Questions over government planner's link with Prince Charles

Knockroon, located between the towns of Cumnock and Auchinleck in East Ayrshire. Picture: John DevlinKnockroon, located between the towns of Cumnock and Auchinleck in East Ayrshire. Picture: John Devlin
Knockroon, located between the towns of Cumnock and Auchinleck in East Ayrshire. Picture: John Devlin
One of Scotland's most senior civil servants, who played a crucial role in approving one of Prince Charle's charities for sustainable grant funding, took up a key appointment with the same charity while employed as the head of a Scottish Government directorate, an investigation by The Scotsman can reveal.

Jim Mackinnon, the government’s chief planner, suggested officials at the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community (PFBC) seek out assistance for a troubled eco-village development billed as a “model community for Scotland,” before going on to join the foundation while employed in his £90,000 a year public service post.

Mr Mackinnon, who has been described by the prince as “marvellous,” was extensively involved in the government’s dealings with Knockroon, the PFBC-designed environmentally-friendly development in East Ayrshire.

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He chaired an assessment panel which recommended ministers award the project Scottish Sustainable Communities Initiative (SSCI), which made it eligible to receive tens of thousands of pounds in government grants.

According to the Scottish Government, Mr Mackinnon retired from his post as chief planner in July 2012 after more than a decade’s service. But financial records filed with Companies House show that on 8 June that year, he was appointed as a director and trustee of PFBC, where he listed his occupation as ‘director.’

The potential conflict of interest raises questions over the Scottish Government’s role in the development near Cumnock, where despite an investment of more than £5m, just 31 houses have been completed.

The government said Mr Mackinnon’s appointment was approved by the then permanent secretary, Sir Peter Housden, but Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said questions remained over whether Mr Mackinnon’s “close association” the foundation impacted on his work as chief planner.

Mr Mackinnon headed an eight-strong panel of architecture and planning experts which gave the greenlight for Knockroon to receive SSCI status in 2009. The scheme recognises low-carbon communities which are seen as “ambitious and inspiring,” according to Scottish Government documents.

In their conclusions, the panel described Knockroon as a proposal which “embraces long-term sustainability,” adding: “The collaborative approach to design and masterplanning promoted by the Prince’s Foundation has clearly contributed to the way the proposals have developed.”

Documents show that in 2010, the Scottish Government approved grant funding of £26,250 towards Knockroon via the SSCI programme, money which was used for the creation of a residential travel plan, sustainable energy studies, a workplace feasibility study, the creation of a dedicated Knockroon website, and a design review.

Mr Mackinnon, whose job involved formulating planning policy and legislation, remained involved with the project, even after it had been granted planning permission by East Ayrshire Council in January 2011.

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The following month, Mark Greaves, Scottish programme manager of PFBC, wrote to Mr Mackinnon, praising the “invaluable” help of Sandy Robinson, the Scottish Government’s principal architect.

In the email, obtained by The Scotsman under the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations Act 2004, Mr Greaves explained how Mr Robinson joined a meeting between Knockroon’s developers and officials from East Ayrshire Council ahead of the decision to grant planning permission for Knockroon.

Mr Greaves wrote: “Previous meetings had been somewhat contentious, email exchanges indicated firm positions taken and there was a degree of worry that we would not reach agreements that satisfied the roads authority and ourselves sufficiently to allow the application to progress.”

He later added: “At our meeting with EAC Sandy was instrumental is [sic] reaching agreeable solutions for all and allowing the application to progress to determination (and approval).”

In his reply, Mr Mackinnon echoed Mr Greave’s “assessment of Sandy’s professionalism (in its widest sense) and his ability to influence and persuade, even the most reluctant of individuals and groups.”

He added: “I spoke with Ed [Taylor, Scottish representative for the from the PFBC] about a possible offer of further assistance at Knockroon and perhaps you could take up with him on his return from Caithness.”

Mr Greaves wrote back: “I spoke briefly with Ed yesterday and he mentioned this. We need to take any offer of assistance at Knockroon seriously, such are the challenges.”

In a profile of Mr Mackinnon of its website, PFBC states that as a trustee, Mr Mackinnon “oversees the built environment activities of the North Highland Initiative on behalf of its patron, the Duke of Rothesay,” a project which included restoring historic buildings.

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Mr Mackinnon has since strengthened his relationship with the prince’s network of charities and companies. Last April, he was appointed as a director of Community Capital Limited, an environmental consultancy firm controlled by PFBC, where he listed his occupation as ‘chief planner’, despite retiring nearly three years previously.

It is not the first time Mr Mackinnon has been embroiled in a conflict of interest row. Five years ago, he was accused of having a “cosy and inappropriate relationship” with Andrés Duany, a US architect and close friend of the prince involved in several large-scale developments in Scotland.

In 2008, the two men joined the prince and former First Minister Alex Salmond at the Palace of Holyroodhouse for a conference on sustainable communities. Two years later, Mr Mackinnon attended a seminar at Holyroodhouse where the prince personally thanked him for the “marvellous” work in seconding Scottish Government and local authority planning staff to his charitable foundation.

Mr Rennie said: “Although there is no financial gain involved there are some questions about the adherence to the government rules in this case. If the rules are not being adhered to in this case what confidence can we have that they are being adhered to in other cases?

“We need to know whether the close association between and Mr MacKinnon and the foundation had an effect on the actions of Mr MacKinnon when he was the chief planner.”

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: “Mr Mackinnon’s role as a trustee at the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community was approved by the then permanent secretary without conditions, in line with the rules covering such appointments.

“His prior dealings with the organisation were considered to be only those expected given his former head of profession role as chief planner, and, furthermore, the unpaid appointment could not be construed as a reward. There was therefore no conflict with roles at the time any grant consideration was made in 2010.”

Mr Mackinnon was not available for comment.