Parliamentary watchdog examines former planning minister’s role in hotel approval

Sir Bob Neill is being investigated by the parliamentary standards watchdog after pledging his support for a hotel redevelopment in his constituency while employed by a firm involved in securing planning permission for the project.

Sir Bob Neill. Image: UK Parliament
Sir Bob Neill. Image: UK Parliament

According to press reports, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards launched an investigation in May after receiving a complaint about the former planning minister’s involvement in the Royal Bell hotel redevelopment in the London Borough of Bromley.

Sir Bob, a Conservative MP, is employed as an advisor to the Substantia Group, a property consultancy that advised on the sale of the Royal Bell and a subsequent planning application to redevelop the property as a 50-bed hotel.

The Royal Bell is located within Sir Bob’s constituency of Bromley and Chislehurst.

In December 2018, Sir Bob sent a letter to Bromley Council’s chief planning officer three days before a committee meeting at which the application was decided. 

“Residents frequently voice their frustration that such a large, beautiful building, in the heart of our town centre, has been left vacant for so long,” he wrote. “I believe this application should be looked upon favourably … I would be most grateful if you would circulate this letter to members.”

The application was approved by councillors, despite officers recommending that it should be refused. Officers described the proposed scheme as an “intrusive development” which would be “over-dominant" and "punctuate the skyline in a blunt manner”. 

The Substantia Group was responsible for preparing a statement of community involvement submitted in support of the planning application, in which the firm noted that Sir Bob was “verbally supportive” of the plans and had posted favourably about the project on social media. 

Sir Bob is listed as a senior advisor on the Substantia Group website and since 2016 has received more than £50,000 from the company for “strategic consultancy advice”, according to the parliamentary register of MP’s financial interests.

Sir Bob declined to comment to Planning on the matter, citing parliamentary rules barring an MP subject to a standards investigation from discussing it with third parties. 

In November 2019, Sir Bob told a local newspaper: “My consultancy with Substantia is fully and publicly disclosed according to the parliamentary rules.”

He added that he had “no involvement” with the applicant behind the proposed development or in the council’s decision-making process and had “been on record publicly supporting attempts to restore the Royal Bell back as far as 2013, long before the current proposal was mooted”.

Neill was planning minister between 2010 and 2012 under the Tory-led Coalition government. He is also the Royal Town Planning Institute’s parliamentary patron.

The Substantia Group was approached for comment but had yet to respond at the time of publication.

Scrutiny of the former planning minister’s activities comes as housing secretary Robert Jenrick finds himself embroiled in an ongoing row over his unlawful approval of a Tory party donor’s plans to develop 1,500 homes in east London.

Meanwhile, housing minister Christopher Pincher has been accused of breaching the ministerial code after he mistakenly told MPs that a yet-to-be-decided appeal had been rejected.

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