COUNCIL chiefs have been criticised for the way a private company can both draw up and approve planning applications.

Regional Enterprise (Re) not only has the final say on building plans submitted to Barnet Council, but is also responsible for designing them.

The firm’s architects sit just yards away from colleagues who rubber-stamp the decisions.

This means Re acts as the “jury, judge and executioner”.

The director of a planning firm, who refused to be named, said fears private companies trying to make it in an already flooded market will be unable to compete.

He added: “The reality of it is people are going to think the best place to go to get their application done is the person who is deciding it.

“They are the judge, the jury and executioner and it creates a big conflict of interest, and this is on the verge of council corruption.

“It’s a good idea in principle but it should be done from a different office in a different building. It gives Re an unfair advantage.”

Re was created when the authority outsourced its services to Capita in 2013, and is responsible for overseeing operations such as building control and environmental health.

Capita owns 51 per cent of Re, with the authority owning the other 49 per cent.

It can approve planning applications which have up to five objections, in which case elected councillors will be given the final say.

Leader of the opposition Cllr Barry Rawlings believes the current structure needs to be reconsidered in order to keep the council’s reputation intact.

“It’s a difficult one to police, because human nature being what it is it’s natural they all know each other,” the Labour councillor said.

“I don’t think it’s worth the potential threats of court action. It feels wrong to me. Councils have the duty to protect their own integrity.

“It worries me tremendously. While I can’t say I’ve got proof of anything being done at risk, all it can do is damage the council’s reputation.”

Derek Dishman, who runs a blog on Barnet’s spending, believes the answer is to send more applications to be decided at committee level.

He said: “This is especially at a time when we are ruining the borough by building everywhere – it soon won’t be a green and pleasant land.

“I don’t think it should be done by anyone other than a direct employee of the council. The fact that we gave Capita 51 per cent of this company is bonkers.

“It’s wrong, it doesn’t create 100 per cent impartiality. It creates a potential for conflict.

“The ethos is not the same. Re is part of Capita so there to make money, but in theory, councils are not profit making.”

Cath Shaw, commissioning director of growth and development, said: “Barnet Council and Re strongly refute any allegations of inappropriate activity.

"Major planning applications are determined by a planning committee made up of elected councillors. More minor applications can be determined by officers of the local planning authority.

“Re’s planning design and advisory service is run separately from the council’s statutory planning decision making process and by a different team of staff employed by Re.

“Barnet Council and Re employees who make planning decisions on behalf of the council will never be involved in making judgements on applications where they have provided design or planning consultancy services."