The ethical issues raised by the Northumberland planning 'collusion' probe

An eyebrow-raising report by a North East council claiming wrondoing by former planning staff serves to remind planners that they operate under a set of rules governing their professional conduct, whether members of the Royal Town Planning Institute or not, say experts.

Northumberland County Hall (pic: Russel Wills, Geograph)
Northumberland County Hall (pic: Russel Wills, Geograph)

Earlier this month, Northumberland County Council published a report claiming that "several persons in positions of authority and control" within the authority colluded with an applicant over plans for a 2,000-home development. The aim, the report said, was to "secure a number of inappropriate advantages for the planning applicant". The report was prepared by chief executive Daljit Lally, following what the council called an "independent investigation".

Among the allegations in the report were that planning officers' recommendation to approve the application was "entirely perverse given the evidence available", in light of advice from local authority body the Planning Officers Society (POS). The investigation also found evidence that the applicant or their advisers "were invited/allowed by a very senior officer in the planning department to write and alter parts of the planning officers’ report to the strategic planning committee". The probe further found evidence that a senior planning officer accepted "substantial hospitality" from the applicant, the level of which was "excessive" and had not been declared, contrary to council procedures.

Lally’s report said that "the conduct of a number of senior officers previously employed by the county council has fallen short of expected standards of behaviour, conduct and ethics". As a result, the council has referred the matter to both Northumbria Police and the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI). The council has not confirmed whether or not it sacked the former staff involved in the allegations or how many there were. It also did not respond to Planning's request for more details about the nature of the "independent investigation".

In response to the case, Northumberland’s audit committee at a meeting on 22 January approved a series of actions, admitting that weaknesses had been identified in its "planning functions". The report said that "swift action was taken by senior management to address and correct all irregularities, once identified", but its director of planning was taking "all the necessary steps" to "strengthen" its "systems of control". It added that specific reference to the matter will be included in the authority’s annual governance statement for 2019/20, a statutory document.

Though Northumbria Police has said it is not pursuing the matter, the RTPI this week confirmed it is investigating one of its members that was allegedly involved. The RTPI, which has 25,000 members, said it did not wish to comment further on the case. However, the institute revealed that last year it received 44 complaints about conduct. It said that of these, 24 were of sufficient seriousness to be put before its conduct and discipline panel. Of these, 14 complaints were upheld with a conclusion that the member had breached the RTPI’s code of professional conduct, which was last updated in 2016. Of these, seven members were warned about future conduct, five reprimands were issued and two members were suspended. RTPI bye-laws state that members can also be expelled.

The RTPI’s code covers five key principles: competence, honesty and integrity; independent professional judgment; due care and diligence; equality and respect; and professional behaviour. To help planners navigate the complex ethical issues often thrown up in their work, the institute also publishes practice advice on ethics and professional standards, giving practitioners examples of how to deal with a range of tricky situations.

On its own, the RTPI disciplinary system does not offer infallible protection against questionable conduct by local authority planning officers, according to Malcolm Tait, head of the urban studies and planning department at the University of Sheffield and coordinator for a course on "values in planning". He said: "There is often no obligation for local authority officers to be members of a professional institute - it's not a statutorily-regulated profession, unlike architecture. Many local authorities do not pay professional membership fees, and therefore there is less of an incentive to join the RTPI."

However, in the wake of the government's publication in 1995 of the "Nolan Principles" covering ethical standards expected from those working in public life, many councils introduced their own codes for planners, said Mike Kiely, POS board chair. "These codes are normally based on guidance from the Local Government Association, originally written by the Planning Advisory Service in 2009," he said. "I haven’t come across a council that hasn’t adopted this sort of code."

In addition to the formal rules, planners are steeped in a culture of ethical behaviour, Kiely said. "It is a deeply-ingrained culture that is part and parcel of being a planner," he said. "It is part of your on-the-job training – and your line manager would instil that in you. It is a key part of the way the planning team operates and functions."

The process of inculcating high standards of behaviour starts at an even earlier stage, according to Nick Gallent, professor at the Bartlett School of Planning. "A requirement is placed on planning schools to cover ethics and professional conduct," he said. In addition, the RTPI includes the topic of ethics among a number of continued professional development priorities to assist members as their career continues.

While some ethical issues are black and white, Kiely pointed out that there are many grey areas that planners have to deal with. He said that case law has established that officers are not meant to express views on applications before a decision is made. "If an officer visits a householder and said their proposed extension looks fine and complies with policies, you could just look at it as providing a friendly customer service and reassuring an anxious applicant," said Kiely. "But it is strictly a breach of the rules".

It is not just officers that have a responsibility to act ethically in relation to planning applications. "While the issues in Northumberland were primarily focused on officer conduct, it should not be forgotten that member conduct is also a controversial area," said Martin Curtis, associate director at public affairs consultancy Curtin&Co. According to Curtis, the 2011 Localism Act actually encourages members to engage with developers to achieve better outcomes for communities. However, they need to use "some common sense in the way they do it, for instance by making sure that any meetings are held with officers of the council present so they can protect themselves from any accusations of wrongdoing", he said.

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