Hastings Borough Council (HBC) is not happy that it has been censured by the Information Commissioner’s Office over delays in releasing information about the landslip in Ecclesbourne Glen and the Coastal Path.
The Save Ecclesbourne Glen (SEG) pressure group has made a number of information requests under Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) for information concerning land stability and drainage in Ecclesbourne Glen. It says a large number of these requests have been substantially delayed, claiming some delays were for more than two years.
A spokesman says: “HBC has blocked and delayed all requests for information by putting requests ‘on hold’; a category which does not exist in information regulations and which disregards statutory requirements. After intervention from the Information Commissioner (ICO) HBC has now processed most of the information requests and in most cases has refused to release any information under EIR.
“SEG has made a number of complaints to the ICO concerning HBC’s handling of information requests. The first ICO decision has now been released. This decision concerns a request for correspondence with Natural England about the England Coastal Path project and the ICO has upheld our complaint.”
But a spokesman for HBC says: “We don’t agree with the decision. The ICO did not contact us to give us an opportunity to respond to the complaint.
“We believe we applied the appropriate exceptions to the appeals; one which was mutually agreed, and the other, with the ICO, the tribunal found in our favour.
“In the Council’s opinion, release of the requested material would have prejudiced either appeal.”
The ICO’s finding was that:
- HBC has breached regulation 5(2) of EIR by not providing the information in 20 days
- HBC has disregarded statutory requirements of EIR regulations by placing the request ‘on hold’
- HBC took more than five months to inform SEG the request had been placed ‘on hold’ (SEG claims it was 17 months)
- HBC took more than six months to respond after the site license tribunal had finished. (The tribunal was the reason used by HBC for putting the request on hold).
- That these extreme delays raise serious concerns about the Council’s procedures
- That HBC should review its procedures and ensure that such delays are not repeated in the future. Should the ICO become aware of systemic failings then the ICO will consider what action may be appropriate
SEG says: “This decision is encouraging and upholds our belief that HBC has been disregarding regulations to delay responding to information requests.”
For more than three years SEG has been trying to obtain information concerning the landslip and drainage in Ecclesbourne Glen and Rockland Caravan Park. HBC has released very little information to the public. An initial geotechnical report was released and a second more comprehensive geotechnical report was subsequently released in redacted form.
In 2017 the ICO ruled the full unredacted report should be released but HBC challenged the ICO ruling and were successful in preventing the full release of the report, costing the council a reputed £32,000 in legal fees.
Details of SEG’s complaint to the ICO
This complaint concerns the release of correspondence between Natural England and HBC regarding the England Coastal Path.
The request was first submitted on the February 15th 2017. The request was for all supporting documents and correspondence between HBC and Natural England concerning the Coastal Path and Ecclesbourne Glen to support Council leader Peter Chowney’s statement to full council when he said: “Natural England visited Hastings Country Park in August 2016 to inform the Council of the process to implement the England Coastal Path from 2017.
“They made it clear they were not in a position to give specific advice with regards to the Ecclesbourne footpath at this stage. The Council will liaise with Natural England on the implementation of England Coastal Path when requested. They have indicated that where it is not possible to follow the coastal path, there is consideration in the methodology for diverting the footpath away from landslips and coastal erosion sites.”
The SEG spokesman says: “Despite several requests for an update no more was heard of this information request for 17 months. HBC refused to even produce a list of information requests that they had put ‘on hold’.
“Finally on the July 20th 2018 HBC listed the information request as being one of many put ‘on hold’ pending a tribunal hearing review of a caravan site licence. The caravan site licence appeal was decided in April 2018.
“We finally got a response to this request from HBC on the September 25th 2018 some 19 months after it was submitted and five months after the appeal had been decided. The response stated that ‘no information was held’.
“On the September 28th we requested an internal review as we did not believe that HBC held no information. We received the results of the review on the October 15th.
“The review confirmed that documents and correspondence did exist and provided a redacted copy. The review stated that the previous claim of ‘information not held’ was down to a misunderstanding by the information officer who thought the request was only for reports when in fact the request specified both documents and correspondence.
“The review also explained that the delay was due to two outstanding tribunal appeals and admitted that the delay in responding since the site licence appeal finished was unacceptable.”
SEG made a formal complaint to the ICO on October 17th on the following grounds:
- The time taken to process the request
- That the request was put “on hold”
- That after 19 months HBC claimed that no information was held for this request.
The ICO have upheld our complaint among the grounds they have cited for doing so include:
- The Commissioner’s decision is that the Council failed to respond to the complainant’s request within 20 working days of receipt and has therefore breached regulation 5(2) of the EIR.
- The Commissioner noted that the Council in deciding to placing ‘on hold’ the present request together with a several other requests, pending a First-Tier Tribunal decision on an appeal dealing with relevant issues to the subject matter of the present request, has disregarded statutory requirements deriving from the EIR.
- The Commissioner reiterates that public authorities do not have the discretion to place “on hold” a valid information request without the requester’s consent.
- In addition, the Commissioner notes that the Council took more than five months to inform the complainant that the present request was placed “on hold”.
- Furthermore, the Council provided a substantive response to the present information request on 25 September 2018, whilst the relevant decision of the First-tier Tribunal was issued on 26 March 2018.
- The Commissioner considers that the extreme delays in dealing with information requests, as described above, raise serious concerns about the Council’s procedures in place. The Council should review its FOI procedures and ensure that such delays are not repeated in the future. Should the Commissioner become aware of systemic failings at the Council, she will consider what action may be appropriate.