EA/2016/0279-0280 East Devon District Council v Information Commissioner
It is well over a year since Freedom of Information requests were made to have key EDDC documents published – the contract with developer Pegasus to buy the Knowle site and the agent’s report on the bidding process and sale.
EDDC refused to publish these, even after being told to by the Information Commissioner. But, now that the case has gone to Tribunal, it has decided to release the documents.
But why now?
What is very clear is that the release of the contract and agent’s report is happening only now that Pegasus’ planning application for Knowle has been considered.
As the EDDC press release makes clear: “With the PegasusLife planning application having been refused, it is considered that this sensitivity has now been reduced and that publication of the information is acceptable.”
And this is very much the point.
Not only was the leadership at EDDC keeping this ‘sensitive’ information from the public – it did not want its own Councillors to know what was in the contract and the bidding process. What is particularly alarming is that the leadership at EDDC hid these details from the planning committee (the DMC) before it made its decision over Knowle.
Looking at the details, the documents reveal the following:
> The agent warned that the development might be perceived by the planning committee as ‘over development’. As they said: “If this is the case, then the application may lead to refusal, delay or in the worst case prevent the relocation of the Council’s offices.”
> The agent also said that “Pegasus is not making any allowance for affordable housing or 106 contributions, as they are classing it as C2”. In other words, the plans were always about classifying the development as C2 (a care home) and not C3, which would mean paying for affordable housing.
> Finally, Pegasus were not prepared to offer significant ‘overage’ – meaning that EDDC would not be able to ‘claw back’ any excess profits Pegasus might make.
But what is particularly disturbing is what these documents reveal about how EDDC operates:
> From the outset, Planning Officers challenged the C2 designation and the scale of development and clearly wanted to give the site C3 status – but later they changed their mind and recommended approval of the Pegasus plans.
> In which case, the DMC have been totally vindicated in their decision to reject the planning application. But we only know this now that the contract and bidding process have been revealed.
> Had the Full Council been aware of the terms of the deal with Pegasus – for example, no significant overage – then then their approval of Pegasus as the ‘preferred developer’ might not have been forthcoming.
> The Information Commissioner insisted that EDDC reveal the contract and negotiations to the public. But what is particularly reprehensible is that the leadership at EDDC refused to reveal these crucial details to their own Councillors.
We now have to ask how the Council will respond – in particular, whether they will want some answers as to how the whole process was mismanaged.
And we have to ask why once again the leadership at EDDC continue to be so secretive in their dealings over the Knowle relocation project – and whether they are going to act on their promise to be truly open and transparent – with both the public and their own Councillors.”