October 16, 2016 by combehavendefenders
It would appear that there are things that East Sussex County Council (ESCC) doesn’t want us to know about the project management of the Bexhill Hastings Link Road. Look at the image above: does this say accountability and transparency, or a local authority with – perhaps – something to hide?
If the image looks familiar, you may be reminded of the heavily redacted document containing recommendations to the Secretary of State for Transport about whether the link road should be funded. After a long campaign, the Department for Transport was forced to come clean and release the rather embarrassing document: we’re hoping the same will happen in this case.
In March 2015, ESCC commissioned a ‘Gateway Review’ of the link road, in which a number of people who had been involved in the project were interviewed in order to produce ‘an evidence-based snapshot of the project’s status at the time of the review’.
Combe Haven Defenders were given a summary of this document: intrigued, we requested the whole document, under the terms of the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act. This is what we received. ESCC told us that we couldn’t see the rest of the document for the following reason:
‘We have considered this issue and have concluded it is in the public interest for local authorities to achieve the most competitive price for the services they wish to purchase, in order to minimise the use of public funds. Disclosure of the redacted information, which includes information relating to commercial strategy, would compromise the Council’s competitive advantage in terms of settlement negotiations and also in terms of final price. This would undermine the Council’s ability to achieve best value. We will not be releasing this information.’
The document makes eight recommendations; of these, three have been completely censored and a further one partially so. Despite ESCC’s claim that the redactions were justified on the grounds of ‘competitive advantage’ (‘prejudice to commercial interests’ is an exemption allowed by the Freedom of Information Act), recommendation 3, which has been heavily redacted, appears to relate in large part to archaeology, whilst others seem to bear little relation to the claimed grounds of commercial interests.
Redacting publicly available information?
Recommendation 1 is about cost scenarios. The last sentence reads:
‘In January 2015, the ESCC Cabinet established a [redacted] to cover four sets of risks across the capital programme, one of which was the uncertainty about delivery of projects, including the BHLR’.
As it turns out, there was only one Cabinet meeting in January 2015 so it only took a moment to find the relevant documents on the ESCC website. If one looks at the report prepared for that meeting (item 3.23), one finds a decision to allocate £10m to risk management, including the risk of uncertainty about delivery of projects including the BHLR. This would appear to be the information redacted from the Gateway Review. ESCC therefore appears to have redacted information which is freely available on its own website, which shows that they have gone far beyond what is reasonable in trying to prevent us from having access to public information.
Guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office on exemptions allowed by the FoI Act states that ‘Information should be disclosed if the only likely harm would be embarrassment to the authority‘ (italics added). Recommendation 5 of the Gateway Review is mostly redacted, but the part which is not reads:
‘These are reputation issues for [redacted] ESCC [redacted] which require handling at a senior level. The role should [redacted] using the partnering board and other approaches, and key stakeholder relationship management’.
The use of the term ‘reputation issues’ suggests very strongly that this redaction has been made not because of commercial interests, but for the sole reason that it would be embarrassing for ESCC for the information to be released.
Successful delivery in doubt
Curiously, we were allowed to know that the ‘Delivery Confidence Assessment’ was ‘amber/red’: this is defined in the document as: ‘Successful delivery of the project is in doubt with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas’. That assessment, combined with the huge level of redactions, makes us suspicious that ESCC is misusing the exemptions allowed in the FoI Act in order to keep from us information which we have a right to know.
We have requested an internal review of the redactions in the document. This will be done by ESCC; if we’re still not happy, we can then make a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office. The problem we’re facing, however, is what former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld might call ‘known unknowns’ (or should that be ‘unknown unknowns’?): how can you make a case that information such as the redacted recommendations should be disclosed, when you don’t have the first idea what they’re about?
We’re waiting with bated breath for the results of the internal review. Whatever the outcome, one of the known knowns would appear to be that East Sussex County Council has got something to hide.