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7 March 2018

The scandal we await

When the MP’s expenses scandal was engulfing Westminster, former Prime Minister David Cameron made an odd remark that was scarcely picked up at the time. He suggested that the expenses scandal would be dwarfed by what follows after the facts are made known about the extent of private lobbying. But apart from the occasional newspaper sting catching out senior politicians boasting of their power and influence, nothing of real substance has emerged. Tamsin Cave of Spinwatch suggests we 

By Tamasin Cave is co-author of A Quiet Word and a campaigner with Spinwatch


The timeless practice of “gastronomic pimping”, as Nye Bevan put it, is a tool long used by commercial lobbyists to curry favour. These “meetings” are deliberately social occasions designed to create bonds, establish shared values and ultimately influence council decisions.

Robert Davis, the most wined and dined politician in Britain while he was chairman of Westminster council’s planning committee, was entertained 150 times by property industry figures in three years. But hospitality is not the only tool in the property lobbyist’s box. One of the surest ways to access and influence the officials you seek to influence is to employ people who know local government inside out. Councillors up and down the country are employed in the property lobbying business. They are elected to represent the public interest and at the same time employed by developers seeking to influence the public sphere.

Take one of the scores of firms in this business, which claims to have “won successful planning consents for over 20 years”. It employs numerous local councillors, including one who sits on a council planning committee, as well as prospective and former councillors, plus a former council leader. These people not only understand how decisions are made, but in many cases are the decision-makers themselves. This is valuable for any developer needing council backing.

Besides trying to ensure that elected officials are onside with their clients’ development plans, these planning lobbyists also deal with any resistance from local communities. Developers have a statutory duty on large projects to consult with communities. Consultation, however, in the hands of lobbyists, is a tool that serves to draw out community opposition and provide it with a managed channel through which to voice concerns, but with no hope of tangibly changing the outcome. As the ex-Tesco lobbyist Bernard Hughes explained: “Businesses have to be able to predict risk and gain intelligence on potential problems. The army used to call it reconnaissance; we call it consultation.”

 People need to have a proper look at what is happening in their council. Take a look at the registers of interests

What do developers want from their relationships? It may be straightforward planning permission; or relief from paying a tax used to fund local amenities; or an agreement with the council on the amount of affordable homes the developer has, or doesn’t have, to provide. All of which can be, and is, negotiated by the councils upon which such lavish hospitality is poured.

That the “local lobbying” industry has got away with such practices for so long is no surprise. It lacks the one thing necessary to drive them out – scrutiny. As Davis says in his defence, all his meetings with developers “were all properly declared and open to anyone to examine”. But people need to have a proper look at what is happening in their council. Take a look at the registers of interests to see if any of your councillors double up as lobbyists. Get hold of the registers of hospitality and see if they are taking from the developers they should be overseeing. Use freedom of information law to dig deeper into who is meeting whom, and what they are seeking to do, and then hand the information to your local paper.

Until a light is shone on these relationships they will continue to flourish, and we will continue to get developments that serve no one but the investors and developers. 




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