In my very first job as a town planner I unwittingly stepped into the Poulson scandal, the tendrils of which reached from the little County Durham town of Chester-le-street to the highest levels of British politics. I remember trying to find a case file for a site in the town, finding the file sling empty and innocently asking my boss where it might be. Intense embarrassment. It was with the ‘Poulson Squad’ of coppers who were still working from an office in County Hall tying up loose ends. I then got a job in Merseyside and came out of Lime Street station blinking in the sunlight. ‘Kirkby Ski Slope Latest’ blared the headline on the Echos being sold on the corner. ‘Are you from Middlesbrough?’asked the paper-seller, as scouse as you get and picking up on my accent. ‘When I was in Borstal all the lads were from the Boro. Great lads!’
It’s a cliché in pubs throughout the land that all local government councillors and officers are on the take. I mean, films/TV series such as Get Carter, The Long Good Friday & Our Friends in the North can’t all be wrong. You typically have the bent local politician who isn’t very bright and likes a few ales (Poulson found Labour councillors a lot easier to corrupt than Tories) who is on the payroll of the property developer with his Arthur Daly sheepskin coat, big cigar and big Jag. Nothing epitomized this cliche as much as the Kirkby Ski Slope and Poulson scandals from the 60s and 70s. The trouble is – for the criminal, novelist and film-maker – these scandals were the catalyst for a major tightening up in the way that Council contracts and the planning process were handled.
For the Ski Slope, the job was sorted out between the leader of the Council, the Chief Architect and a local builder over a meal and drinks in a pub. When I was project managing construction contracts in the 80s I never even met the builder. The contract was subject to competitive tenders with sealed bids and handled by a Quantity Surveyor and a solicitor and had to be approved by the relevant committee of councillors. The Treasurer’s Department had an audit section that checked that nothing untoward was happening. All was overlooked by a Scrutiny Committee of councillors. Job done, you might say. Well not quite. Sometimes existing contracts can be extended without competitive tender and some jobs are so specialised, eg an IT service, that they can only be done by one contractor. The Council keeps a ‘select list’ of reliable companies with a track record who can tender for contracts. The last thing you want is a ‘lowest bidder’ who does a shoddy job or goes bankrupt halfway through. That said, the possibilities for graft are now severely limited.
It is interesting that both scandals were uncovered by the press, for the Ski Slope by a local free press and for the Poulson scandal by Paul Foot, an investigative journalist working for Private Eye. The Kirkby builder gave the councillor and officer free cars and built free house extensions for them. It is said that the gang of builders used to meet after work for a noisy session in a local pub. A local pub which was a regular watering hole for a reporter from the Kirkby Free Press…The Ski Slope itself was built hastily (to meet the local government reorganisation deadline and avoid surplus cash being shared with adjoining authorities), too close to the M57 motorway on land the Council didn’t own, without planning permission and with substandard fill – the builder advertised ‘a free tip’ in the Liverpool Echo and, before long, cracks started to appear. All three men went to jail. There was a rumour going around that the investigation didn’t net all the culprits within the Council and that a ‘secret file’ was kept in a safe place just in case it might ever be needed.
Here’s a hilarious TV report from 1975
Private Eye still has a Rotten Boroughs page and even a special slot for Merseyside – Murkeyside. Though now the local government scandals uncovered by ‘The Eye’ tend to be of two types: The Chief Executive Caper and the Planning Scam. If you are a clever chancer/social riser with the gift of the gab you don’t just get a Chief Executive job, meekly serve your masters and retire in relative luxury. What you do is make a nuisance of yourself – but not quite enough to get sacked. The councillors, wanting to avoid a scandal and get chucked out at the next election, agree to get rid of you with a fantastic compensation package. You load this into your wheelbarrow (I knew one example who actually talked and acted like a ‘barrow boy’ selling fruit in the market) and wheel it off into the sunset. Some characters make a career out of it, going from Council to Council and becoming fabulously wealthy. Check Rotten Boroughs in the current issue of the Eye. There’ll probably be a case covered.
And so to planning. This is where the real money is. A field on which carrots are grown is worth maybe a couple of thousands. Give it planning permission for, say, housing or retail, and it could be worth millions. I read a thriller recently set in North Wales in which a villain blackmails a local councillor into giving him planning permission for his latest project. Err, no. It doesn’t work like that. For all but the most minor developments the paid planning officer must prepare a report which sets out how the proposal fits in with local and national guidance and policy. The report is approved or knocked back by a committee of elected councillors. If word get backs to Whitehall that something is wrong then it can be called in for determination by the Secretary of State. So it is almost impossible for one person to influence the giving of a planning consent. You would need a conspiracy involving a number of people. And then you get anonymous whistle-blowers…and Private Eye. Life is hard if you’re a plain, honest criminal these days.
Back in 1990 Derek Hatton was brought to trial in Liverpool on charges of fraud and corruption but was cleared. Commentators referred to the Poulson affair but for what it is worth, and having read through the evidence, for me the two don’t compare. And I quite liked Degsy. Not long before this, allegations of planning malpractice against Knowsley officers and councillors were splashed on the front page of the Echo – in response, it is rumoured to a mole within the Council blowing the whistle. I have a good idea who the mole was but no charges were brought and I’m saying nothing.
So, finally to Poulson. John Poulson was an architectural designer – he never qualified as an architect – who in the post war years revolutionised the accepted architectural method of completing a design then handing it over for costing, planning and building. He developed an all-in-one service that employed all the separate disciplines in integrated teams. The business boomed and by the 60s was one of the largest in Europe. One of the secrets of his success was a close relationship with local politicians. Many were appointed as consultants to the Poulson organisation – the prime example being T Dan Smith the Newcastle Council leader.
Nowadays councillors have to ‘declare interests’. One would think that actually being on the payroll of an outside organisation would qualify.
Another useful contact was Andy Cunningham, a senior figure in the General and Municipal Workers Union and the North East Labour Party – he was even chair of the Durham Police Authority.
Blocks of council flats, railway stations, libraries, swimming pools, the Aviemore Sports Complex, shopping developments across the land were all built by Poulson. And not just in this country. Nigeria, the Gambia, Libya – the range and scale of Poulson contracts was breathtaking. Commonwealth Secretary Reginald Maudling even helped Poulson win a contract for a new hospital in Malta.
The bubble burst when Poulson went bankrupt, mainly because of being sued by the Inland Revenue for unpaid taxes. Which attracted the interest of investigative journalists and the police. Poulson, T Dan Smith, George Pottinger (a civil servant) and Andy Cunningham all went to jail.
You couldn’t make it up.
But what is this? Just read the latest Rotten Boroughs in Private Eye and there’s a piece about a Liverpool businessman and several Council officers being arrested by police investigating allegations of fraud. I recognise those names and I used to work with some of them. Don’t forget that under English law you are innocent until proven guilty, but it’s a funny old world, isn’t it?