Who funds the anti-planning think-tanks?

In recent letters to the charity magazine Third Sector and the Observer I have been critical of how some think-tanks report their funding. I asked who funds them and whose interests they sustain.

This is an important question for CPRE because for the last ten years three think-tanks, Policy Exchange, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) and the Adam Smith Institute have waged a campaign to weaken the planning system and, in particular, Green Belt protection. There have been umpteen pamphlets, newspaper articles, seminars, and private lunches and dinners, often with ministers.

The campaign has been all too successful and we are living with the results. But we do not know who pays for it. All three organisations are secretive about their funding. The website whofundsyou.org rates think-tanks from A to E according to the transparency of their reporting. Policy Exchange (see p. 11) and the IEA are rated D, the Adam Smith Institute is rated E.

My assumption is that the campaign is funded by individuals and businesses who stand to make serious money out of a weakened planning system, and who gain credibility by hiding behind supposedly disinterested think-tanks. In my Observer letter I wrote: “I would not believe a word these think-tanks say until they say who is paying them to say it.”

CPRE has, of course, fought back – see, for instance, Policy-based Evidence Making: the Policy Exchange’s war against planning from 2006 or last year’s Green Belt myth-buster. And we also have generous funders (see below).

But there is a big difference between funding a conservation organisations like CPRE and giving money to the think-tanks I was criticising. If you were to give £10,000 to CPRE… Well, please do. You would be one of our biggest ever donors and your donation would make a great difference to our work. But it would not, I am afraid, be of direct benefit to you. We could not promise to save the bit of countryside you most care about, and we would probably not enrich your business.

If, however, you were in the development business, securing planning liberalisation could be as helpful to you as any amount of money spent on lobbyists or even political parties. It might be helpful in a general way: as planning has been weakened, the shares and executive pay of house builders have risen (much faster than their output of new homes). Or it might be more directly helpful. For instance, the Adam Smith Institute has recently pressed for the release of Green Belt land around railway stations. I have no idea who funded this work, but if the proposal succeeds it will make an awful lot of money for anyone with options on Green Belt land around stations.

I do not doubt the sincerity of those who work for these think tanks. They do not pump out anti-planning, anti-conservation propaganda because some anonymous funder tells them to; they actually believe it. Some of their ideas may be bonkers (see Alan Bennett’s enjoyable rant about the Adam Smith Institute for the Criminally Insane) but others are worth thinking about. But it is legitimate to ask who stands to gain from their work, and who is funding it. And this is an issue that goes well beyond CPRE’s interests. Anyone who doubts what unaccountable big money can do to corrupt politics should consider what is happening in the USA – see for instance this on the influence of the Koch brothers.

So who funds CPRE’s work? CPRE’s annual review and trustees’ annual report are both available on its website, and the trustees’ annual report is also available on the Charity Commission website.

The accounts show that CPRE is mainly funded by membership dues, legacies and small donations. The 2015 trustees’ annual report will show that CPRE’s national income in 2014 was £3,618,000. Around 25% of this (£892,000) came from membership dues; £818,000 came from appeals, raffles, regular gifts etc. So almost half our income comes from the dues and donations of thousands of members and supporters. Legacies at £1,299,000 accounted for 36% of income; the people leaving legacies did not expect any direct benefit from their gifts.

Major gifts, trusts and corporates were worth £600,000, 17% of income. We thank our large donors by name in our annual review, but in a series of tweets today the IEA and the Adam Smith Institute have highlighted two donations in particular and suggested they are questionable.

One is a £10,000 donation from JTI. The offer of funding from a tobacco company provoked considerable internal debate and the money is ring-fenced for work on litter. A board minute from 5 March 2015 reads: “The Board agreed to continue working with JTI provided any income (currently £10,000 a year corporate membership) continued to be ring-fenced to support CPRE’s work on litter, of which smoking related litter was a major part.” Cigarette packets and dog ends are a big part of the litter problem and rather than just berating tobacco companies to do something about it, we have chosen to work with one to help tackle the problem, and the wider issue of litter.

We also declared one anonymous restricted donation of £30,000 for work on the Green Belt. This came from a trust with which we have had a long-standing relationship. The trust recently changed its funding criteria but wished to continue to fund CPRE, albeit anonymously. No conditions were put on the donation beyond that it should be devoted to work on the Green Belt. In 2014 this included making a number of grants to CPRE branches for local campaigns. The value of this grant in 2015 was £20,000, 0.55% of CPRE’s national income.

In 2014 we also received one unrestricted anonymous donation from an individual of over £5,000. This was for £25,000. This was for general funds and no requests were made as to how it should be spent. All trust and corporate donations of £5,000 or over are listed in the trustees’ annual report, and the two other individuals who gave £5,000 or more are named in the Annual Review (as it happens each gave exactly £5,000).

Perhaps we can improve our reporting, but it is already pretty clear and it shows that CPRE is funded by a large number of disinterested individuals giving, on the whole, quite small amounts. There can be no question of individuals or firms buying influence or direct benefit from their CPRE donations. I do not believe that the same can be said of the anti-planning think-tanks.





12 Responses to “Who funds the anti-planning think-tanks?”

  1. 1 Andrew Carey March 14, 2016 at 11:19 pm

    You could have given a mention to the tax-payer. “We reclaimed 428k in tax in 2013”, says one of your recent reports. Another says “We reclaimed 374k in tax in 2014”.

    You should attack the policies of these think-tanks anyway, not their anonymous non-charitable funding. You should especially address their best arguments, that much of the green belt is subsidised industrial land with no public access and hence no amenity value.
    If you don’t acknowledge that, then I hope the funding continues its downwards trajectory.

    • 2 sspiers March 15, 2016 at 2:11 pm

      Who is ‘the tax-payer’? We all pay tax, what’s the problem?

      We have engaged in vigorous debate with these think-tanks over the years. I gave a couple of links in my blog. We also sometime agree with them. My piece wasn’t about their policies, it was about think-tanks taking anonymous donations and then coming up with supposedly disinterested reports that directly benefit their (anonymous) donors. The think-tanks I named may say that doesn’t happen in their case, but how can we know? There is evidence that it has happened in the USA, and I gave a link to an interesting and worrying article in the New York Review of Books on how anonymous political and think-tank donations have degraded politics there.

      Regarding the quality of Green Belt, some of it may be as you describe and the task, and then the urgent task is to improve it – see Dieter Helm’s argument ‘In defence of the Green Belt’ – http://www.dieterhelm.co.uk/sites/default/files/Green%20Belt%20Paper%20.pdf. But overall the quality of Green Belt land is high, higher than equivalent non-Green Belt land around towns and cities. This is laid out in exhaustive detail in the 2010 research we conducted with Natural England – http://www.cpre.org.uk/resources/housing-and-planning/green-belts/item/download/465. We are updating the research this summer.

  2. 3 Sara Scarlett March 16, 2016 at 6:12 am

    You’re a national disgrace and a hypocrite Shaun Spiers. You don’t name your anonymous donors either! You’re taking anonymous donations to campaign against building more houses in the middle of a housing crisis! The policies you support make people homeless. Hang your head in shame!

    • 4 sspiers March 16, 2016 at 7:06 am

      Thank you. But regarding CPRE’s two anonymous donations, one for work on Green Belt (unrestricted to any geographical or policy area) and one totally unrestricted (with no wishes expressed as to how it should be spent) I have explained above why I regard our position as very different from the think-tanks in question. CPRE’s anonymous donations are a small proportion of our total income (about 1%) and they could not possibly be expected to gain the donors (one of which is a foundation) any direct or material advantage.

      As for CPRE’s housing policies, three minutes’ thought would suffice to find them out…

      • 5 sscrltt March 16, 2016 at 7:10 am

        I’m familiar with your policies, having given them much more than three minutes thought whilst I work overseas trying to save up a deposit for a home of my own. They’re not good policies. Shaun. They’re not good policies and just because they don’t affect you doesn’t mean they don’t have huge consequences for others. You are a national disgrace and a hypocrite.

  3. 6 Sara Scarlett March 16, 2016 at 8:03 am

    Not only have I thought about the CPRE’s so called “housing policies” for more than three minutes, Shaun Spiers, I’ve read the peer-reviewed studies: http://personal.lse.ac.uk/hilber/hilber_wp/hilber_vermeulen_ej_forthcoming.pdf

    The ridiculous, arbitrary, and nonsensical planning framework you support means that housing costs at least 20% more than it should in some instances.

    Even Shelter, not exactly a right-wing establishment, agrees with this prognosis: http://england.shelter.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/1239330/2016_02_29_When_Brownfield_isnt_enough.pdf < I don't see you atacking their funding.

    You are selfish and inconsiderate of the needs of others. You don't care that a generation of middle class people in their 20s have little choice but to live in their childhood bedrooms because the housing available to them is so dire. I'm sure you have a nice house, yourself, so why bother about other people? Like all NIMBYs you only care about the green and pleasant view from your own window – everyone else can go hang.

    You are selfish. You are a national disgrace and you should be ashamed of yourself.

    • 7 sspiers March 16, 2016 at 10:12 am

      Well, I guess I should be grateful that I am not an international disgrace. Perhaps we should just agree to disagree, but let’s have one last go.

      On funding, I didn’t attack the funding of the anti-planning think-tanks as I don’t know who does fund them. That’s the point. I presume it is firms and people (who live in nice houses) who have an economic interest in a weakened planning system, but it’s a secret. I gave a link to the relevant page of the IEA’s accounts. The Adam Smith Institute gives even less information. Whether or not I agree with Shelter – and I agree with most of what they say about housing – the point is that they are much more open about who funds them. As is CPRE.

      You are right that I live in a nice house and I am grateful for it. The housing problems faced by young people are terrible and I have written about that several times in this blog – for instance, https://cpreviewpoint.wordpress.com/2014/10/02/the-great-housing-disaster-time-to-get-radical/ and https://cpreviewpoint.wordpress.com/2015/03/13/housing-and-intergenerational-fairness/.

      Undersupply is part of the problem of inflated house prices and private sector rents, so we need to build more. Demand-side factors are the other side of the equation and rarely discussed. Kate Barker has proposed a modified capital gains tax on the sale of first properties and the Government could do something about Council Tax, which no longer properly reflects property values. But such ideas are rarely discussed because successive governments of all parties have welcomed and even stoked house price inflation as they believe it is the way to win elections.

      You think that freeing up land will cause house builders to build many more houses and bring down prices. I do not think it is as simple as that. I was struck, for instance, by the fact that the firm employing one of the leading critics of the Metropolitan Green Belt sells the houses it builds in London off-plan to investors in Hong Kong and Singapore. I am not surprised it wants to get its hands on the Green Belt – it may even be funding think-tanks to make the case – but I doubt it is particularly interested in providing affordable homes for first time buyers in their twenties.

      As I say, I think we will have to agree to disagree. I have registered your insults, but if you want another go I may not post your comments – there are posting guidelines somewhere and I think they forbid personal abuse.

      I am also, of course, concerned about the cost to communities and the environment of a planning free-for-all. As a libertarian free marketeer, you are probably more confident than I am that the market would provide a good outcome for all.

      • 8 Sara Scarlett March 16, 2016 at 10:30 am

        I am not insulting you, Shaun. You are suggesting that the only reason people could be anti-planning is because they’re set to benefit from developing that land. That is an insult to people like me who are struggling to afford homes despite being gainfully employed. If I am struggling there are a lot more people struggling too. I am not a property developer. Your policy positions hurt people like me.

        Freeing up land *will* cause house builders to build many more houses and bring down prices – that’s how the not-so-obscure economic concept of supply and demand works. The reason housing around London is so attractive to foreign investors is because it never loses it’s value. It never loses its value because its supply is restricted. You and your policies are the reason this is happening.

        The only thing that will stop this and help people in my position is more housing of every type at every level and one major factor preventing that from happening is the planning framework you support.

        Your reason for keeping your donors anonymous is just as valid as the IEA’s or the ASI’s. You have no moral high ground. Just bad policies.

      • 9 sspiers March 16, 2016 at 10:59 am

        We clearly disagree, but thanks for your comments.

  4. 10 CPRE Local Supporter March 28, 2016 at 2:15 am

    “It is legitimate to ask who stands to gain from their work, and who is funding it.” Yes, it is. Despite a very long blog Shaun Spiers doesn’t seem to know who is funding the think-tanks – or more specifically, who is funding their anti-planning activities which are recent. (The IEA and the Adam Smith Institute have been around for many years.).
    CPRE has a Head of Communications and a press officer, but seemingly no effective contacts with journalists who dig for information and expose shady dealings in business. Tabloid journalists have their downside but can be very skilled in finding out things which organisations wish to keep quiet. The Guardian has been effective at times, Andrew Gillighan (now at the Sunday Telegraph) is good, and there are freelance journalists who claim to be able to find out almost anything. And there only three think-tanks to investigate, listed in the article. Shouldn’t be hard for an experienced hack to uncover their backers.

  5. 11 sspiers March 29, 2016 at 7:33 pm

    Mark, I am sorry to disappoint you, but I am not the first person to criticise the Adam Smith Institute et al for being secretive about their funding. Lots of people have tried to find out who funds them, without much success. There may be freelance journalists ‘who claim to be able to find out almost anything’, but can they? If you know of any, please let me know.

    Until we know who funds all the anti-planning, anti-conservation reports these think-tanks pump out, I will continue to assume it is people and firms who stand to benefit financially from fewer restrictions on building in the countryside.

  6. 12 CPRE Local Supporter March 30, 2016 at 1:39 pm

    The IEA was founded in 1955 by Anthony Fisher and is best understood by watching part 1 of the TV documentary of some 10 years ago, ‘Tory! Tory! Tory!’, about the route to Thatcherism. The Adam Smith Institute was created in 1977 by Madsen Pirie. These are both influential think-tanks.

    Policy Exchange dates only from 2002 and was set up by Nick Boles and Michael Gove. It has had a rocky history (see its wikipedia entry) and isn’t respected much, unlike the IEA and (most of the work of) the Adam Smith Institute. (Nick Boles after his hapless performance as a Planning Minister is hard to take seriously.)

    Not mentioned in the article above is the Centre for Policy Studies, set up by Sir Keith Joseph in 1974 – presumably because it doesn’t engage in ‘anti-planning’ activity. And perhaps the CPS does publish its sources of income.

    The IEA and Adam Smith Institute have a wide range of interests and publish on many subjects; planning is a small element. The documents on planning, land-use and transport which they do issue do not look like the result of detailed or costly research – sometimes written by one or two people who put up ideas. It is doubtful that they cost much to put out.

    Large builders may contribute funds to the IEA and ASI, though Policy Exchange sounds too ropey to put money into. If the sums are significant and the companies are publicly-quoted it should be known. So it may be private companies which are the principal are donors. If the press wished to find out which companies fund these think-tanks, it could surely do so.

    It is not credible to say that ‘lots of people have tried to find out who funds them’ as the press have not made any serious investigation. CPRE has a Head of Communications and a press officer whose roles include persuading the media to do so. That is CPRE wants to go down this route, which may not be wise. It seems not to have considered interests it has in common with conservative think-tanks.

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