Planners fast-tracked Labour donor's business park scheme

Industrial development passed for planning one month after David Abrahams gave Labour almost £100,000
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Indy Politics

David Abrahams was put on a fast-track planning scheme for his multimillion-pound industrial park only a month after he used three "proxies" to hand the Labour Party donations totalling almost £100,000.

The controversial Labour donor gave over £99,000 to Labour just before Christmas 2005, exactly a month before his multimillion-pound Durham Green proposal was one of only 21 projects nationwide included in a pilot scheme designed to "improve and speed up the planning process for large and complex developments".

Two of the third-party donors used to channel the cash into Labour coffers were his fellow directors on Durham Green Developments, the company behind the enormous planning application. The schemes benefiting from Planning Delivery Agreements (PDAs) were announced by Yvette Cooper, who is married to Gordon Brown's close confidant, the Secretary of State for Children, Ed Balls. At the time, Ms Cooper was housing and planning minister in John Prescott's Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Her announcement, promising that PDAs would help the developers involved to know "what the timetable is and where they stand", came on 24 January 2006. The subsequent decision to allow Mr Abrahams's plans for a 540-acre business park south of Durham later in the year, after the Highways Agency lifted a restriction on the site, has been under scrutiny since his donations to Labour were revealed.

Durham Police last week opened talks with the Audit Commission, the spending watchdog, over the circumstances under which the scheme was granted planning permission, after a lengthy meeting with Liberal Democrat leadership contender Chris Huhne.

However, it has now emerged that Mr Abrahams was accorded "preferential" planning treatment through the PDA pilot, months before the application was finally approved and exactly a month after he gave a total of £99,975 to the party through proxy donors.

Official records reveal that £52,125 was donated in the name of Mr Abrahams's solicitor, John McCarthy, on 23 December 2005. The following day, the Labour Party received £30,000 from Mr Abrahams's secretary, Janet Kidd, and £17,850 from builder Ray Ruddick. Mrs Kidd and Mr Ruddick are, along with Mr Abrahams, directors of Durham Green Developments Limited, the firm behind the business park proposal.

Labour is holding an internal inquiry into how Mr Abrahams was able to give more than £600,000 to the party through proxy donors. But party bosses have resisted calls for the inquiry to be extended.

Conservative local government spokesman Eric Pickles last week demanded a full explanation into why the scheme was allowed to go ahead after Highways Agency objections over its effect on traffic were "suddenly and unexpectedly withdrawn".

Hazel Blears, the Secretary of State for Communities, said ministers in her department "played no part" in deciding the case. She said the then Transport Secretary, Douglas Alexander, "had no involvement in any part of the process".

But Mr Huhne, who sparked the Durham Police investigation after a meeting the force's head of CID, Detective Chief Superintendent Ian Scott, said the new revelations relating to events earlier in the planning process strengthened the case for a wider inquiry.

"I am very disturbed at this latest disclosure," he said. "While there is no evidence of a connection between the donations and the fast-track planning process, it is crucial that the police investigate. If you don't know who donors are, you cannot see whether they benefited from any favours."

A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said the 21 PDA pilot schemes were chosen on "planning merit", and that the identities of the developers played no part in the process.

A spokesman for Mr Abrahams denied any relationship between the donations and the "preferential" treatment afforded to his application. He said: "Civil servants would have been in the lead in this process, giving advice to ministers. It was not a case of ministers running their fingers down a list of possible candidate and deciding which ones should be included. In no way would any minister have been connecting all this. They would not even have known about the donations, and that is the right way to conduct this process."