A Chance for CEC to Rebuild Public Trust?

Email sent to councillors 21/5/2013

Dear Councillor

You may be aware that Wake up Macclesfield had complained to the Information Commissioner following Cheshire East’s refusal to release information relating to the proposed Macclesfield town centre redevelopment. The Information Commissioner has ruled that Cheshire East must disclose all the information requested or appeal within 35 days, which takes us to the 11th June.  We are concerned that the Planning Board meeting at which the decision on the development will be made could be scheduled for before that date. I am therefore writing to you to ask you to support prompt disclosure and so ensure that the material is in the public domain before that meeting.

Information requested includes the contract between the council and the developers Wilson Bowden plus details of the facts provided to Cabinet members on which they based their decision to go ahead. We also asked for details of any risk assessments undertaken in relation to the project.

The letter from the Commissioner states:

“The commissioner’s decision is that the council has wrongly applied the exception for the confidentiality of commercial information and that, whilst the exception for the course of justice is engaged in relation to some of the information, the public interest favours disclosing the information.

 The Commissioner requires the public authority to take the following steps to ensure compliance with the legislation:

 ·         Disclose the withheld information to the complainant.

 The public authority must take these steps within 35 calendar days of the date of this decision notice. Failure to comply may result in the Commissioner making written certification of this fact to the High Court pursuant to section 54 of the Act and may be dealt with as a contempt of court.”

 This decision is particularly significant in light of the secrecy and misleading information surrounding other recent planning issues within Cheshire East, inlcuding of course the Lyme Green situation.


In the notes accompanying the decision, the following points stand out:

 

  •  “…the Commissioner notes there are strong arguments in favour of disclosure, not least the scale of the project, the extent to which council and hence publicly owned land is being used, the number of residents affected and the significant local opposition to the scheme.  He also considers that, in the light of the Lyme Green report, the public interest in transparency, in facilitating scrutiny of the council’s decision-making, and providing reassurance the council has improved its governance arrangements are very strong….Other factors which contribute to the weighting in favour of disclosure include the shortfall in information available to local residents compared with the information available to the council as a decision making resource”

 

  • The Commissioner is satisfied that Cheshire East are unable to provide copies of a comprehensive risk assessment because no such document or documents exist. He ‘acknowledges the complainant’s incredulity that further information is not held’.

 

  • Very unusually, the Information Commissioner has requested the council release details of the legal advice they were given relating to the scheme.  Legal advice is typically subject to professional privilege, which means the adviser has the security of knowing their advice will not be disclosed to third parties and ensures there is no disruption to the course of justice.  We understand it is exceptional for the Commissioner to order disclosure of such advice. 

 

  •  The council had claimed that releasing details of the contract would harm its ability to negotiate commercial terms or progress this or other redevelopment schemes.  The Commissioner states that these arguments are ‘highly speculative’ and is ‘not convinced that these arguments are relevant’ neither is he satisfied that that the council ‘have explained how the effects would occur in this context’.  The council have not supplied any evidence that disclosure would harm either their own or Wilson Bowden’s interests and have not indicated they have consulted with Wilson Bowden regarding the possibility of disclosure as required in these situations.  The Commissioner has therefore discounted these arguments.

If CEC continues to deny sight of the information, the people of Macclesfield will continue to distrust assurances of openness and transparency and will inevitablybe suspicious that the council have something to hide. If the information is released but only after the decision date,CEC risk its electorate seeing their council as not only secretive but also cynical and manipulative.

Please do what you can to make sure the council does the right thing.

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