In November 2013, the independent (non-elected) members of Thanet Council’s Standard Committee produced a report which denounced TDC for its culture of secrecy. In April 2014 the Local Government Association carried out an independent Peer Review of TDC which was also very concerned about its lack of openness and transparency and its reputation for secrecy. In November last year I was served with a High Court Injunction which, at the Council’s behest, gags me from telling the truth about the Ramsgate Pleausurama scandal on pain of imprisonment.
In the long running saga of North Korean style state secrecy we now have the O’Regan Group putting forward proposals to locate a waste wood recycling and concrete block manufacturing facility at the Port of Ramsgate. Ramsgate residents are quite rightly concerned about the impact of these plans on our environment, especially the noise and atmospheric pollution they might cause. Residents are also worried about how these plans might impact upon Ramsgate’s reviving tourist industry and on the site of special scientific interest and the European special area of conservation adjacent to the port.
I wrote to the Council 4 weeks ago to find out how advanced discussions with the O’Regan Group had become. I was shocked to find that there had 5 separate meetings and that the Council’s Corporate Management Team and the Labour Cabinet had discussed this issue and that pre-application planning advice was also being given to the O’Regan group. As a Ramsgate Councillor and Prospective Parliamentary Candidate, I asked for copies of any documents and e-mails relating to the discussions between O’Regan’s and the Council. Unbelievably my request was rejected on the grounds that the information was commercially confidential. This is utter nonsense! Since when has renting land from the Council been a state secret? Especially when O’Regan’s have made 2 public, and very detailed presentations, about what they plan to do at the Port. Also the Council has legal duty to the residents of the district to be open and transparent about its affairs and to promote debate and provide information about issues of concerns to the public; which this most surely is!
I am beginning to wonder what is needed to end, once and for all, the deeply embedded and totally rotten culture of secrecy which hangs around the council and its politicians like a sickening corporate body odour. The Green Party will be putting forward candidates in the May 2015 elections who will make it a priority to review and change all the petty regulations and rules which make Thanet Council so secretive. It’s your Council and it should be open and accountable to you. The best government is honest government.
Here is a letter I have sent to the Acting Chief Executive requesting that the decision to withhold the O’Regan documents be released
Dear Ms Homer
I understand that Mr Boyle is on leave for 3 weeks so I am writing to you instead to raise a Freedom of Information issue.I wrote to Mr Boyle on 15 January requesting information related to discussions between the Council and the O’Regan Group concerning the renting of space at the Port of Ramsgate process waste wood and manufacture concrete blocks. Mr Boyle replied to my information request on 10 February (see below) advising of the dates of meetings between the O’Regan Group and/ or its agents and the Council, (25 June, 10thJuly, 12 September, 18th October and 12 December 2014) but he declined to provide me with the notes, minutes, emails or any other documents relating to these meetings on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.
Under FOI/ EIR regulations, I seek an internal review of the decision made by Mr Steven Boyle as I do not believe that his reason for refusal is legitimate or justified.
Guidance issued by the information Commissioner states that exemption from release on the grounds of commercial confidentiality only applies when “to release the information would damage someone’s commercial interests (1)”.
The discussions taking place with the O’Regan Group are about the renting of Council land at the Port of Ramsgate for the purposes of operating a waste wood processing and concrete block manufacturing facility. This is a not a competitive tendering exercise where the release of information could undermine the commercial position of one of the bidders or of the Council.
Further O’Regans and its agents have made 2 public and very detailed presentations about their plans which indicates that they do not wish their proposals to be confidential and have a desire for local residents to be fully informed about what they plans to do. On this basis, I can see no justification for the Council in treating the documents I have requested as being exempted on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.
Furthermore, the Information Commissioner requires that before exemption is granted on the grounds of commercial confidentiality, the Council should have conducted a public interest test (2). Mr Boyle’s email to me makes no mention of the Council having conducted a public interest test. I firmly believe that there is an overwhelming public interest in having the documents I requested released as evidenced by
- the public meeting attended by approximately 300 people on 9 January at which there was a presentation and discussion about the O’Regan plans
- the extensive coverage in the local press and on social media about the O’Regan plans.
The public interest is focused on potential pollution issues related to the O’Regan proposals; the impact of their proposals upon tourism in Ramsagate and the impact of their proposals upon a site special scientific interest; a European special area of conservation, and an internationally designated Ramsar site. Because of the extensive public interest in these issues I believe that the Council has no option but to releases to the documents in order to meet the criteria set out by the information Commissioner to
· further the understanding of, and participation in the debate of issues of the day;
· facilitate the accountability and transparency of public authorities for decisions taken by them;
· facilitate accountability and transparency in the spending of public money;
· allow individuals to understand decisions made by public authorities affecting their lives and, in some cases, assist individuals in challenging those decisions;
· bring to light information affecting public safety (3).
I would be grateful if you could arrange for a review to be conducted as quickly as possible.Yours sincerely
Councillor Ian Driver