On the matter of pecuniary interest…

At an “extra” meeting of the South Planning Committee on the 20th September (2021), called to reconsider the submission of the Ironbridge Power Station application, I substituted for Robert Tindall and it was with a sinking heart that I heard the current Assistant Director of Economy & Place, Tracy Darke, actually defend the argument made by a representative of the company that decided on the level of viability that would determine the number of affordable houses to be included in the development (5%), subsequently increased prior to this meeting to 10%.

Mrs Darke denied that his company’s claim to complete independence on the question of viability was open to challenge “just because” he and/or his company had acted on behalf of the power station developers Harworth in earlier schemes. Hmmm.

OK, went the argument, so those earlier instances might well have established a commercial relationship, but went on to argue that most people engaged in commercial operations will have had multiple dealings with other companies operating in the same sector, and that, moreover, it would be naive to assume otherwise.

Mrs Darke was supported in her argument by a couple of councillors who made much of their “commercial experience”. It was, they insisted, indeed naive to believe that wasn’t part of how commerce kept the world on an even keel, so what was the problem?

Well, indeed, what was the problem?

Neither that independent consultant nor Tracy Darke, nor those recently-elected councillors were aware of the authoritative legal opinion a few of us had heard frequently expressed by the ex-Head of Legal & Democratic Services at Shropshire Council, Claire Porter, that whether a pecuniary interest should be declared is a matter for public perception (I reminded her of that on a number of occasions, much to her annoyance), not the opinion of the person with the potential pecuniary interest, a view reinforced by another member of the legal department at a later scrutiny meeting, in response to a councillor asking whether he should declare an interest that he “doubted” was a pecuniary one, the solicitor said that it should always be a case of erring on the side of caution and the pecuniary interest declared “anyway”. At no time at that power station planning meeting had that happened, whether out of ignorance of the higher ethical standards that we elected Members were held to, or heaven forfend, any intention to mislead.

In other words, the exercise of that caution is the difference between commercial interests and the concerns of those of us who represent the interests of a general public who actually expect their elected representatives to look after their affairs; the reality is that those parties to the discussions who have a fiduciary duty to shareholders are not going to share the same concerns as taxpayers who don’t like the idea that they might be being ripped off, a sentiment enshrined in something called the Localism Act, which actually makes a criminal act of any attempt to hide a hidden interest, a pecuniary interest. The onus of proof is on the person who is expected to make the declaration of an interest no one else may be aware of.

Now, back in 2019, representatives of Shropshire Council (the Local Planning Authority, let us remind ourselves) attended a jolly in Cannes.

Now, you don’t need a particularly long memory to recall a few salient details, not least of which is where it was reported that:

Three delegates from Shropshire Council will be attending the show, including Steve Charmley, executive director for place, Mark Barrow, and business growth and investment manager, Matt Potts. They will be joined by delegates from their partners and sponsors: Harworth Group plc, Berrys, Morris Property, WSP, Montagu Evans and LDA Design.

Whilst there, the council will showcase four investment opportunities via two events:

  • Shrewsbury: The Big Connection will tell investors the story of how the birthplace of Charles Darwin is evolving, in particular the opportunities with Riverside as a development corridor.
  • Shropshire: Rooted in Heritage, Developing for the Future will highlight the county’s countryside, vibrant market towns and strategic central base within the UK, unlocking key development opportunities through infrastructure investment including the former Ironbridge Power Station site which will be led by Harworth Group plc, The Oswestry Growth Corridor and The A49/A41 Growth Corridor.

Photographed in Cannes at taxpayer’s expense, just a few months later the name of Harworth Group plc reappears in reports of the affairs of Shropshire Council, although not surprising given the heads-up above, all to do with the Ironbridge Power Station.

At the first planning committee meeting called to consider the Ironbridge Power Station, what struck me was that everyone was at pains to stress their independence, especially when the amount of affordable housing was officially declared (although known about from the official documents) to shouts of “pitiable” loud enough to drown out Harworth’s insistence that that’s all they could afford, pointing to the “independent” assessment made by the consultant appointed by Shropshire Council and Telford & Wrekin Councils.

Much to the dismay of the planning officers, the decision was deferred to allow that disappointing affordable housing contribution of 5% to be “discussed”. At the next planning committee meeting it was noticed that the independent consultant whose figures were being cited by the two local authorities – and challenged by some members of the planning committee – had had dealings with Harworth before, raising the question of his independence, which is where we came in.

Alongside that revelation, adding insult to perceived injury, it had come to light (thanks to research by Steve Mulloy) that there is a completely independent viability valuation service:

DVS provides property valuation services including for financial accounting and housing revenue purposes, acquisition/disposal advice, compulsory purchase and general valuation advice.

We work closely with local authorities providing independent viability appraisals for site assessments where Affordable Housing and s106 contributions are in dispute. We only undertake work for Public Bodies and so provide completely independent advice, to ensure appropriate and fair contributions are made, where Developers are seeking to vary from fully Planning Compliant housing schemes.

[ Copy and paste ] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/services-for-local-regional-and-devolved-government

Questioned as to why this clearly independent service hadn’t been one of the consultees, Shropshire Council’s response was rather surprising, they simply didn’t think the completely independent service was up to a project the size of the Ironbridge Power Station.

But had they bothered to look?

But had they asked?

Can you see where the problem’s coming from?

Shropshire Council’s planning department obviously can’t, nor can Tracy Darke.