Corruption concerns at fees to '˜buy a planning officer' at Milton Keynes Council

Milton Keynes Council could be open to corruption claims if developers are allowed to pay them to choose their own planning officer - it has been warned.

Thursday, 15th February 2018, 12:09 pm
Updated Thursday, 15th February 2018, 12:13 pm
Councillors have raised eyebrows at proposals to allow developers to pay a fee and pick their own planning officers

Should the ‘Fast Track’ service for applicants come into force, specific planning officers could be requested for various fees.

A report from the council’s own budget scrutiny committee ‘acknowledges that the risk of corruption amongst the council’s planning staff is low’, but is concerned with ‘external perceptions of the possibility of corruption causing reputational damage’.

Developers for large scale applications – such as those with thousands of homes included – could pay £7,500 to choose the planning officer of their choice.

Applicants for smaller schemes such as extensions could hand over £150 to secure the services of their favoured officer.

Councillor Robin Bradburn was the chair of the budget scrutiny committee who raised concerns over the proposed scheme.

He said: “It doesn’t mean to say that we think there will be corruption, but some members are concerned how it looks from the outside.

“But in reality, when an application is made, and a similar application is made six months down the line, the same officer will tend look at it as they will have that experience.

“But we have asked the authority to commit to getting as much transparency as possible.”

Cllr Peter Geary will now investigate the risk of the scheme as chair of the audit committee.

He told the Citizen: “The vast majority of people I’ve spoken to have raised an eyebrow at this.

“We do need to look at the risk that it poses to the integrity of the council and planning officers. If people even think there’s a risk of corruption, then that is a problem.

“We need to weigh up whether the money it raises would be worth the risk of that perception.”

But council leader Pete Marland said that scheme was used at other authorities, and would make the planning department ‘self-sufficient’ and less reliant on funding from council tax and business rates.

He said: “It’s not as if that officer will act with impunity or act without oversight. Anything they do will have to be approved by a line manager, and the recommendation of the planning officer can still go to committee, so it will still be councillors making the final decision, not officers.”