Dirty tricks used for property bids
Exclusive by Andrew Gilligan, Evening Standard
30 July 2007
Dirty tricks used to win planning permission for some of London's most controversial developments can be revealed today.
The lobbying company PPS is accused of using forgery, impersonation and even bugging to manipulate the planning process.
It is employed by most of Britain's leading housebuilders, including a division of Berkeley Homes, and many big retailers such as Sainsbury's. PPS has compiled secret dossiers on councillors which contain highly personal information and information obtained under false pretences.
It has allegedly obtained clandestine taperecordings and verbatim transcripts of councillors' discussions in private meetings. PPS is suspected of infiltrating local residents' groups which fight developers.
Damning internal company documents leaked to the Standard and Channel 4's Dispatches programme show PPS discussing whether it could 'bribe' or 'bully' a London borough council.
The documents boast that PPS has ' created a large number' of 'positive letters' to councillors, purportedly from residents, to give the impression that there is widespread local support for a variety of unpopular projects including 'power stations, quarries and supermarkets'.
PPS's clients include Barratt Wimpey, Taylor Woodrow, Hanson Quarries, B&Q, and Ikea. It is not clear how far, if at all, these companies have benefited from dirty tricks. But among the developments where underhand methods have been used is Imperial Wharf, in Sands End, Fulham, now under construction by the developer St George, a subsidiary of Berkeley Homes.
The riverside scheme involves 1,600 flats and houses. Tory MP and former Fulham councillor Greg Hands said: 'There was very widespread opposition and I have never met anyone who is enthusiastic about it.' But after St George's planning application was received, councillors on the planning committee, including Mr Hands, got dozens of letters, apparently from local residents, praising Imperial Wharf and asking for it to be approved. The positive letters played a part in persuading councillors to override local objections.
Most of the purported writers of the positive letters could not be traced. Two told us they opposed the development and had not written the letters. One said his signature had been forged, the other that his signature had been transposed from another document. A third said he supported the development, but his letter and signature had been forged.
Councillors opposed to Imperial Wharf also received visits from people describing themselves as 'PhD students' who probed their views about the development, supposedly for a thesis they were writing. Documents seen by the Standard suggest that this, too, was a deception.
Mr Hands said: 'If this did have an influence on the decision, I would be appalled.' Former PPS employees have said that PPS also benefited from bugging.
The Evening Standard has been leaked - from within PPS - a 20-page transcript of a meeting at which councillors discussed tactics in relation to Imperial Wharf. The meeting was private and PPS and the developer had been refused permission to attend. Brendan Bird, one of the councillors present, said: 'I think we were being bugged.'
There is no suggestion that St George knew about the tactics being used on its behalf. St George said it would never condone forgery. PPS said it could not provide definitive answers to our questions about its involvement in Imperial Wharf because the project dated back almost 10 years and files had been destroyed.
However, it denied forging letters or misusing signatures and said it had no knowledge of any impersonation or bugging.