Just when you thought this story couldn’t get more bizarre… Imperial College have come up with a new reason why they can’t release the detailed 31-page consultants’ report they commissioned at great expense into buildlng in the Wye Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Er, they don’t keep a copy in the office.
How the Gerald Eve report was listed by KCC on February 27… it never appeared
Honestly. We really are not making this up. The report in question, for newcomers, was produced by the property giant Gerald Eve in January of this year and is called ‘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)’. We know that because on February 27 Kent County Council included it in a list of documents it would release under the Freedom of Information Act that very day.
But the report, and another document entitled Project Alchemy produced by the consultants Ernst & Young, mysteriously disappeared at that point. One week later, when KCC still hadn’t come out with the documents it promised the council released a new document list… and both the Gerald Eve and Ernst & Young reports were missing, and remain so.
So we decided to go to Imperial and ask them directly for all the documents they held about Wye Park. They replied saying these amounted to just seven files: a letter of appointment for Gerald Eve (which they plan to keep secret) and six general reports by other parties such as SEEDA which have long been in the public domain. And the Gerald Eve report — which we knew to exist? Don’t have it, said Imperial. But you commissioned it, we pointed out. Here was the reply…
‘I have re-checked with our Estates Division and the College does not hold a copy of the document you have mentioned below. Gerald Eve hold this document and whilst the College may be able to obtain a copy from them if required, I expect that most, or all, of the document would still be deemed as commercially sensitive at this time.’
So a large public body commissions a key report on a matter of intense and controversial public interest. And then makes absolutely sure not a single copy is held within its own premises. As far as the public is concerned, this thing is so important we mustn’t see it under any circumstances. As far as Imperial’s internal estates division is concerned, they don’t need a copy to hand. Why? For the same reason, we suspect, that all three parties in the project are now dealing with it through a secret website maintained by Ernst & Young. Since they, like Gerald Eve, are private companies, they are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act. These three public bodies seem to have discovered they scheme away as much as they like behind the cover of private consultants, and never run the risk of an embarrassing FoI disclosure.
At the same time, Kent County Council have confirmed that the reason they pulled these two reports a day after saying they would be released was a formal objection from Imperial, one which, we understand, may have been backed up by the threat of legal action.
The council’s FoI department added, ‘ICL’s ideas for Wye are at an early stage and at this stage of the process information prepared by its advisers is continuously evolving and highly likely to change. Although the information in the draft report is out of date, releasing it, will adversely affect the interests of ICL in being able to discuss possibilities openly with the council as described below.
‘The council often receives information confidentially from developers requesting preliminary views and opinions of their case to obtain planning permission. Local authorities recognise that by informing developers of the council’s view of their case and drawing their attention to the council’s policy priorities improves the efficiency of the planning process and the final outcome. Releasing this particular report at this stage of the process will have the effect, in future, of inhibiting third parties from disclosing sensitive information to the council, in similar circumstances, which will weaken the planning process, the quality of planning applications and the ability of the council to carry out its public functions in the best possible way.
‘Kent County Council recognises that it is in the public interest that UK residents have access to environmental information to better inform them when participating in environmental decision-making. There is also a public interest in explaining the nature of relationships between the council and third parties. However, it is our view, that in the light of the reasons above and below, disclosing the report, now, will not serve the public interest.
‘The public will be consulted once the formal planning process begins. The public has also benefited from the release of much information regarding ideas for Wye. Information has reached the public domain in various ways such as at local public meetings and through our and ICL’s websites, which are regularly updated. ‘
All of which sounds very nice were it not for one thing. KCC officers considered these factors before the original document release list was produced on February 27 and decided that they did not prevent the publication of the reports. It was only after Imperial got heavy that the council decided to keep us in the dark, a place we still remain. And given that all three bodies now appear to be deliberately conducting their discussions behind the firewalls of private firms, beyond the scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act, that’s probably somewhere they hope we will stay until Wye Park appears, fully formed, with the imprimatur of all three parties — two of which are supposed to be its planning judges — ready to be rubber stamped by government.
Imperial College receives something in the region of £132 million plus of public funding, Ashford Borough Council almost £12m and KCC a staggering £1.4 billion. Do you feel you’re getting value for your money?