In 1998, the good (misguided? Ed) people of Freshwater elected me to represent them. On arrival at County Hall, I was quickly sworn in and councillor colleagues proposed me as vice-chairman of planning. I knew absolutely nothing about planning but accepted the poisoned chalice.
Nothing attracts more hysteria than property development; most other council meetings are dull. Whichever committee you serve on, in opposition, you lack the ability to do anything – other than be a nuisance to the other side. Unusually, I worked full-time, so sitting in the council chamber listening to repetitious pontificating until the next election was tedious. Planning meetings were far more interesting, particularly if the gallery was full of an angry mob. In planning, everyone imagines you have great power over the decisions made, while in reality, we just did what the officers asked us to do.
Occasionally shadowy figures did approach me offering huge bribes in the expectation, I could pass their particular scheme or development. Once those wads of £50s were safely in my grubby paw, even the most preposterous development proposal got approval ‘on the nod.’ OK, it’s a bit late for an April fools; the last bit isn’t true, I swear. No-one ever offered me anything to get their planning permission through. There were no bribes – there was little point; we had no power.
Two years after I quit the council, I bought a development site on the Island, a journalist called me asking about it. “Is it true this application was made while you were still on the planning committee?” he demanded suspiciously. I told him yes, indeed it was, my committee had even undertaken a site visit to and met an angry crowd of NIMBYs. Clearly one of the objectors now believed my involvement very fishy, but I had voted against the proposal, we rejected the plan, and it was approved on appeal. I’d have been exceptionally dumb to refuse my own planning application, wouldn’t I?
Corruption in politics is often suspected or alleged, yet rarely proven. Politicians make easy targets and don’t always help themselves. Once out of office, MPs and even former council leaders often became ‘consultants’, that can look like selling influence rather than expertise to voters? The ‘work’ done is legal, and the fees are properly invoiced, but electors can be forgiven for thinking it’s shifty.
It’s alleged David Cameron stood to gain millions from his private message lobbying for Greenshill. But he’s not the only one; George Osborne works for a Russian oligarch; the Health Secretary has awkward questions to answer too. Predictably, Labour’s Kier Starmer says it’s the return of ‘Tory sleaze’, but he’s reliant on (Lord) Peter Mandelson for strategic advice, who’s a consultant to various overseas banking giants and some of Europe’s largest corporations. In the past decade, four Labour MPs have been jailed for false accounting and fraud.
Liberals tend to behave badly in other ways. In early March, Tory MP for Chesham and Amersham, Cheryl Gillan, was fading fast; her terminal illness would inevitably cause a by-election. Rather than wait until she actually died, Lib-Dem leader Sir Ed Davey stole a march on the opposition and toured her soon-to-be-vacant seat. Davey and his team were out, bumping elbows with local people and calling on various Covid-hit shopkeepers. Just eight days later, Dame Cheryl Gillan MP died. Couldn’t they have waited a few days before launching their campaign?