The illicit side of urban development: Corruption and organised crime in the field of urban planning

Blog by Francesco Chiodelli

16 May 2018, 10:04 a.m.
Francesco Chiodelli



Recent judicial investigations have brought to light corruption and the infiltration of organized crime in the field of urban development and planning in various regions of northern Italy - and in the Milan area in particular (consider that the north of Italy was for long considered off-limits to mafia-type organized crime, a phenomenon generally associated with the south of the country). The case of Desio, near to Milan, is exemplary. Here, a judicial inquiry revealed widespread corruption in the field of urban planning, particularly linked to the recent local master plan. The fieldwork conducted for this research shed light on the main issues at stake in corrupt transactions, the key public agents involved, and the stages of the planning process most vulnerable to corruption. This made it possible to test some hypotheses about the main factors determining corruption in the planning domain and about the role of mafia-type organized crime.

It emerges that several pull factors for corruption are connected to the opportunities and incentives offered by the specific institutional structure of the planning system in force in Italy – which shares several structural features with planning systems in force in many other Western countries.

These main factors are the following. First, economic returns: in a great many cases, the economic returns generated by the planning field through public decision-making are considerable. Second, discretional margin: these planning decisions, with their promise of huge returns, are characterized by a high degree of discretion. Third, reserved information: for certain planning decisions, the municipal officials can use their inside knowledge of confidential details as bargaining chips for personal gain in the course of illicit transactions. Fourth, accountability: The degree of accountability in planning matters is remarkably low; therefore, it is extremely difficult to determine whether certain planning decisions were made by means of unlawful pressure.

At the same time, the research indicates that the presence of organized crime is a constant enabler of these illicit practices. More precisely, organized crime appears to contribute to the proliferation of corrupt practices in the planning field especially because of its influence on the moral costs and the mounting backlog of corruption. The presence of a mafia-type criminal organization in Desio has fostered the spread of many kinds of illicit dealings within the council administration for several decades, generating a climate of lawlessness and impunity in the town. In this way, the cell has managed to lower the “moral cost” of fraudulent behavior in Desio, greatly increasing that “inherited backlog” of corruption in the building and urban development sectors.

However, generally speaking, organized crime is probably not the main and direct cause of corrupt practices, that is, it is not a necessary element fostering corruption in the planning domain.

The above hypotheses concerning the incentives to corruption offered by the features of a planning system can provide critical input for institutional expedients (e.g., an overhaul of planning procedures) that may hopefully reduce the incentives that the current planning system offers to corruption. Of course, this would not eliminate corruption entirely from the planning field, but it would be a great improvement on the current situation.


Read the paper on Urban Studies - Online First here



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