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Letter: Council Director’s Letter On My FOI Request Was Factually Incorrect

Published on: 6 Jul, 2016
Updated on: 6 Jul, 2016

SFreedom of Information FOIFrom Ben Paton

In June, Neil Taylor* as the Interim Director of Development at Guildford Borough Council (GBC), wrote to the Surrey Advertiser in terms which purported to, “clarify the facts” and in particular to state that, “the Information Commissioner found that the council was entirely reasonable in not supplying the information which [I] requested”.

That letter made a number of untrue and/or misleading statements. This letter explains why I have felt it necessary to write to the council formally to complain.

When I read Mr Taylor’s letter regarding my Freedom of Information (FOI) requests I was appalled by his disregard for the facts and his gross misrepresentation of what the Information Commissioner in fact found.

Even more shocking is that such a blatantly political letter should have come from a civil servant. I have written a formal letter of complaint to the council – which can be read here.

Mr Taylor makes a number of statements which are untrue. He states that my FOI requests and subsequent appeals related to the West Surrey SHMA. The FOI request which I made in July, 2014 related solely to the Guildford SHMA. At that time the West Surrey SHMA had not even been written.

emails letterHe states that the Information Commissioner, “found that the council was entirely reasonable in not supplying the information he requested…”. The commissioner never used those words. The decision notice does not use the word “reasonable” anywhere.

The commissioner held that the council could not withhold the information on the basis that, “The model is the intellectual property of that third party and is commercially sensitive”.

The commissioner only accepted the council’s word that it did not hold the information and decided that the council could not supply information which it said it did not hold. It said nothing about whether it was reasonable for the council not to have obtained this information.

I appealed to the First Tier Tribunal on the basis that the concept of holding information was not limited to mere physical possession but included ownership and control of information. The tribunal heard the case in my absence and, on the basis of private submissions by the council, concluded, “we find that on the balance of probabilities the council do not hold the requested information”.

Mr Taylor states that the council does not have the software algorithms which make the modelling tool work. I never requested the software algorithms which make the modelling tool work. Nor did I request the modelling tool.

The council had sent me an Excel spreadsheet containing the housing projections model from which all the formulae and the assumptions in the formulae had been stripped. I therefore requested a copy of the model including the formulae and assumptions.

It was the formulae that had been omitted from the cells in the Excel spreadsheet which I asked for – not the algorithms which made Microsoft Excel or some other modelling tool work.

Mr Taylor wrote: “Some opponents of the Local Plan appear to confuse and blur the edges of the two figures” [the Objectively Assessed (housing) Need (OAN) and the housing target].

As a matter of fact it is not the opponents of the Local Plan who “blur the edges of the two figures”, it is the council which blurs the edges. The Local Plan now out for consultation nowhere sets out an explanation of the relation of the housing target to the OAN nor supplies a figure for the housing target, nor sets out any reconciliation of the housing target to the OAN.

Mr Taylor misrepresents the facts and my position. The public is entitled to see the housing projections model on which the local plan is based. The council’s response that ‘we do not hold the model’ is not reasonable. It should hold the model. The only reason it does not is that the work was sub-subcontracted.

Not to hold the model, or to have tested it, or to have tried different scenarios is not ‘reasonable’. It is a dereliction of public duty. It is morally bankrupt. It is what we have come to expect from a council that mouths fine principles but does not live up to them.

*Mr Taylor, a contractor, has recently left Guildford Borough Council.

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Responses to Letter: Council Director’s Letter On My FOI Request Was Factually Incorrect

  1. Adam Aaronson Reply

    July 7, 2016 at 11:59 am

    If the figures add up then there is no reason for withholding them. The non-disclosure suggests the figures don’t add up. Every researcher knows that they have to back up their figures with underlying data. What makes GL Hearn so special that their figures do not need scrutiny?

    I started off with a completely open mind about this, but the more I delve into it, the more it becomes clear that the figures won’t stand scrutiny. I attended the scrutiny committee meeting, as an observer, and I was appalled at the decision not to scrutinise.

    Some councillors were saying “we must trust the experts”, others “you don’t employ a dog and do your own barking”. In common with many, I do not trust experts who are not prepared to follow normal practice of allowing their data to be scrutinised.

    Mr Paton’s letter outlines the inordinate degree of obfuscation there has been on this issue. Public inquiries into a number of issues recently have shown that obfuscation generally is an indication that the information requested is being withheld for a reason.

  2. Valerie Thompson Reply

    July 8, 2016 at 9:32 am

    I hope that the planning inspector, who will assess the results of the draft Local Plan will decide that the process has not met the standards required of the council and will refuse to approve the document.

    The failure to disclose either to the public, or the councillors themselves, the methods by which the figure of over 13,000 houses to be built around Guildford has been reached, is immoral and breaks the rules by which GBC should have dealt with this process.

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