KCC: ‘Imperial told us to keep Project Alchemy quiet’

Kent County Council have confirmed they pulled back on their decision to release key documents on the Wye Concordat because of objections from Imperial College — and still plan to keep the files secret. We have now lodged a formal complaint with the Information Commissioner over the council’s extraordinary about-turn over documents it said, itself, were fit for public viewing.

ICO

KCC is now the subject of a formal complaint to the Information Commissioner

The saga began back in January when save-wye lodged its first FoI request to the council. This was answered in part in mid-February, but the council took up an option under the act to extend its consideration of other documents until February 27. On that date its FoI team e-mailed save-wye with a list of documents due for immediate release. They included two crucial reports, a 31-page file by Imperial’s land agents Gerald Eve on building in the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and a four-page document by Ernst & Young on ‘Project Alchemy’, believed to be the keyword for the development project from the outset.

Neither document was supplied. KCC told us that they would be placed on a website (in contravention of FoI rules which stipulate we can ask for them to be e-mailed, as we did). We were initially told the council was ‘having problems’ with its website. But after a week in which no documents had been posted — and the council was well beyond the allowed time limit — the files began to trickle out. Both the Gerald Eve and Ernst & Young files had been removed.

After a complaint by save-wye, KCC have confirmed this followed consultations with Imperial — and insist the files will stay secret, even though it admits it was initially ‘happy’ to release them. In an e-mail to save-wye, the council says…

‘Our first course of action was to seek out and collate the information that we held on this subject and then decide if any of it would be exempt from disclosure. This resulted in a list of 34 documents that we were happy to provide you access to.

‘However, as much of the information held was created by and/or owned by other parties involved in the Concordat, we made them aware of your request and asked if they had considerations we should take account of before deciding ultimately what to release. However, in between emailing you the list of 34 documents on 27th February and their publication on our website on 2nd March, our legal counsel instructed us not to release either the Gerald Eve briefing note or the Ernst & Young user guide, following discussions with the other parties. The rationale for this was that as Imperial College had commissioned the services of Gerald Eve to advise them on the interpretation of existing planning policy and how to best to approach any planning activity in the future, release of this information free of charge would be commercially unfair given that the college had paid for this report.

Also, public knowledge of Gerald Eve’s advice to the College may also jeopardise or prejudice any future planning applications which in turn may adversely affect the planning process. Similar reasoning was applied to the Ernst & Young’s user guide, to a secure website which had been set up for the deposit of draft documents. This was also considered commercially sensitive as it had been commissioned by Imperial College.’

We do not accept this explanation. A large organisation such as KCC does not release documents lightly. If the council was, as this message says, ‘happy to provide’ the files on February 27 this could only have happened after serious internal discussion. If they were fit for release then, they are surely for release now, and would have been public without, one suspects, some fiery calls down the line from Imperial.

One new piece of information is clear from this response, however. The parties have been using a ‘secure website’ for the deposit of draft documents dealing with the project. Another sure sign that the ‘this is only an idea not a plan’ notion is one for the birds.

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About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome. Most recent book the novel of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
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