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A large number of councils across the UK currently do not have the adequate regulations and processes in place to prevent corruption, and if changes aren’t made this risks undermining the public’s trust in local authorities. This topic was debated at an event organised by Big Tent Digital and Transparency International this morning (27th October).

Opening the event, Transparency International’s Head of Advocacy Rachel Davies Teka painted a bleak picture of Britain’s local councils:

“There are systematic weakness across local government when it comes to transparency and this requires a cross-party and cross-country response.”

She based this verdict on her organisation’s recent report looking into the granting of planning permissions, which investigated 50 councils and found that more than half did not meet even half of its criteria for transparency of such processes.

“The UK is in a situation where it’s suffering a housing crisis and planning developments are necessary. Unfortunately, only four councils we looked at are attempting to address the conflict of interest involved with councillors entering politics from the housing development industry.”

“A rotten culture can really develop over time due to lacking protocols.”

Transparency International hopes that the recommendations it outlines in its report will help local councils make progress in ensuring their planning development processes are more transparent, and is optimistic about the possibility for positive change going forward if new policies and regulations are adopted at both the local and national level.

“Change can happen and it is. Some councils are making great strides in response to our recommendations.”

The event was also attended by John Penrose MP, the Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption champion, who welcomed the new report but also wanted to highlight that many council-level politicians are doing a great, honest, job: “The vast majority of councils are not only working part time but trying to do the right thing and give something back to their community.”

That said, Penrose recognised that more needs to be done to address corruption, arguing that there are systemic things that can be done quite easily to incorporate anti-corruption measured in local planning development processes:

“The planning decision being granted is one of the biggest public creations of value. There are a huge amount of money being invested on speculation and corruption risks are therefore inherently high.”

“An awful lot of these risks are not new, but risks that parliamentary has tried to grapple with over decades. This isn’t a set of problems to which there aren’t answers, they’re out there and there are good practices that can be copied across many councils. We do not need to invent a brand new corpus of answers. It’s not rocket science, but is about finding good practice and spreading it across the board.”

Practices discussed include making public the notes from meetings between local politicians and developers or lobbyists, and setting up a transparent register of gifts. The anti-corruption champion clearly stated that the priority should be to promote the adoption of these policies at the council-level rather than enforcing them from Westminster:

“There is an important tension between localism and making sure everyone is properly equipped to understand what best practice is and get closer to it. I’d put legislation at the back of my priorities – left to itself Westminster will slowly erode the local power of councils. I want to try everything else before we start to centralise power away from local councils.”

Professor Elizabeth David-Barrett also sat on the panel. She is a Professor of Governance and Integrity at the University of Sussex and Director of the Centre for the Study of Corruption. Having investigated the issue for years, she was more pessimistic about current state of affairs:

“The outsourcing of public services has undermined public accountability, and there has been denial that corruption is an issue at all.”

“Essentially, the people committing corruption are in the minority. However systemic weaknesses do allow these few bad apples to act and rotten the whole barrel.”

The University of Sussex Professor agreed that there are immediate steps that can be taken to minimise corruption, saying there are “simple fixers we can do to make decision-makers more transparent.”

While some new legislation is necessary, she also favours a mixed solution:

“We need to give local authorities more power to act against serious misconduct. The Government should legislate to give councils more power to dismiss those breaching regulations.”

“I would also be in favour of some softer approaches, such as the creation of a forum or platform for bodies engaged in auditing local government to monitor what the situation is across the country.”

“If you put in place good institutions that provide transparency you can close down systemic risks and while you will never get rid of bad apples you can stop the rot.”

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