How Government and Lobbyists Work to Change the Planning Process

07/08/2014 13:11 BST | Updated 07/10/2014 10:59 BST

Recently, a team from the BUAV presented a petition of over 99,000 signatures to the Department of Communities and Local Government requesting that Eric Pickles - Secretary of State for the Department - reject an appeal to build a beagle breeding facility in Yorkshire.

On the face of it, the application by B&K Universal Ltd (owned by the US firm Marshall Biosecurities), to expand their facilities in the East Riding is a simple planning matter. B&K provide dogs for laboratory experiments. They would like to expand so they can breed the dogs and also ferrets and other animals. The facility is opposed by local residents, on grounds of congestion and the nuisance of having a controversial site attracting demonstrations. The local council rejected the application and the decision was upheld on appeal. B&K returned with a fresh application. The council rejected that as well. The decision has been appealed to the Planning Inspectorate. Eric Pickles, has decided to "recover" the appeal and decide it himself, because the proposal is controversial.

So far, so straightforward. However, a Freedom of Information request by the BUAV has uncovered a complex web of collaboration between the company, its American owners and two other Government ministries to influence the process.

• On April 2 2013, B&K approached UKTI for advice. UKTI is primarily an export department of the Foreign Office (though they also advise foreign companies), so the approach by a British-based B&K may have come as a surprise. B&K wanted their advice on whether they could avoid scrutiny by local elected councillors by having the issue decided by unelected officials. "I believe that 'delegated powers' can be used ...without referring the application to a full planning committee,", wrote B&K hopefully.

• On April 8, UKTI advised that the elected councillors would be likely to want to make the decision. However, they added "We could explore such scenarios at any pre-application meeting", though they noted the danger of "giving the impression that we are trying to interfere."

• On May 21, B&K said they had arranged a private meeting with council officials and urged UKTI to be present. On May 31, they further requested that UKTI come to meet them in advance before lobbying the officials. UKTI agreed.

• On June 3, B&K opened another front, thanking the Department of Business, Information and Skills (BIS) for "encouragement and support".

• On June 14, BIS offered information to the pro-animal research group, Understanding Animal Research, in support of expanding the supply of dogs for experiments, to use in a presentation to help B&K.

• On 1 August, B&K informed that the pre-planning application had been made, adding "we should remain under the radar until September". The application continued in secret until it was revealed soon before the planning committee was to meet. The committee rejected the application on November 13.

• Now the industry lobbyists, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, joined the fray on November 20, inviting BIS and Marshalls to a meeting. An immediate reply from BIS said they were disappointed in the local council's decision and were discussing how BIS could "support Marshalls in developing and progressing your next steps". They offered to discuss "what we are currently doing to manage the risk from animal rights activity". The Conservative-led council whose decision is being appealed is not thought to be made up of animal rights activists, so the reference is obscure.

• Marshalls replied on December 3 with a new idea. "In some regions of the world, "agriculture is designated as a nationally important activity and is protected from local interference as long as it occurs in an 'agriculture zone'. Is it possible to designate lab animal production in a similar way?"

• On December 4, BIS replied. Without commenting on the idea of evading local planning control by defining the breeding of dogs for tests as "agriculture", BIS said "We very much agree with the general tone of what you are suggesting" and "We are again checking that we have not overlooked any potential option for the Government to support this planning process.

• On December 5, Marshalls told BIS that they "appreciate your and UKTI's support" and "value the continued assistance" by UAR and ABPI.

• Meanwhile, B&K asked UKTI to help find an expert planning adviser; UKTI obliged by putting forward a name.

• Finally, on June 12, B&K revealed that they were pressing for the appeal to be heard without a public inquiry (despite originally arguing the opposite). B&K had learned that this had not yet been agreed, but were assured by the appeals case officer that "as soon as the decision [on the public inquiry] is taken, the appeal will be started and recalled [i.e. referred to Mr Pickles]".

The question of whether more beagles should be bred for laboratories is controversial and raises serious issues around efficacy, ethics and public appetite for research on dogs which must be properly addressed. Whether they should be bred in this Yorkshire village is and remains an archetypal planning issue. However, the record shows a consistent pattern of the company seeking to have the application taken through with minimal publicity and if possible without local control - apparently all with the enthusiastic assistance of BIS and a Foreign Office agency.

It is understandable that a commercial company will seek to harness the power of Government departments to its efforts. But should BIS and the Foreign Office be seeking to assist their effort to decide the planning application, especially when a Government minister will decide the appeal?

The case shows the firepower of industry - in this case American - in assembling establishment support and the blurred boundaries between government, companies and industry bodies such as the lobby group UAR and the industry group ABPI, neither of which have any official government role. It highlights, again, the abject lack of transparency that shrouds the animal research industry, despite recent assurances of increased openness, and echoed in this case by the Planning Inspectorate's provisional decision that the appeal be decided through written submissions rather than the open public inquiry the complex issues it raises require if it is to be properly dealt with.

The losers in the short term are local democracy and the independence of the planning process. In the long run, the losers are, of course, the dogs, born to die in laboratories without once having the freedom to run outside. 2014-08-07-BUAV_copyright_beagle_mum_pups_taken_away_for_testing_inside_UK_lab.jpg