Over the past decade Spinwatch and Unlock Democracy have campaigned around the issue of lobbying: what we see as the growing influence of private interests on public decision-making in the UK and the impact that this is having on levels of public trust in government.
So when the Committee on Standards in Public Life opened up a consultation into ethical standards in local government we jumped at the chance to have a say. You can read our full consultation response on our website, but read on for a summary of some of the key ethical issues in local government we think need to be tackled.
Lobbying local government
Our concerns apply as much to local government as they do to Westminster or Holyrood. The same issues – the influence of commercial lobbyists on decision-making, the so-called revolving door between public and private sectors, and the lack of transparency and public scrutiny over who is lobbying whom and for what – are negatively impacting local democracy as much as they are negatively impacting democracy at a national level.
Recent media investigations have started to highlight these issues, which include:
Councillors for hire - a large numbers of sitting councillors working for firms that provide lobbying services to developers. An investigation by the Guardian newspaper found that 43 councillors in London alone work for communications consultancies specialising in securing planning permission.
The generous purse of the property industry - the frequent hospitality accepted by local councillors from property companies seeking favourable council decisions. Again, the Guardian exposed the excessive levels of hospitality lavished on one Westminster Councillor.
The revolving door between the public and private sector - local councillors moving from public office and almost straight into property firms with whom they previously had dealings, as was the case with the former leader of Haringey Council.
Local lobbying, national crisis
The issue of local councillors becoming too cosy with developers is an issue of national significance. A lack of affordable housing is the most pressing, and we believe it is made worse by the inside tract granted to lobbyists in the property industry.
The key issues:
The potential for a direct conflict of interest
Unbelievably, under the current system, it is possible for a councillor to be employed by a property company to influence the decisions of the council on which they serve. Councillors are currently permitted to work as lobbyists for property companies seeking to influence local government decisions. This includes councillors who sit on planning committees. Although the lobbying industry has put in place voluntary rules to stop such behaviours, self-regulatory measures are not enough.
Bias in favour of property developers
Councillors who work in the property lobbying industry are unlikely to be as even-handed as the job of councillor requires. While an understanding of the needs of developers will be an asset to a councillor with planning responsibilities, if your livelihood comes from the property industry then it’s likely you’re going to identify more with the needs of the developers providing your paycheck, then you are with the needs of the local community. That’s an obvious conflict of interest.
Councillors’ registers of interests do not provide sufficient, timely, and reliably accurate information to allow proper public scrutiny of outside interests. The data is also not provided in machine readable formats, many are copies of handwritten entries making them difficult to effectively scrutinise.
Large developers are privileged under the current system
A property company that hires a lobbying firm that is staffed by councillors and former councillors is buying itself a huge advantage. This is openly acknowledged by the lobbying firms - many lobbying firms market themselves on their insider knowledge of local government and networks of contacts that comes with employing sitting councillors. This privileges developers that can afford these services, and potentially disadvantages smaller firms and communities.
The ‘revolving door’ between the public and private sector
There are no checks on councillors, on leaving, moving into jobs with property companies, including positions in companies that they dealt with while in public office. Might a councillor's future ambitions colour any current decisions they make? And when they do get a job outside local government, will they maintain close relationships with their former colleagues?
What can we do about it?
There are many steps that could be taken to improve ethical standards in local government, shining a light on lobbying so that the public can really scrutinise decisions being made by their local councillors.
- Ban councillor-lobbyists from any involvement in planning decisions - Councillors who are simultaneously employed to influence the decisions of local government on behalf of property companies should be barred from having any involvement in decisions taken by their council that relate to planning, or land and property assets. This needs top be made more explicit as current, more general, codes of conduct are not preventing this from taking place. As a minimum, councillors should have no involvement in any decisions taken by their council that relate to planning, or land and property assets, whether or not they have clients that are lobbying their particular council.
- A more robust register of interests - Councillors’ registers of interests must provide sufficient, timely and accurate information for local residents to be able to determine whether a conflict of interest exists. Specifically:
Councillors must state clearly if they work in the property lobbying business.
Councillors must disclose any clients to whom they have personally provided lobbying services.
All lobbying firms that employ a local councillor must make public a list of current lobbying clients, which councillors must provide a link to on their registers of interests.
- Crack down on lobbyists ‘wining and dining’ councillors - Councils must take steps to change the culture where hospitality is used to curry favour with councillors by:
- imposing a ban on councillors accepting excessive hospitality from property developers, or their representatives (above a reasonable threshold of, say, £20); and
- ensuring that councillors’ registers of hospitality are publicly available and up-to-date.
- Slow down the revolving doors - Councillors involved in planning must get approval, if they want to take a job in the property industry, from an independent body that has the power to impose restrictions on lobbying of former colleagues.
Property lobbyists are running riot in local councils. They are throwing money at local councillors to sway decisions, and that’s contributing to a national housing crisis. We need tougher rules to get lobbying in local councils out in the open, and make sure councillors are working for their constituents and not for the property industry.