Thursday 18 August 2011

Freedom of Information and Bloodymindedness

Newcastle Emlyn, with Adpar on the other side of the river Teifi, has a population of about 1,500, but we have a lot of shops, banks and cafes. There is a medium-sized independent supermarket and a Co-op and a large Spar, and a range of independent food shops, including two butchers, a bakery, a delicatessen, a fishmonger and a shop specialising in locally produced food.  Apart from the Co-op, CK's and Boots, all of the shops are locally owned. Together, they provide a livelihood for quite a few families and employment for many more.

Like everywhere else, the retailers here are feeling the pinch, but the town has proved remarkably resilient, and there are almost no empty premises.

Against this background, you can imagine the shock felt here when two planning applications for supermarkets were submitted within a couple of months of each other back at the end of 2008 and early 2009. The first was an application by Lidl to build a store just outside the town centre, opposite the existing CK's supermarket.

At the time, the consensus was that Lidl would not present a serious threat to the livelihoods of the existing shops, and would help many local people struggling on low incomes as a source of low-cost basic foodstuffs.

The second application, known as the Cawdor application, was to build a much larger store on the very edge of the town centre with a floor area 2.5 times the size of CK's, currently the largest retailer, and as large as all of the existing convenience goods retailers in town put together. The owner of the site would not reveal the identity of the supermarket group which would operate the site, and he still refuses to do so.

It soon became clear that the county's planning department preferred the Cawdor application, but to cut a long story short, the Lidl application was eventually approved, with some important conditions attached, while the second application was refused on largely technical grounds, such as colour schemes and the lack of a traffic survey on a Saturday. Lidl later abandoned its plans because of what it felt were unduly onerous restrictions placed on its grant of planning.

The Cawdor application was refused in September 2009 and resubmitted a couple of months later. There have been long and unexplained delays in processing this application, but it now seems that it will go before the Planning Committee in September, almost certainly with a recommendation to accept from the planning officers.

There are many aspects of this long running saga which do not cast the County Council in a good light, but one of the worst concerns the council's culture of secrecy and the way it has handled legitimate requests for information from the public.

The planning officer's reports on both the Lidl and Cawdor applications cited various studies and reports commissioned by the council. The most important of these were a critique of the retail impact assessments and a report on road safety and traffic implications.

The action group set up by local residents and businesses requested copies of the reports. The planning officer rejected the requests. The traffic assessment was eventually released in response to an FOI request, while the critique, written by Nathaniel Lichfield Partners for the council, was eventually also released after very intense lobbying.

The Nathaniel Lichfiled critique, the planning officer's report and the retail impact assessment submitted by the applicant all made reference to a document referred to as Nathaniel Lichfield's "emerging" Retail Study for the county as a whole. In fact, it was clear that key parts of all three documents relied on evidence presented in the Retail Study, but that evidence was not available to the public. The council's attitude is best summed up as "we believe that there is a need for a fifth large food store in your town, and you're just going to have to accept that we are satisfied by the evidence we have, but which we are not going to show to you."

An FOI request to secure release of the Study was rejected. Adam Price, our MP at the time, also had a similar request rejected on the grounds that release of the information might show developers across the county where there were development opportunities, and thereby damage the environment. The requests were dealt with under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, rather than FOIA.

A third request was submitted, this time saying that the Action Group wanted only the data on Newcastle Emlyn, and pointing out that it was highly unlikely that the Study would reveal opportunities for even more supermarkets. The reason the Study was so important was that this was the primary evidence being cited by both the council and the developer of the need for the supermarket.

The third request was also rejected, and it was clear from the response that the FOI officers had not read the request or understood that the information sought related only to Newcastle Emlyn. A complaint to that effect was answered with a letter saying that the complaint would be taken as a request for an appeal.

More weeks went by. By this time, almost a year had gone by with the council sticking doggedly to its guns.

Eventually the council announced that it had also rejected the appeal, before going on to say that an edited version of the relevant sections would be released in due course.

More weeks went by, until a heavily redacted and very slim document was released. Redacted is probably not the right word, because the document had effectively been hacked to pieces, with bits then stuck together again at random. Imagine a lunatic chainsaw murderer butchering his victim, and then sticking the head and a few other bits together before dumping the results in your front garden. Human, certainly, but without the torso and legs, and the head stuck onto a foot. Gruesome and senseless.

The letter helpfully added that if the requester was not satisfied, they could now appeal to the Information Commissioner, fully aware no doubt that by the time the Commissioner responded, the planning application would be ancient history.

And that is how things stood until the recent publication of the deposit Local Development Plan where you will find, among the evidence proffered, a copy of the Retail Study. You know, the document which could not be released to campaigners fighting to protect their community from greedy developers and supermarket chains because publication would (EIR 2004 is clear about this as grounds for refusal: not might but would) damage the environment.

So what has changed?

Odder still, the Action Group also complained to the council that the developer and his agents had cited key findings from the Retail Study in their application, and that it was reasonable to assume that they had had access to evidence which was being denied to objectors. The council replied that it had not given the developer or his agents sight of the Retail Study, neglecting to explain how the applicant had been able to quote from it. Clairvoyance, perhaps.

So for anyone worried that publication of the LDP documentation will have opened up the floodgates to supermarket developments across Carmarthenshire, you can probably safely assume that they had already seen it. It was only members of the public who were not allowed to read it.

Oh, and Nathaniel Lichfield, the authors of the Retail Study, are trusted long-term partners of the County Council, according to the Head of Planning. Funnily enough, if you look at Nathaniel Lichfield's website, you can read similar testimonials from the supermarket chains it helps to win planning applications.

1 comment:

Photon said...

Which only goes to show:

(1) Councils are digging deeper ditches when it comes to the FoIA turf war.

(2) Complaints should be sent immediately to the ICO (although you could wait anything from a couple of weeks to more than a year for an outcome)

(3) There is such a thing as an Information Tribunal for those occasions when matters of important information principle are at stake and you don't agree with the ICO. You can find it here: