Saturday 31 December 2016

Fraud & error risk in Brent Planning Application process found by auditors

An internal audit report into Brent Council's planning application process by PriceWaterhouseCooper (PcW) has given only a 'Limited Assurance' rating and identified  high and medium risks of error or fraud. The report LINK which was submitted in November 2016 will be discussed at the Audit Committee on Wednesday January 11th 7pm at Brent Civic Centre.

In the last year there have been major staff changes in the Planning Department. Both planning and regeneration come under the Strategic Director for Regeneration and Environment.  Recently the lead member for Regeneration, Growth, Employment and Skills, which also covers planning policy,  Cllr Roxanne Mashari, resigned from the Cabinet earlier this month to be replaced by Cllr Shama Tatler.

The summary states: (my emphasis highlighted in yellow)
A new management team has been in place since May 2016 and there was evidence of some improvement being made to the system of controls within the planning application assessment process. However, our review did identify significant weaknesses in the planning application review and assessment process due to issues in the design of automated and user access controls with the system used to process planning applications, Acolaid. Issues identified around the system audit trail, user access rights and system enforced controls in place mean that the system is highly susceptible to manipulation and abuse through inappropriate or fraudulent activity and action should be taken immediately by management to strengthen the controls embedded within the system. We have included on page 4 a summary process map identifying the key weaknesses within the overall control system. 

Based on the findings identified by this review we are only able to give Limited Assurance over how the risks covered by this review are being mitigated. Key findings

       The audit trail supporting the completion of key planning tasks is driven by the user selection from a drop down field that any user can amend rather than being automatically recorded based on the username within the system who has actually processed the task. The audit trail, including evidence of key approvals in the planning application process, may not accurately reflect who has actually performed the task and could be susceptible to manipulation to hide inappropriate activity. 

       The system does not enforce segregation of duties between key parts of the planning process such as the initial assessment of the application by a Planning Officer and the subsequent approval by a Planning Manager. 

       Roles and responsibilities are not fully aligned to access rights within the system. There are 9 levels of user access rights in the Acolaid system. Those responsible for granting/amending access rights were not able to define what access rights these user profiles permitted. 

       Acolaid system user access rights have not been regularly reviewed by management. There are 739 user IDs listed on the Acolaid system. 429 (58%) users had not used the system since 30/3/2016 at the time of audit (01/08/2016) consisting of staff that have left the Council or who no longer require access to Acolaid. There is no effective mechanism in place to identify users who have left the Council or no longer require access to the system and withdraw access rights accordingly. 

       There is no evidence an anti-bribery risk assessment has been completed for the Planning Department and anti-bribery awareness training has not been provided to planning staff. The Council may not be able to demonstrate that it has taken steps to prevent bribery resulting in non-compliance with the Bribery Act 2010 which could result in reputational damage and prosecution under this legislation. 

       The Council officers a pre-application advice service in relation to prospective planning applicants. Advice issued should be subject to review in advance of being issued. 7/101 (7%) of pre-applications had been processed and reviewed by the same person. 

Given the  multi-million value of planning applications in Brent and the fact that for several years now, as pointed out on this blog, major decisions are delegated to the head of planning, this is an area of obvious concern.   As with any Audit Report an action plan has been devised for each area of concern but councillors will need  to step up their scrutiny of the internal working of their own department to ensure it is fit for purpose.

An immediate question that springs to mind is whether, historically, any fraud may have taken place or major errors made?  Are any investigations planned into past planning application decisions in the light of this report? 

The report states:

Planning Officers are bound by the Royal Town Planning Institute's Code of Conduct, which includes competence, honesty and integrity as key principles. However, this does not include any specific requirements regarding anti- bribery. We reviewed the Council's Anti-Fraud and Bribery Policy and found:
   The Council has committed to maintain adequate and proportionate procedures to prevent bribery, undertake anti-bribery risk assessments and make all employees aware of their responsibilities to adhere strictly to this policy at all times; 

   An anti-bribery risk assessment for the planning applications process and anti-bribery awareness training has not been provided to staff; 

   A planning code of conduct is in place for members, however this does not include provisions relating to officers. We note that the code of conduct is currently being redrafted to include officers; and 
Planning Officers are required to flag any potential conflicts of interest in processing planning applications on an ad-hoc basis, but there is no requirement to make formal written declarations and a register of interests is not maintained.

These are the risk assessment findings:
HIGH RISK Approval of planning applications: System-audit trail and workflow
The Acolaid system does not accurately record the allocation and completion of work and the audit trail is susceptible to manipulation. In addition the system does not enforce segregation of duties for key parts of the process and system access rights do not reflect roles and responsibilities. As a result planning applications may be approved without the prerequisite review and approval in line with roles and responsibilities in place. This could result in planning applications being approved inappropriately due to fraud or error.

HIGH RISK Acolaid System use access

System access rights do not reflect current roles and responsibilities. Individuals who do not require access to the system or have left the Council have access to the system and are able to make inappropriate changes to records and standing data due to fraud or error. 

MEDIUM RISK Anti-bribery arrangements

The Council is not able to demonstrate that it has taken steps to prevent bribery resulting in non-compliance with the Bribery Act 2010 which could result in reputational damage and prosecution. Inappropriate decisions are made regarding proposed planning applications due to bribery and undue influence.

MEDIUM RISK Pre-application advice

Insufficient segregation of duties and independent review of pre-application advice may result in poor quality advice not being identified and resolved or inappropriate advice being issued based on the scope of services that can be provided at the pre-application stage.

MEDIUM RISK Management Information Control design

There is insufficient performance information available to management to facilitate effective oversight of operational performance. Operational issues are not identified and resolved in a timely manner.


Wembley Residents said...

Be interesting to see if Asda is included in this report.
Our ongoing battle over noise pollution from the Asda home delivery and click and collect areas could have been avoided had planning permission been rejected following our concerns and objections.

Martin Francis said...

Particular decisions are not itemised in the report but I presume that the raw evidence would show instances where there was not a proper segregation of duties. The report does give these as percentages from theirsampling: We reviewed a sample of 40 Planning Applications received in the period 01/01/2016 to 31/07/2016 to assess whether planning tasks and approvals had occurred in line with defined roles and responsibilities:
• 2/40 (5%) cases where the name of the person who input the application onto the system was not completed;
• 1/40 (3%) case where a Planning Manager had input the application onto the system rather than Customer Services. There was no clear reason why this occurred;
• 1/40 (3%) case where an application had been input, vetted and processed by the same individual. It should be noted that in this instance there was approval by a Planning Manager before it was finalised;
• 15/40 (38%) cases where the Planning Officer processing the application had allocated the work to themselves. It should be noted that these predated the changes made in May 2016 where cases can only be allocated by a Planning Manager in the system;
• 3/40 (8%) cases where work had been reallocated to another Planning Officer, however there was no audit trail to identify who has reallocated the work; and
• 2/40 (5%) cases where the Manager reviewing the application had also completed the application assessment and there was no segregation of duties.

Alison Hopkins said...

I sold software to the public sector for many years. Acolaid was pretty poor back then with major failings of functionality. Seems little has changed. It's also clunky as heck for public access and doesn't allow proper alert set ups.

As to the rest, my huge worry is about undue influence by elected members, especially Butt.

Concerned resident of Wembley said...

Sadly, yet again there is going to be a clash of meetings for the residents of Wembley who would like to attend both the meeting discussing this report and the Brent Connects meeting which is being held at the same time at a different venue. Sadly this has not been the first time this has happened. We hope that this has not been done on purpose.

Anonymous said...

PriceWaterhouseCooper (PcW) appears to confirm the long held suspicions of Brent residents. 2017 is destined to be a very interesting year. A truthful audit trail would make wonderful reading, if only one was available. Judgement day is coming and I can't wait. A shame so much damage has already taken place.

Philip Grant said...

I was particularly interested in the PwC comment that: 'Planning Officers are required to flag any potential conflicts of interest in processing planning applications on an ad-hoc basis, ...' as this was something which has cropped up as a problem several times in recent years where the Council itself, either directly or indirectly, is making the planning application.

The redevelopment of Willesden Green Library saw Brent as the "development partner" of Galliford Try, but the Council tried to claim that it was not a party to the planning application. I successfully challenged this (as far as ensuring that the Conservation Area Consent had to be given by the Secretary of State, not the Council's own Planning Committee), but the register recording potential conflicts of interest was not available to Planning Committee or the public (although it should have been) at the meeting when the plans were approved in March 2013.

I had argued that a potential conflict of interest should be disclosed to Planning Committee, in considering the application, as Brent's Regeneration Director (then Andy Donald) was the direct line manager of the Planning Officer who was recommending the application for approval. Brent's Legal Director claimed that this was not the case, as there were "Chinese Walls" in place. As the regeneration officers promoting the redevelopment scheme worked side-by-side with the planning officers in Brent House at that time, my response was that those walls must be made of rice paper!

The Willesden Green Library redevelopment had a high risk for inappropriate or fraudulent actions, because of the large profits the development company could make from the deal. In return for building Brent a new Willesden Green Library on part of its existing site, Brent gave Galliford Try 72% of that site. It then gave planning permission to build 95 flats on the land it had given away, and accepted that none of those flats should be affordable (on the basis of the developer's viability assessment). We never did find out at what stage Brent / Andy Donald knew that its British "development partner" was going to sell all of the private flats "off plan" to a property investor in the Far East.

Other instances of questionable "Brent" planning applications going before the Council's Planning Committee have been the "change of use" of the former Barham Park Library from "community" to "business" use (where Planning Committee actually rejected the application by 6 votes to 1, but the Barham Park Trustees, five members of Brent's then Executive, overturned that on appeal), and the more recent application to expand Byron Court School.

Yes, there have definitely been suspicions of "foul play", and I hope that things are tightened up, and the tighter rules are actually enforced in practice, so that we can have more trust in Brent Council.


Anonymous said...

You miss the big one. Why did two planning meetings on Wembley / Quintain Lonestar development get forced through in the week before the Labour group election for leader. Why did the planning chair not feel able to chair both meetings. Now that is a mystery.

Anonymous said...

If there are doubts as to the legality of Planning decisions will there be any chance that a decision can be overturned? The expansion of Byron Court Primary School has not should have begun at the end of October!!! Can we hope that it may not happen or is this wishful thinking on the part of residents and the parents of the pupils?

Martin Francis said...

This is how I covered it at the time:

Martin Francis said...

Sarah Marquis also absented herself from the first two Wembley developments discussed at the last Planning Committee meeting.