Report of the Director of Law.
6.1 Tasnim Shawkat (Monitoring Officer) presented the report and drew Members’ attention to the recommendations proposed. The recommendations including noting that the Cabinet has requested that the guidance to Members involved in planning decisions be restated and that a further update on this issue would be brought to this Committee. The report also included a recommendation to note that Members need to pay particular attention to gifts and hospitality if there is a perception of conflict, for example, in the context of planning decisions.
6.2 Tasnim Shawkat advised Members that the Chief Executive had instructed Planning Advisory Services (PAS) to undertake a review of the Council’s Development Management Service in May 2018. An internal audit was also undertaken to assist this process. PAS had been asked to consider the effectiveness of the Development Management Service, the role hospitality plays, the delivery of corporate objectives and outcomes, the Planning Committee system and decision making. The PAS report was presented to Cabinet in October 2018 and was publically available on the Council’s website for transparency. Tasnim Shawkat then referred to the key findings of the PAS review as set out in section 4 of the report.
6.3 Tasnim Shawkat informed the Committee that she had been involved in correspondence with the public in respect of the PAS review and also regarding a recent investigation into a Member’s conduct following their own self-referral. Tasnim Shawkat welcomed the public’s views on the planning process and stated that she set out her role as Monitoring Officer to them, which included assessing whether there had been breaches in the Code of Conduct. In respect of the investigation of an individual member, she emphasised the importance of remaining within the remit of the investigation. Planning decisions were subject to appeal mechanisms, including judicial reviews. The role of the Monitoring Officer did not include reviewing the planning decisions themselves, which was a matter for the Planning Inspectorate or the Court.
6.4 The Chairman then invited the Committee to comment. Baroness Julia Neuberger (Independent Person) welcomed the recommendations in the report but felt that consideration needed to be given as to whether they went far enough and could be made more robust. She suggested that the Committee could consider if it should make any recommendations on what standards should be for the Council in respect to gifts and hospitality.
6.5 Councillor David Boothroyd stated that the PAS review had highlighted that there was a perception that high standards of conduct were not always being promoted. He emphasised the importance of ensuring that policy did not impact negatively when reported by the press.
6.6 Councillor Patricia McAllister, in referring the to the investigation of the individual member, queried the wisdom of him chairing the Planning Committee over such a long period and why he had not been advised that the scale of the gifts and hospitality he had received was excessive and therefore that he should step down from his role.. She also asked whether his self-referral would possibly limit the scope of the investigation.
6.7 Councillor Danny Chalkley commented that the media had a very strong interest in councillor relationships in respect of planning. He referred to the licensing regime which underwent similar processes, with Westminster receiving a large number of applications. Applicants could derive considerable benefit from gaining licences and in view of all this, he suggested that licensing should also be included in future reports on this matter.
6.8 Councillor Jonatan Glanz commented on the wide variation in the number of planning applications received for individual wards, with his, West End Ward, being one of the busiest. He stated that part of a ward councillor’s role was to be involved in the planning process, including engaging with applicants and residents and this would necessarily involve attending applicants’ presentations, otherwise by not doing so this could be seen as a dereliction of duty. Councillor Glanz stated that West End was also expensive and this would impact upon the value of gifts and hospitality. He also commented that members who had declared were following the guidelines set out in the Code of Conduct, however he asked if there were any mechanisms to address members who were not declaring when they should be doing so.
6.9 Councillor Louise Hyams emphasised the importance of acknowledging that there had been a negative perception in respect of Members and the planning process and every effort should be made to change this perception. Councillor Hyams stated that ward members found it useful to meet developers to obtain an understanding of the nature of the proposals and to have the opportunity to provide input. She felt that councillors should not be prevented from doing this as it would be detrimental to residents,
6.10 Asif Iqbal MBE felt that there should be some flexibility in respect of thresholds for gifts and hospitality and that that there should be clear guidance for declaring and councillors should be aware that they could be brought to task.
6.11 The Chairman invited Rosemary Hook, a local resident, to address the Committee. Rosemary Hook welcomed the debate on this issue but spoke of the impact and long lasting nature that planning decisions could have on residents, which she felt needed to be discussed. She felt that further steps should be taken and was not convinced the PAS review addressed all matters. She queried why the investigation on the individual member had stopped and emphasised the importance of listening to residents’ concerns.
6.12 In reply to the issues raised by Members, Tasnim Shawkat advised that self-referral did not limit the scope of the investigation and the terms of reference for the investigation had been discussed and agreed with the appointed QC. There had been changes in legislation which led to the removal of the words ‘bringing the Council into disrepute’ which would be a breach the Code of Conduct. A tougher approach could be considered and this would entail amending the Code of Conduct accordingly. However, in terms of sanctions that could be applied, these could not be changed. Tasnim Shawkat advised that there was no current law preventing the Cabinet Member responsible for planning from chairing planning committees. Members noted that the planning committees had an administrative function, as opposed to licensing sub-committees that were quasi-judicial. Tasnim Shawkat added that speaking rights at planning committees were being considered and there would be an update on this at the next meeting.
6.13 Tasnim Shawkat advised that the law recognised that councillors would discuss and meet with different groups in respect of planning applications and that hospitality would be received. The threshold for declaring varied between different councils and Westminster’s was relatively low at £25 compared to some which may be as high as £100, which meant that more declarations were made. In some instances, Members were over declaring and it was important to get the right balance. Also, there was no limit in law as to the number of hospitality and gifts a member could accept. It was important for members to judge their situation appropriately and exercise sound judgement as to how their behaviour might be perceived and training for Members did cover this aspect. Tasnim Shawkat stated that consideration could be given to putting mechanisms in place where members were not declaring when they should, although it was difficult to monitor councillors’ activities. However, it was important that members abided by the Code of Conduct. Tasnim Shawkat added that the PAS report and the member investigation had not identified any unlawful behaviour, however the acceptance of hospitality from planning applicants had been excessive and unnecessary and this had impacted in terms of reputation and perception of standards being upheld.
6.14 The Chairman emphasised the importance of Members displaying sound judgement when offered gifts or hospitality and providing appropriate training on this was important. She felt that Members should not remain in a particular position for too long and there should be discussions on this. The Chairman welcomed the Planning Protocol report, including speaking rights at Planning Committee, being considered at the next meeting and Members agreed to her suggestion that the Leader be invited to the next meeting in respect of this. A further report reviewing the new arrangements would then be brought to a future meeting. Future consideration could also be given as to whether the Code of Conduct could be made more robust.
1. That it be noted that the Westminster City Council – Members’ Code of Conduct requires Members to register any gifts and / or hospitality and that the registered gifts and hospitality are published along with the Members’ register of interests on the Council’s website.
2. That it be noted that additional guidance is provided on the Council’s website about registering interests and gifts and hospitality.
3. That it be noted that training is provided to Members on the Code of Conduct, which covers gifts and hospitality and emphasis is placed on perceptions of members of the public rather than just complying with the law and the letter of the Code.
4. That it be noted that Members necessarily need to pay particular attention to gifts and hospitality if there is a perception of conflict, for example, in the context of planning decisions.
5. That it be noted that the Chief Executive and the Monitoring Officer have been directed by the Cabinet to restate the guidance to Members involved in planning decisions and that a further updating report will be brought to this Committee.