We’ve been having some discussions at work about the production of professional guidance. It would look bad if a member of the RICS appeared as an expert, independent witness at a planning appeal using RICS guidance to support the case of their client – without declaring that they had effectively drafted the guidance! This is not a totally hypothetical scenario.
Members of the RICS are regularly involved in the production of guidance, information papers etc. for the RICS which they then use in their business. My colleagues ask me where else is the RICS supposed to get expert input? Fair enough – but is it appropriate for such guidance to be then portrayed as independent or neutral? At the very least, there’s a governance issue here that needs to be addressed. In viability appraisals in development management, is it really the role of the RICS (or a clique within it) to decide what “a competitive return to the land owner” should be given how crucial a public policy issue it is? Don’t get me wrong, the Islington SPD on viability and the Mayor’s guidance also have skin in the game and they’re also fighting for a specific interpretation of “competitive return to the land owner” that suits their interests. Who then can produce independent guidance?
It was a couple of articles in the Guardian that got me thinking of this issue the other day. Both were on the role of lobbyists in the planning process. Gerald Eve featured in one article that highlighted the cosy relationships between Shard developer Jim Sellars and the head of Westminster’s planning committee, Robert Davis.
In common with most developers planning something ambitious, Sellar had also hired a firm of planning and viability consultants to help him secure permission. Gerald Eve is a consultancy that offers developers “imaginative and thought through planning strategies” and promises to optimise “the outcome of the planning process”…Davis already knew about Gerald Eve. A month earlier he had been a guest of the firm’s drinks reception in Cannes, France, during the MIPIM property fair, where developers, local politicians and investors mingle on moored yachts and in hotel bars.
I like to think of it as an informal pre-app discussion. Just imagine if Gerald Eve were writing the viability guidance!
Tamasin Cave’s piece on the same day identifies the (increasing?) propensity for local councillors to often act as consultants on development projects (usually in nearby boroughs). They are likely to have the contacts and lots of specific knowledge. It can be a valuable commodity for a developer to get a better understanding of the local politics of the planning process – but it feels dodgy too.
…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.
Always good to learn more about the development process.