Challenging “reprehensible” Behaviour of Lobbyists in the Planning System

There is a growing awareness of the problems of lobbying and lobbyists both in Scotland and UK-wide. The Scottish parliament has been looking into the issue, David Cameron promised to crack down on lobbying – and didn’t, and a recent Private Member’s bill was put forward in the House of Commons by the MP for Fife, Thomas Docherty. You can read the full debate in Hansard here.

Last month, a report into lobbying was released by Spinwatch detailing some of the excesses of lobbying in the planning process. Please click here – we recommend you read this if you want to find out just how embedded into the planning system lobbying has become and just how worrying their methods.

What are lobbyists?

Just to quickly clear up – lobbyists are not just PR companies. Lobbyists are companies that lobby politicians and government on behalf of their clients. Some may boast about their abilities to get planning permission in the face of large local opposition or against planning policy.

Mark Cummings’s slogan at Invicta PA, who work on the Craighouse development is “If you need advice on how to do business with Government then call Invicta. We make the seemingly improbable become possible”. Cummings previously worked for PPS on Mountgrange’s other unpopular scheme – Caltongate. PPS was one of the companies featured in a Channel 4 Dispatches investigation into lobbying in 2007. Their Scotland branch is headed up by Donald Anderson – ex leader of the Council who caused some controversy about his joining of PPS after his active support of the unpopular Caltongate scheme whilst in office.

Rules of Lobbying

There are currently very few rules governing lobbying in the UK. Some politicians would like to introduce regulation, while most lobbyists want to avoid this in favour of a system of voluntary self-regulation. Invicta PA refuse to be part of any of the voluntary self-regulation groups.

Craighouse and Invicta PA

The lobbyist who represents the Craighouse development is Invicta PA.

They have been at the centre of a great deal of controversy recently.

If you responded to the original consultation, then it is to Invicta PA that your response went. You may have seen Mark Cummings, or his colleague, Neil Cuthbert, at consultation events or talking to politicians and attending Community Council meetings. An official report of the public consultation was submitted as part of the planning application. They put together public information such as exhibitions, regularly meet politicians about Craighouse, write up minutes, put together letters and public information and regularly meet with the Community Councils as well as putting together the Community Liaison Forum.

Allegations of “Reprehensible” Methods Used in Lobbying

Using his parliamentary privilege, MP Thomas Docherty made a set of serious allegations against Mark Cummings and his lobbying company, Invicta PA, in the House of Commons, calling their behaviour “utterly reprehensible” and outlining what he saw as Invicta PA’’s “unacceptable” lobbying techniques.

He outlined some of the methods used by lobbyists as putting up candidates for Community Councils, getting employees to pretend to be journalists, putting plants into meetings, using people with personal relationships to them to head up Community Liaison Forums and bullying and intimidating members of the public who disagree with schemes.

You may read more in the Evening News here or Hansard here. Mark Cummings is presently challenging the allegations made about him as you can read here.

Lobbying Regulation

It is essential, in our view, that any new lobbying regulations require lobbyists to state who their client is: so that people can make a complaint safely. We believe the system would serve everyone better (including lobbyists’ clients) if complaints could be dealt with through some kind of professional independent procedure.

Lobbyists should also list all their clients to avoid the ability to create an interconnecting net of political favours and to keep the system properly transparent and above-board. There should also be an independent publicly accountable body to which people can complain.

Lobbying and Pre-Application Consultation in Planning

Fairly recently the Scottish Government made it a requirement that developers had to go through a period of pre-application consultation before submitting an application to planning.

Whilst, in theory this might be a good idea as it should allow a developer to make better more acceptable plans – the reality is that there is no system to ensure information put to the public is objective and correct or even bears any relation to the final application.

An unforeseen result is that it has created a whole new industry of lobbying within planning as developers take on lobbyists to manage these processes and lobby politicians and government for them. This is not good for communities or encouraging respect towards planning policy.

Most of you will have been aware of this process through the two rounds of exhibitions that took place about Craighouse. The fact that the plans at Craighouse have been the most unpopular ever submitted to the planning department is testament to some of these problems.

Information given out by lobbyists is not objective and serves the developer

Communities are asked to debate complicated issues and competing needs, based on information that is not impartial, may not provide facts that are inconvenient to the developer (like the protections and designations on a protected sites like Craighouse for example) and  is about serving the developers’ interests only.  The community can be given deficient or inaccurate information with no system to oversee or correct this. Indeed, planning departments do not get involved in pre-application consultations and will often refuse to even meet community groups.

There is also a danger that this system may be exploited at the appeal stage. The community is involved in a legal wrangle from the outset, but don’t know it and have no team of “agents” “lobbyists” or lawyers to help them negotiate the system. It is the equivalent of being in a courtroom with no lawyer.

The only benefit of the consultation process is that it gives communities “early warning” of controversial applications.

Being Transparent about Who a Lobbyist Represents

Thomas Docherty brings up many methods lobbyists use. Many of these are not illegal but obviously are not in the spirit of proper consultation.

For those that dismiss such issues as “conspiracy theories” it is worth remembering on a large project we may be talking tens of millions of pounds profit if you can force a development through against planning policy.

Why else do you employ a lobbyist who boasts of making the improbable possible? And if it is improbable – what methods are required to make it possible?

We do not think it is appropriate for lobbyists to be running such consultation processes with the community. Not only that – but we don’t think planning matters should be a matter of lobbyists, who have access to government and may represent many powerful companies, pushing politicians, MSPs, and others.

The front-loading of the system does not “iron out” problems because communities do not have access to proper independent objective information and they have no proper power in the system.

Even Community Councils are lobbied before they get the views of their community or see plans. An email from Napier on this subject as early as Dec 2010, obtained through an FOI, talked of a meeting between Mountgrange and Napier where they decide to meet Morningside and Craiglockhart Community Councils as soon as the contract was signed  to get their “buy in”. Is this appropriate? CCs are supposed to represent their communities – why should developers talk about getting their “buy in” before the plans are even drawn up or the local community consulted?

[Note. This article is not seeking to criticise the community councils who thankfully did reflect the views of their communities in relation to Craighouse. However, big questions need to be asked about the appropriateness of the above system: who this pre-application consultation is actually for and who it benefits.]

Threat

The Friends of Craighouse have in the past received legally threatening emails from the Director of Invicta PA.  We also received a lawyer’s letter threatening us. However, there is no way of complaining about this to anyone or taking it up with Invicta PA’s employer – because they do not declare who their client is.

When receiving threatening emails from Mark Cummings, he referred, variously, to his “client” or “clients” and failing to answer the question of who his client (or clients) is/are  – instead telling us that we knew who they were. Finally, he said he represented the Craighouse Partnership.

But The Craighouse Partnership is a fairly loose association of companies that has changed over the last two years. It was originally Napier, Mountgrange, Sundial and LA&P. Now it is Napier, Mountgrange and Sundial.

Does Mark Cummings represent all or some of those companies? Does he, for example, represent Napier?

We wrote to Napier University and asked if Invicta PA represent them.  Here is their (very) prompt reply:

“”we don’t employ Invicta in any capacity””

Yet Mark Cummings said Invicta PA represented The Craighouse Partnership of which Napier is a main partner. We asked Napier to clarify. They said:

““Yes, we’re part of the Craighouse Partnership, but we’ve no responsibility for taking forward the planning process. 

We do deal with Invicta given their appointment by Mountgrange but we don’t instruct them to undertake any work, and nor do they work for us.””

But Napier has their name on the planning application and are part of The Craighouse Partnership and are looking to make money out of what is one of the most unpopular proposed developments of protected space Edinburgh’s ever seen. Yet they deny Invicta PA represents them or that they have anything to do with the planning process itself?

It is worth noting that for all their public prominence on this project, Sundial ‘s name is not even on planning application form. Only Napier and the mysterious Craighouse Ltd – an offshore company registered on the Isle of Man that we understand is owned by Mountgrange.

Why does this matter?

Transparency of lobbyists in terms of their client lists and who they represent may seem like one of the smaller points raised by Docherty’s parliamentary speech. But it is quite fundamental. It makes the system and institutions and companies untransparent and unaccountable for their actions. It cuts the public out of knowing what is happening and why. It also allows communities to receive threats without being able to complain to the lobbyists’ employers or have access to independent bodies. Indeed, making a complaint to a lobbyist may in itself trigger legally threatening emails. Which can intimidate and silence communities.

If a company chooses to use a lobbyist that refuses to name its clients, you have to question why. A public institution with certain codes of conduct may sidestep these codes by using a lobbying company that is not part of any regulation. Lobbyists may get access to politicians because of one company – and push the interests of another without that politician realising that they even represent that company. Without openness about clients it is harder to see where projects may be being played off against each other or used to help each other when such things should not be part of the process.

To summarise: lobbyists must be regulated, they must declare client lists, they must be clear about who they are representing at all times, there must be a system of complaints that can go to an independent body.

Communities should know who they are dealing with – and politicians also.


We will follow-up with Sundial Properties to see if they are a client of Invicta PA and – if we can –  Mountgrange Real Estate Opportunity Fund and its mysterious offshore company, Craighouse Ltd.

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This entry was posted in Consultation, LA&P, Mountgrange, Planning process, Political process, Sundial, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Challenging “reprehensible” Behaviour of Lobbyists in the Planning System

  1. Pingback: Access for Vol-au-vents? | Friends of Craighouse Grounds and Wood

  2. Pingback: What next for Craighouse? | Friends of Craighouse Grounds and Wood

  3. Pingback: Commercial lobbying ethics and responsibilities, why the industry needs proper regulation | Friends of Craighouse Grounds and Wood

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