amendments removed 10 key conditions all together. Allowed variations and quite significant ones to ten others, and not forgetting the increase of height in plots A – H.
His statement continues:
I accept that the legal advice confirms that the application can be lawfully determined under Section 73 of the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act., even though the definition used in the 2010 guidance, based upon consultants’ research, does not constitute a statutory definition, as is acknowledged in Section 4.1. of the Addendum.
The applicant has submitted significant and highly desirable changes to the application, which should find favour with objectors and which might not otherwise have materialised. Moreover, recommendation (b) appears to me to be an appropriate safeguard so far as the required contributions towards the existing sea sports centre are concerned.
Sir Roger’s legal advice written by Christopher Lockhart Mummery QC of Landmark Chambers was presented to Cllrs on the Planning Committee. It ended by saying:
If the Committee were to refuse the current application against the clear officer advice, they would have to provide legally justified and appropriate planning reasons, defensible on appeal.
A veiled threat?
We note in the report the following question was asked:
Representatives of Sir Roger De Haan’s were conversing with the council prior to the first committee meeting, at which Trevor “Ming the Merciless” Minter spoke for his boss.
Between the first and second meeting further discussions were had between the applicant and council, relating to the s73 application.
In Dec 2019, Sir Roger and his wife both donated £125,000 each to the Central Conservative Party and £3,000 to the Folkestone & Hythe Conservative Party. A total of £256,000 in donations.
There is an understanding (rarely made explicit) that donations buy political access and favourable consideration in policy development and legislation. Why else would companies, which are bound by law to pursue profits, make these donations?
The payment of donations to political parties are legal and legitimate we stress.
However, the whole drama of the Folkestone Seafront Development gave the perception or reality to some, that big planning decisions in the district are distorted in favour of powerful, private interests.
This appears to bear out the lobbying research put together by TI in their report – Permission Accomplished?
The second transparency issue addressed in the TI report is Bribery.
Bribery is the offering, promising, giving, accepting or soliciting of an advantage as an inducement for an action that is illegal, unethical or a breach of trust.1 This is a criminal offence under the Bribery Act 2010.2 Indicators of potential bribery include excessive hospitality and curiously timed political donations.
Quinn Estates, who are no strangers to controversy, have donated £138,362 to both Tory & Labour between 2015 and 2020.
The donations by Quinn Estates were “curiously timed” and bear out the research put together by TI, in their report – Permission Accomplished
TIs third transparency issue assessed were conflict of interests.
Conflicts of interest occur where a holder of public office is confronted with choosing between the duties and demands of their position and their private interests. They found 32 councillors across 24 councils holding critical decision-making positions in their local planning system whilst also working for developers.
Now for those of you who do not know, Cllr Jim Martin (Green) is and remains a founding owner of Martin Arnold, who are developers/project managers for a variety of projects. He also sits on the council planning committee. He has stated that we have a massive over supply of housing need in our neck of the woods.
At the last planning committee meeting held on the 28th July 2020 (and many before), Cllr Martin (Green) promptly went ahead and signed off the Former Folkestone Youth Centre, Shepway Close, Folkestone. We wrote about this site back in Jan 2019.
The developer sought to gain full planning permission for the erection of 47 dwellings comprising 17 houses and 30 apartments. It passed and Cllr Martin supported it, even though he knows we have a “massive oversupply of housing sites available, to meet housing need”, in the district.
One has to ask, who’s side you are on Jim? That of the People, or the Developers?
As one former district Cllr has commented to us:
‘We [The planning committee] knew who the nimby’s were. We knew where they lived as they’re on the electoral register. We knew who the idiots were. We knew most things, I could have written, even dictated to the word, the minutes for a [planning] meeting before I went in…’
The fourth transparency issue assessed in TIs report Permission Accomplished is the Revolving Door.
The term ‘revolving door’ refers to the movement of individuals between positions of public office and jobs in the private sector, in either direction. Moving through the revolving door can be beneficial to both sides. However, it can also undermine trust in government, because of the potential for conflicts of interest.
Now it just so happens the former head of Planning at the Council, Ben Geering (left), went off to work for Quinn Estates in Aug/Sept 2018. He was followed by a former colleague, Alexander Karlorkoti (centre), a senior planning manager at the Council in July 2019.
Also, Andy Jarrett Chief of Strategic Development Projects (right) at the Council, returned to work for them in Jan 2015, after being dismissed (under a cloud) by the council in 2007.
Between Oct 2008 and Jan 2015, Andy formed Better Places Ltd, who were Town Planning and Regeneration Specialists. He worked with a variety of private clients and councils.
In April 2010 Andy Jarrett was the agent for the developer of Fisherman’s Beach project, where homes were bought for £1,350,000.
The developer of the Fishermans Beach, Kentish Projects Ltd, owned by Darren James Ellis, who now wants to develop the former Smiths Medical site on Boundary Road, Hythe, with 97 dwellings, up to 153 sqm of offices; and up to a 66 bed care home. The outline planning consent application is still under consultation.
Hythe Civic Society believe the Smiths Medical site should be the location for the leisure centre, not Princes Parade; which Cllr Monk believes to be “the biggest dog toilet in the South of England.“
Moving through the revolving door between public and private office can be beneficial to both sides, improving understanding and communication between public officials and business, and allowing sharing of expertise. However, the revolving door brings risks that the interests of past or prospective employers could influence officials in their decisions. We’ll say no more.
The final matter TI assess in their excellent report, is weak oversight. This combined with big decisions almost encourages misconduct. They found councils often have inadequate oversight to ensure probity in the planning process.
Who could forget planning application, Y16/0623/SH which was for siting of 12 holiday lodges, and erection of a reception building and a store building, together with the formation of a fishing lake, a car park area, tennis courts, a children’s play area, and a putting green, in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, at Little Densole Farm, Densole.
The Shepway Vox team revealed Mr Westgarth, the applicant, had a charge on Mr & Mrs Monk’s house. It was picked up by Private Eye, and featured on their Rotten Borough pages.
Even though information was in the public domain about the relationship between Mr Monk & his wife, with Mr & Mrs Westagrth, the Monitoring Officer -Amandeep Khroud – chose not to probe.
As Monitoring Officer – Amandeep Khroud, has the specific duty to ensure the council, its officers, and its elected councillors, maintain the highest standards of conduct in all they do.
The irrational behaviour of the planning committee voting against the officers’ recommendations to refuse the application. Mr Steer, a neighbour to the site, annoyed at the decision, took the planning committee’s decision to Judicial Review. He won his case.
It is not the first time the Council’s monitoring officer and top legal officer – Amandeep Khroud – has failed to probe Cllrs, even when the evidence is in plain sight. Amandeep Khroud forgot to inspect Cllrs expenses in 2015/16, leading to Cllr Simmons to repay monies owed and being drummed out of office
the system of checking Councillors claims [The Monitoring Officer was responsible] had been relaxed in the period of time leading up to the current case and had resulted in only spot checks being made. These spot checks did not detect the issue
Moving on, Boris Johnson on 30 June stepped onto the stage at Dudley Technical College to reveal his new deal plan under the banner of “build, build, build”.
From 2015 onwards, the Government has been set on deregulating parts of The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015 (GPDO), which regulates what type of development can happen without planning permission.
In fact, the changes to GDPO portend a fundamental shift in what we want from our cities and what we value as a society says, Dr Nancy Holman (left), Associate Professor of Urban Planning and the Director of the MSc in Regional and Urban Planning Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
She explains how the GDPO have been hollowed out and watered down through a recent planning appeal in Watford.
The case involved an ex-industrial building – concrete corrugated roof, small windows and it directly abuts the highway on three sides. Hardly seeming suitable for housing, this is exactly what it is destined to become. And she says it gets worse.
Watford Council were alarmed the applicant’s drawings proposed 15 flats ranging from 16.5m2 to 21m2.
Watford Borough Council could not use any traditional planning arguments to refuse the application because of GDPO , but refuse they did, in part, claiming that the conversion from light industrial to housing was not valid as the units to be provided could not classify as dwellings given the reasons.
The applicant appealed and won. It didn’t matter the drawings clearly showed seven of the proposed flats had no windows whatsoever; residents on the upper floors also appeared to have no means of escape in case of fire, a lack of ventilation, size and other issues.
The Planning Inspector dealing with with the appeal, Mr Rennie, found that size, quality, oppressive living environments and lack of ventilation, even if they fell below Government set housing standards, could not be used for refusal as this was not a condition of the GPDO. Nor did, “a lack of detail as to means of escape or ventilation … result in the proposed development not being for new dwellings.”. In short, no planning argument could prevent this scheme from being developed.
This is very scary indeed, as the future could easily mean £250,000 for a rabbit hutch between 16.5m2 to 21m2 on somewhere like Park Farm or Biggins Wood
As the Government seeks to extend these rights [GDPO] further, we need to reflect on what it is we want, this includes our Cllrs and council officers. If we want to Build, Build, Build, then arguably this is a way forward for houses, houses and houses, of which we have a massive oversupply.
Developers can build quickly, but they can also do this without regard to space standards, amenities like safe play areas for children and the health and safety of the occupants. They do not need to consider the environmental efficiency of the building and they do not need to worry if the site is wholly unsuitable for housing, which many of the industrial and storage sites are.
Not all developers will behave in this way, as some do value their reputations.
Powers to refuse planning applications, by officers and Cllrs, are being eroded from within and by central government on the outside. Such hollowing out of the planning system needs fundamental changes.
The biggest controversies the TI report concludes
are those where there is suspicion surrounding the relationship between decision-makers and developers.
secretive closed-door meetings
scandals are often tied intimately to poor management
The most worrying findings of TIs research was:
The relatively frequent and unchecked conflicts of interest held by those with key roles in reviewing major planning applications.
TIs report concludes with regulating Cllr conduct by saying:
there is insufficient transparency over the sanctions available and those imposed, and an inadequate deterrent against the most serious misbehaviour that does not constitute criminal conduct. Although councillors who misbehave ultimately face the threat of the ballot every election cycle, this is too infrequent and blunt a tool to deal with serious misdemeanours. It is also worthy of note that two of the authorities blighted by scandal in recent years have also been dominated by a single party for almost half a century, (FHDC has been dominated by Tories between 2003 & 2020), which suggests uncompetitive elections may even foster an environment in which impropriety emerges.
While we do not claim there to be silver bullets for the ills identified by Transparency International report – Permission Accomplished, there are workable and achievable reforms our council and the government could make.
Changes can be made with little expense.
Given the amount of money at stake, councils and central government should see this as a small price to pay for reducing the risk of unnecessary damage to public trust in major development decisions, which may have significant legal, financial and political implications.
Ever since the establishment of our Council in 1974, planning has been an issue. With the changes to the GDPO and the build, build, build, houses, houses, houses mantra, planning will no doubt continue to excite passions well into the future.
To end in the present, Cllr Tim Prater is the Cabinet Member responsible for corruption.
If you do drop him a line, do ask him how it is the TI report issued Folkestone & Hythe District Council a D grade, with regards to all things planning.
Will he give the perception of doing something, or will Cllr Prater manage to achieve a reality of change regarding corruption risk, real or perceived in planning? Only time will tell.
Hat Tip: Dogger Bank 56
The Shepway Vox Team
Dissent is Not a Crime