We are aware a number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests have recently been rejected by Hart District Council.
Requests about the aborted consultation
First, we know of two people who made requests about the recently aborted consultation. These were refused on the following grounds:
The November 2015 Refined Housing Options Consultation was stopped before it was complete and there is no intention to complete it. The data that you seek therefore, is unfinished and unrefined. There is no intention to refine it or to use it further.
The Council also does not consider that it is in the public interest to publish this unrefined data from the aborted consultation. The consultation was incomplete, some responses would not have been received because it did not go to the appropriate deadline; there may have been persons who may have wanted to respond and will not have done so until the last few days or indeed the last day; their responses may well affect the results of the consultation. To publish the unrefined and incomplete data would therefore, give a misleading and inaccurate impression of the outcome of the consultation. It would be difficult or would require a disproportionate effort to correct this impression or to provide an explanation particularly as the consultation as a whole has been stopped and the Council does not hold the final information.
Request about the Open Spaces Survey in May 2015
We made our own request for the results of the Open Spaces Survey, carried out in May 2015. This too was rejected for the following reasons:
Regulation 12(4)(d) [of the Environmental Information Regulations] however, provides an exception to the duty to make environmental information available when the request relates to material which is still in the course of completion, unfinished documents or incomplete data. By nature of being an unfinished document (by definition), draft documents will similarly engage the exception. A draft version of a document will still be considered an unfinished document even if the final version of the document has been published.
Under Regulation 12(4)(d)) the request for information is refused. The Open Space Survey is still incomplete. It is still as a draft stage and the Council has not yet had a proper opportunity to review the draft or consider how it wishes to respond to this draft document. The document has not therefore been approved and the analysis contained within it and the methodology and implications of the work undertaken still requires consideration by senior officers and approval by Executive Members. It is however the the Council’s intention to publish the compete [sic] report at an objective time in the future. It will be published as part of the Local Plan evidence base which will inform the draft Local Plan when it is published later this year.
In support of maintaining the exception, the Council has drawn a distinction between the public interest in the public being able to review and comment on finalised projections and being provided with unfinished information which is in the process of being produced, debated and approved. In the Council’s view releasing the draft document in its present form would present a misleading picture to the public which, in turn, would misinform and distract debate. In the Council’s view it is also important, in general, that authorities are able to operate within a “safe space” when preparing information of this nature.
The Council also highlights that the draft Open Space Survey and analysis is relatively technical and is, essentially, concerned with providing accurate information through which further wider analysis and ultimately (if required) policy to be formulated. Officers should therefore, have the opportunity (the “safe space”) to conduct this ongoing work free from concern about the need to justify and explain their work before it is complete and free from concern that their work might be undermined or distracted by debating evolving methodologies and data in public.
In the Council’s view, the need to maintain a safe space should carry some weight. It is clear that the decision-making process in relation to these matters is incomplete at the time of the request (and remains incomplete at this time) and there is a strong likelihood that the integrity of and effectiveness of the decision-making process would be harmed by the disclosure of inchoate information In some instances where there is a concern that disclosing information might create public confusion or might misinform debate, it might sometimes be appropriate for the authority to preface such disclosures with a corrective or explanatory narrative. However, in this instance the Council considers that this is not always appropriate since an authority will not always hold final, completed versions of documents which allow for discrepancies to be resolved.
In this instance however, the data still needs to be assessed and analysed and the Council considers that it would be difficult to place the withheld documents in context or counteract any resulting confusion as, by virtue of their draft status, the final versions of the document does not yet exist. So, without a completed version of the information to reference, the public would be left with a provisional, misleading picture of the grounds for the decision-making process. The Council does not believe that this would contribute to the public interest in participation in decision-making in this case.
The Council is mindful that there is a general presumption in favour of disclosing environmental information and that there is an inbuilt public interest in enabling public participation in decision making in planning matters. However, public interest considerations should always be relevant to the exception being relied upon, to the specific nature of withheld information and to the context at the time of the request. In this case, the Council considers that the information is incomplete, that it does not exist in a finalised form and that its disclosure would, by misinforming public debate, impede the decision making process that it supports. For the reasons the Council has concluded that, in this case, the public interest favours maintaining the exception.
We can just about understand the reasons for not publishing the results of the abandoned consultation.
But the rationale for withholding the OPen Spaces Survey seems to be they think the public are too stupid to interpret the results on their own. We have no idea what an “objective time” might be. We can see no reason whatsoever why Hart Council have not completed the analysis of Open Spaces survey, some 9 months after it was carried out. We would go further and say that we can see no reason why the raw results of the survey cannot be released if the council does not have the resources to conduct a proper analysis of the results. Moreover, we think that the results of such a survey may well be of more than passing interest to those participating in the current consultation.
We have asked for this decision to be reviewed.