Councils have accepted hundreds of thousands of pounds from property developers to fund planning guidelines designed to help govern their own schemes, a Guardian analysis has found.
In deals that have been criticised for allowing unfair influence and marginalising local residents, bodies including housing developers, landowners and urban regeneration companies paid large sums to draft supplementary planning documents (SPDs), which councillors must then consider when determining planning applications.
The planning documents subsequently published set out major and potentially lucrative development strategies for the sites in which they have an interest. The payments are not declared in the documents.
Councils, which normally fund SPDs, and developers have denied allegations of conflicts of interest, but critics fear the arrangements mean “poachers become gamekeepers”.
The practice has emerged less than two weeks after ministers announced a wholesale reform of the planning system which campaigners and voters fear will hand greater powers to developers in order to speed up building.
According toresponses the Guardian obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Conservative-run Barnet council in north London received £223,000 from the housing association Notting Hill Genesis to cover the costs of a planning brief for Graeme Park, a 3,000-home estate regeneration. The borough accepted the money via its joint venture company with Capita.
The SPD for Graeme Park specified additional social housing only “where viable” and the housing association later proposed cutting the number of affordable homes by 257. The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, described it as “a classic example of how not to do estate regeneration”.
In Hounslow, west London, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) paid the Labour-run council £20,000 to fund supplementary planning guidance for a barracks site it is planning to sell for the development of 1,000 homes, which critics have attacked as over-development.
In response to a freedom of information request to all English councils, none outside the capital said they engaged in the practice.
The London councils insist the arrangements afford developers no unfair influence over what is permitted on the sites, but some cited budget shortfalls as the reason for needing to take the money. Critics, however, attacked the practice.
“It is blatant collusion between planning authorities and developers,” said Bob Colenutt, the head of research the Northampton Institute for Urban Affairs and author of The Property Lobby. “Is this what the government means by cutting planning red tape? … Poachers have become gamekeepers with local councils ceding yet more influence over planning to vested interests in speculative development.”
Steve Reed, the shadow communities and local government secretary, said: “Government cuts to council funding have left town halls without the resources to develop full planning guidelines so developers have been allowed to write their own. This appears to be part of a strategy to diminish the voice of local communities and let wealthy developers bulldoze and concrete over local neighbourhoods and green spaces increasingly at will.”
Reed said it was a harbinger of the “anti-democratic planning reforms” the government proposed earlier this month, which could fast-track development without a requirement for detailed planning consent.
Councils usually pay for and draw up SPDs to provide guidance for what developers will be allowed to do. Councils said that plans drawn up using developer cash must still be meet wider planning rules. They are a material consideration in planning decisions.
“It is often said that ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune,’” said Steve Goodrich, a senior research manager at Transparency International UK. “Any planning guidance developed which then contributes to council policy should be drafted in the public interest, not that of landowners and developers. Accepting payments for this work from those with a clear financial interest in the outcome risks exposing the authors to heavy and undue influence.”
Barnet council also received £140,000 from the development company Joseph & Partners to draft a strategy for the renewal of North Finchley town centre. It then entered into a partnership agreement with the firm. The planning document included a proposal to demolish an art deco shopping arcade and replace it with an 12-storey apartment building. Campaigners including Dave Davies, the Kinks guitarist who used to buy guitar strings at the arcade in the 1960s, are opposing the scheme.
Jonathan Joseph, the head of Joseph & Partners, denied there was any conflict of interest. “If and when any proposals do come forward for North Finchley, a full consultation and engagement process will be undertaken,” he said.
Barnet denied the arrangements gave developers the role of poacher and gamekeeper. An SPD cannot be in conflict with wider planning policies in the borough, it said.
Notting Hill Genesis stressed that Barnet “retained responsibility for final decision-making both on the SPD and subsequent planning decisions” for Graeme Park.
On the Greenwich peninsula, the landowner Scotia Gas Networks (SGN) paid the council almost £30,000 for a planning brief for a gas-holder site. The brief concluded the area could accommodate high-rise buildings including as many as 1,200 homes, offices, a hotel, shops and restaurants.
The council cited “a decade of government cuts” as a reason for needing to accept the funds, but said the landowner had no unfair influence over the planning brief.
Dan Brown, a spokesman for SGN, said: “We had no role in producing the planning brief and the brief does not necessarily reflect the most favourable possible outcome for us.”
In Hounslow, the MoD’s property arm spent £20,000 to fund supplementary planning guidance for its 18th century cavalry barracks, which it plans to sell as a site for 1,000 new homes. When Hounslow formally adopted a version of the planning strategy drawn up by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, it made clear it “will be a material planning consideration in the determination of future planning applications”. Some local campaigners who oppose the plan say it amounts to “over-development” and want the buildings turned into a military museum.
“The draft planning brief underwent full public consultation,” said Lily Bath, the deputy leader of Hounslow council. “The brief is in no way a guarantee for planning permission, but provides a framework for consideration of future planning applications.”
An MoD spokesperson said it works “collaboratively with councils to draft guidance that ensure a quicker, and more cost efficient process for planning, design and development.”