‘Project Alchemy’: the story you may never read

UPDATED with new information on March 8th

Kent County Council has slammed down the secrecy shutters on two crucial internal documents about the Wye Science Park project… after telling this website in writing that they were about to be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act.

The reports — one by the consultants, Ernst & Young, and a second 31-page document on how to deal with development in the local Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, written by the property agents GeraldEve — are thought to cover some of the most contentious aspects of the planned development proposal.

Their existence was first revealed by KCC in response to an FoI request made by save-wye at the beginning of February. On February 27, the council responded by sending us a list of documents ‘held by KCC relating to ICL’s proposals at Wye and to be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act’. These included the two reports produced on behalf of Imperial.

Gone in the space of a week...

The document release list provided to us on February 27

amended list

The list a week later… without the consultants’ reports

The first, dated January 23 2006, is described as ‘GeraldEve Draft 23/1/06 31 page Briefing note considering the key policy criteria and issues which we must satisfy to justify development in the AONB for the research and commercial enterprise (also dated 20th January 2006)’. The second is undated and described as ‘Ernst & Young document – 4 sided A4 User Guide entitled Project Alchemy QuickPlace’. We understand that ‘Project Alchemy’ is the codename given to the Concordat scheme from the start. The term ‘QuickPlace’ indicates it is probably the result of substantial internal discussions within the giant international agency. ‘QuickPlace’ is a module of the Lotus Notes software used by large-scale companies to manage large-scale projects.

Most of the documents on the original list were eventually released by KCC, though not in the order, or under the names first given to us. At the same time a new document list was released which excluded the two consultants’ reports that KCC had earlier promised to disclose. You can read both the original list of files due for release below, and the new one which was only made public after the remaining documents were issued.

This may well be the first time a public body has been the subject of an FoI appeal that is based, not on the grounds that it wishes to keep information secret, but that it has failed to release the very documents it has already said, in writing, it will disclose.

We can find no precedent whatsoever for any local authority declaring one week that two important documents were open to the public to see, and then deciding the next week they are not. However, a notice from KCC seems to close the door on them entirely. Signed by the county secretary, Geoffrey Wild, it says that no other ‘e-mails, correspondence, briefing notes, agendas for meetings, internal notes and other documentation relating to the consideration of the County Council of the restructuring’ will be disclosed. The grounds given are that their release would ‘inhibit the free and frank provision of advice, and the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation’.

The notice adds, ‘the public interest test has been considered and I have determined that it is not in the public interest to disclose the information requested because the benefit in releasing the information would not outweigh the benefit of non-disclosure, given the fact that the project is at a formative stage and the fact that, if taken forward, any proposals will be subject to public scrutiny.’

We have lodged formal complaints about what we believe to be KCC’s non-compliance with the FoI over its handling of these documents, and will appeal the council’s exemption certificate. The way the FoI works, however, means that this first appeal will be heard by KCC itself, internally, and will take up to a month. If this is not resolved to our satisfaction — with the release of the documents which we have already been told were due to be made public — we will take this matter on appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

This may well be the first time a public body has been the subject of an FoI appeal that is based, not on the grounds that it wishes to keep information secret, but that it has failed to release the very documents it has already said, in writing, it will disclose.

…can we make sure that we copy each other into responses sent to queries and FoI requests from members of the public? — KCC ‘s strategic planning director, to fellow staff and Ashford Council and Imperial College

We have also either lodged or will be lodging complaints and appeals against the actions of both Ashford council and Imperial College in connection with what we believe to be flagrant non-compliance with the FoI. In addition we are taking advice on an e-mail which has been released which appears to show the three bodies are colluding on individual FoI requests made directly to each of them.

The e-mail, available in the original format in full below, is from Pete Raine, KCC’s strategic planning director, to fellow members of the council staff. In it Mr Raine says that he has discussed verbally the treatment of FoI requests with ‘David BW’, David Brooks-Wilson, director of estates for Imperial, and ‘David H’, David Hill, the chief executive of Ashford council. ‘In the meantime, can we make sure that we copy each other into responses sent to queries and FoI requests from members of the public?’ the e-mail adds. It is also copied to Mr Brooks-Wilson.

FoI requests made to an individual body are to that individual body, not group requests to any others it happens to be working with. We do not believe that collusion of this nature fits in with the spirit of the act. On a practical point that may aid others making FoI requests we should also make one other observation. You can find some of the key documents here on save-wye at the foot of this article. The full set of released documents is ‘made public’ by KCC in an obscure location on its website to which we were directed here (you will need to scroll to the bottom of their page when it opens in a new window in order to find a second link — not that KCC told us about that). However, the council is producing them in a very unusual way. Most electronic documents are made public using the familiar .pdf technology developed by Adobe. If you are writing in Word, Outlook or Excel, you simply save them in this format, and all of the content is retained but made unchangeable.

The KCC documents are in pdf format but have been scanned as pictures, not stored as normal text, an awkward process which adds extra work and is not used by any other public body that we know of. The effect is that it renders the documents incapable of being read by computers. In other words you will never find these files using Google or any other computer search technology. You will only locate them in their well-hidden home on the KCC website if you know they are there already.

There is much more we could say about the approach of these organisations towards the FoI, an act of Parliament which is, or should be, the law of the land. But we will save that for another story on another day.

The original document release list sent to save-wye

The amended document release list — with no mention of Project Alchemy.

The exemption certificate killing the release of the promised files.

The ‘collusion’ e-mail


About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome, Pieter Vos in Amsterdam, adaptions of the Sarah Lund stories in Copenhagen, and versions of Shakespeare worked for Audible.
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