Jeremy Woodward, whose Freedom of Information requests led to the current court case betweem the Information Commissioner and EDDC pens his personal story:
It all started with a simple request back in November 2012. I had asked the chair of the DMC – the Development Management Committee, which is the District Council’s planning committee – for details about the secretive ‘Office Accommodation Working Parties’. (I later discovered that there are in fact several of these…). This was because I thought there might be conflicts of interest should any from one committee be sitting on another committee, as the DMC was expecting to consider the Council’s own planning application for Knowle. Moreover, I had also asked for access to the ‘Reports, Action Notes and Updates’ on relocation which had been presented to Cabinet meetings, as I felt they should be available for ‘public scrutiny’ in the context of the planning application.
Of course the answer was ‘No’ to all of these. Perhaps that was to be expected, and over the coming months and years it became clear that the East Devon District Council is really one of the most intransigent and arrogant local authorities in the area not to mention the most secretive and least transparent.
For example: if you go to the whatdotheyknow website and type in the name of a pubic authority, whilst Mid Devon has 117 Freedom of Information requests, North Devon 102, West Devon 105, Teignbridge 109, Torridge 101 and South Hams zero, East Devon has 299 to date – three times that of any other in Devon.
Of course, East Devon District Council is not alone in refusing to allow more transparency when it comes to its planning decisions. To put this into context, the Guardian’s architecture correspondent Oliver Wainwright looked into ‘the truth about property developers and how they are exploiting planning authorities’ – and he concluded after considerable research that “Across the country authorities are allowing planning policies to be continually flouted, affordable housing quotas to be waived, the interests of residents endlessly trampled.”
These same authorities will insist that they cannot divulge any pertinent information because it is ‘confidential’. However, as Wainwright noted, “confidentiality is closely guarded, in order to preserve developers’ trade secrets, but where the sale of public assets is concerned, there is increasing pressure for the books to be opened.” And the pressures are increasing – helped largely by the Freedom of Information Act.
To quote again from Wainwright on a specific but illuminating case of cosy relationships: “Without some commercially sensitive information remaining private, developers could simply refuse to work with councils, leaving boroughs without the housing and regeneration we all need,” says a spokeswoman for Southwark Council. The borough brought a legal challenge against a decision by the Information Commissioner’s Office last year ordering the council to disclose the full details of a viability report, after a freedom of information request was denied. The tribunal concluded that the information must be disclosed, stating … ‘the importance … of local people having access to information to allow them to participate in the planning process’. It sets an encouraging precedent for campaign groups battling similar situations elsewhere.”
And perhaps we can be similarly ‘encouraged’ – especially as the FOI Act in the UK seems to be working to some extent. Most famously, Heather Brooks broke the MPs’ expenses scandal story by first filing an FOI request. In other words, much of this has been achieved only through the clenched teeth of the powers that be: Tony Blair regretted the introduction of the Act and, still, government generally would like to see the FOI Act ‘neutered’ and is not “embracing the spirit of openness but [prefers] finding ways of avoiding compliance while staying within the letter of the law.”
Disappointingly, in the USA, which trail-blazed the whole notion of freedom of information, the FOI system does not seem to be working – to such an extent, that in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about how the National Security Agency abuses access to information, people now believe that transparency can only be gained through whistleblowing: “[the NSA] don’t release anything through normal means. The only way the public really learns about them is through leaks.” Ironically, Snowden is now in exile in Russia, where lies and secrecy are the norm, where there is absolutely no tradition of a civil society and where the arrogance of power is all pervading.
Which brings me to the question of: How is it possible for them to get away with it? After all, whilst the UK is not Russia, nevertheless, it does seem that those in power will generally prefer to deal with others in power and seek to limit the amount of information the common man should have access to.
On the one hand, we have ‘managed democracy’ – and the example of Russia is pertinent, as ‘Putin’s puppet-master’ Vladislav Surkov and other ‘political technologists’ seem to have done very well in creating a society of ‘pure spectacle’. And yet in the West, we have many more years’ practice: it was Edward Bernays, father of the modern PR industry (and nephew of Sigmund Freud) who said: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society… It is the intelligent minorities which need to make use of propaganda continuously and systematically.”
And so we have the churning out of press releases from the East Devon District Council reassuring us that everything’s alright and that we can sleep well in our beds – whether it’s the surreal nonsense of ‘Another happy year for Cranbrook’, which contrasts somewhat with several other perspectives, or the production of clever pictograms to sell the notion of energy savings by relocating from Knowle, or the announcement that Skypark is no longer the centre of the known universe.
Meanwhile, the situation around the Knowle relocation project gets progressively more Kafkaesque , with “misleading figures, loaded and biased consultations and the heavy handed (and expensive) use of lawyers to force a decision through…” – all of which contrasts with a set of hopelessly out-of-date ‘Moving and Improving’ pages which provide plenty of questions but very few answers.
On the other hand we have what politicians complain of as the ‘democratic deficit’ – ie, that nobody can be bothered because we can’t make a difference anyway. Of course, we are ‘too busy changing nappies to change the world’ – although we manage to enjoy our regular dose of ‘bread and circuses’. Besides, as the stand-up comedian George Carlin said about the American Dream , we are expected to be “just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork. And just dumb enough to passively accept all” the other stuff.
Meanwhile back in East Devon, we have a Scrutiny Committee which does not scrutinise and a system which prefers patronage and cronyism to serving constituents.
In May 2011, the new District Council administration announced “a fresh outlook on serving East Devon for the next term, with a promise of greater transparency.” And yet it was Anna Minton’s excoriating analysis of ‘the local mafia’ in East Devon which captured the sense that ‘there have been a large number of concerns about the operation of the council subverting the democracy process… and that this culture won’t change.’ In the meantime, there are still serious, unanswered questions about lobbying and transparency – and particularly about the ex-Councillor Graham Brown saga and the influence of the East Devon Business Forum, especially with regard to development – all of which the District Council has been determined to both ignore and quash.
And so it is left to those ‘outside’ to ask the difficult questions and to try to bring to account those who manage our democracy. The Freedom of Information system might be flawed and terribly slow, but it is one of the few mechanisms we have to challenge the arrogance and insulation of power.
28th Feb 2015