Last week, after 36 years as a councillor at Westminster City Council, Robert Davis resigned following an internal investigation into his conduct. The probe was prompted by newspaper reports concerning hospitality he was alleged to have enjoyed from developers and landowners during his tenure as chair of Westminster’s planning committee. According to the Guardian, between 2015 and 2018, Davis was entertained on 514 separate occasions by "developers, big business and other interests". It also stated that he had accepted entertainment from property firms involved in half the applications on which his committee ruled in 2016.
Details of the hospitality were on Davis’ register of members’ interests on the council’s website, but nevertheless he referred himself to the the council’s monitoring officer. The council appointed its principal lawyer, Hazel Best, to oversee an investigation into his conduct. Her report, published last week, said that Davis had done nothing unlawful, but concluded that his behaviour amounted to a breach of the council’s code of conduct.
Best found breaches in relation to two aspects of the code's section on conduct, relating to "high standards of conduct" and members placing themselves under an obligation to individuals or organisations "that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties" (see panel). It added that the "acceptance of gifts and hospitality from developers before or after a planning decision may… have placed him in a position in which people might seek to influence him in the performance of his duties". The investigation found no evidence that Davis had been influenced, but nevertheless the report said that his judgement had been found "wanting".
Best also found that "by accepting the large scale of gifts and hospitality, councillor Davis has not promoted and supported high standards of conduct through leadership and by example".
After the report was published, Davis’ resignation swiftly followed, although he maintained that he had done nothing wrong. "My approach to declarations has always been to be honest, open and transparent," he said in a statement. "I registered all my hospitality and it was posted by officers on the council’s website. I also declared any relevant interests at the beginning of every planning committee I chaired during this time."
Nickie Aiken, leader of the council, said it was "clear" Davis had breached the code, adding that she had taken steps to improve transparency in the planning process since becoming leader in January 2017. She said: "When I became leader, I took immediate action to improve how planning decisions are open to scrutiny, making sure all meetings about planning applications take place in council offices with officers present."
On this point, Aiken has the backing of Labour’s Westminster councillors, although they still sought to make political capital out of the situation. "For too long, Westminster Conservatives have treated residents as an afterthought in a planning process geared towards the needs of major developers," said Geoff Barraclough, Labour’s planning spokesperson.
In fact, Aiken’s assertion that she had already taken action is borne out by members of the development community who report a change in attitude at the London authority. "Even before this came to light, there was a sense with Westminster that they wanted to cut ties with the development industry," said one consultant. "They kind of realigned themselves with citizens and neighbourhoods rather than developers and industry".
The source claimed that the situation at the city council was "pretty unique" and that the extent of the hospitality enjoyed by Davis was far from commonplace elsewhere.
Will Savage, an account director at communications consultancy Snapdragon at PLMR, agreed that the degree of hospitality given to Davis by developers in Westminster was not replicated elsewhere. "Wining and dining [members of a planning committee] is certainly not something that we would do or advise our clients to do," he said. "There is a reason he’s resigned, ultimately because it’s not appropriate."
According to Savage, it is a pretty simple task for both committee members and developers to meet without risking allegations of impropriety. "It would be pretty rare that I would sit down with the chair of a planning committee on their own," he said. "They would normally have planning officers from the council to chaperone them. Committee members are very careful about engaging with developers, because they don’t want to take the risk."
This, according to another consultant with experience of working in Westminster, gets to the heart of the issue. "There’s nothing wrong with members engaging with developers and talking about schemes," she said. "But there is a way to go about it."
A source from the civic society sector, who did not wish to be named, said there was a clear problem of perception around this issue. He said he believed that planning committee chairs were increasingly holding private meetings with developers and their public relations (PR) agents. In such meetings, where it is unclear if officers are present, planning gain agreements are negotiated, often for large sums and producing benefits that are in many cases not related to the scheme itself, the source said.
He added: "If fewer schemes are getting refused and communities are getting more upset, people start thinking that these large sums of money are like inducements to grant planning consent.
"I don't know how widespread it is, but it's a function of the scale of new developments and the growing role of PR companies in persuading politicians to look favourably at their schemes.
"It's the perception, rather than the actuality. It brings the system into disrepute because people believe committee chairs are hand in glove with developers."
Which parts of Westminster Council's code of conduct were breached?
2.2 - Not to place themselves under a financial or other obligation to any individual or organisation that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties
2.10 - To promote and support high standards of conduct through leadership and by example