For the last 5 years I have been one of a group of residents fighting development on a lovely greenfield site in Finchley which now belongs to property developers, Higgins Homes plc. On the 7 March 2011 I wrote a guest blog for the Barnet Eye about the plans to outsource the planning department. At the time I did not know how prescient my concerns would be. You can read it here:
At the moment Barnet Council is in the middle of tendering to outsource a number of services, one of which is the planning service. In the running are a number of companies: Capita Symonds, Atkins, Jacobs and E C Harrison. The planning consultants who represent Higgins Homes plc, and have done through 2 planning applications, 2 planning appeals, a village green application and the draft LDF, work for Capita Symonds. If Capita win the tender, they will decide any future planning applications.Martin Cowie, Head of Planning at Barnet Council, kindly spent a long time discussing this with me. I totally accept that conflicts of interest like this one are a big concern to him and Barnet will try to put in place contractual obligations to ensure they are dealt with when they arise. He is not yet sure how. The tender is being considered through a process called competitive dialogue. This means that Barnet Council put certain questions to the companies, for example how they will deal with conflicts of interest, and the companies, as part of their bid, explain what they think is necessary to cover this issue. This will be evaluated and weighted as part of the assessment of the bid, although there can be further discussion and negotiation about exactly what the contract will include.
This feels the wrong way round to me. In my view Barnet Council should be setting out the red lines here, the absolute dealbreakers; asking commercial companies how far they will go to restrict their profits in other areas in order to win this contract does not feel right. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas.
I know it is not as simple as that. I know that what the bidders come back with will be the starting point for the negotiation. Even so, this feels like an area where Barnet should be setting the agenda. Barnet are not naive about this. They know this is a massive obstacle to outsourcing the planning department. They know that the big companies that are bidding for this contract have their fingers in lots of pies.
In the case of the land behind my house, it is a cut and dried case of a conflict of interest. Capita Symonds represent Higgins Homes in planning matters in the borough.
Will it be enough to reassure me, if they agree not to represent Higgins on any developments in the borough if they get the contract? No. That is the bare minimum they could do.
Will it be enough to reassure me if they agree not to represent Higgins Homes anywhere in the country if they get the contract? Probably not, to be honest. There are people working for them who have spent years thinking about this land, working out how to develop it. Even without a financial interest there will be an emotional attachment to the work they have done. If you take pride in your work you cannot believe that the arguments you have been putting forward all this time are wholly wrong. I don’t think it is possible to be completely impartial in that situation.
And I am not sure how companies can handle conflicts which arise suddenly. If a property developer buys a piece of land in Barnet is that the point at which the potential conflict arises, or is it when the planning application is submitted? If the successful bidder is halfway through representing the developer on another piece of land, will they suddenly dump them? Even halfway through a planning inquiry?
What about other connections? The ones which are harder to discover, for example, if one of the companies bidding did not have a contract as a planning consultant, but were providing other services, like HR? How will residents know about the financial link? Will it be subject to an FOI request or considered a confidential commercial matter?
At the moment I cannot imagine a situation where I would completely trust any planning decision or advice given by a planning department run by Capita Symonds on the land behind my home. The alternative is to outsource the decision to a neighbouring borough. But that means that I may lose that important democratic link to my councillors, who have been really helpful in advising us in the past and who know about my neighbourhood and the history of this little bit of land.
I will say this. Martin Cowie has gone above and beyond his job description in trying to reassure me. It is difficult for him, because the tendering process must be kept wholly confidential, so he is limited in what he can say. He is a thoughtful and honest man and I know that these issues concern him as much as they concern me. I am sure he will do his best. But I am still left feeling unhappy about the situation, and I do want to say this. If anyone thinks that outsourcing is going to improve the service to the residents they have lost the plot. When was the last time a director of a private company spent an hour and a half on the phone on a Saturday evening discussing a potential problem with you, one that has not actually happened yet? Never? Thought so. That is the public service ethos that Barnet risk losing with outsourcing the department. At the moment residents in the borough are the Council’s customers. In the future the Council will be the customer and we will be the commodity. I fear we will be reduced to an invoice of letters written, phone calls made, and complaints resolved (or not).
When I wrote the blog in March I thought that conflicts of interest might well be a problem for some people somewhere in the borough. I had no idea that it might affect me so directly and trust me, this is not a comfortable position to be in.
Dr Julia Hines is a Barnet resident and a regular reader of the Barnet Eye. Guest blogs are always welcome.
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