Exeter Greens force Council’s hand on new leisure centre finances

20 October 2016

Exeter Green Party have successfully used the Freedom of Information Act to force Exeter City Council to publish key parts of the business case for the St Sidwell’s leisure complex. The Council’s persistent refusal to do so has been overturned following a challenge by Green Party member Peter Cleasby, who complained to the Information Commissioner, the independent authority set up by Parliament to uphold the public’s right to know [1].

Mr Cleasby complained to the Commissioner, saying that under the Freedom of Information Act the public had a legitimate right to see the assumptions shown in secret to councillors about the financial viability of the leisure complex project [2].  The Commissioner agreed, and has ordered the Council to publish its estimates of income from the leisure centre [3].

In welcoming the decision – which the Council may appeal – Peter Cleasby said:

“The public were not consulted about whether we wanted the leisure centre or not.  We were simply told that £26 million of the Council’s money – our money – would be spent on building it.  We were not offered the chance to suggest other uses for £26 million, and we were not allowed to see the assumptions made by the Council about whether the leisure centre could be run without being a drain on public finances.  So as an individual I asked for this information to be made available for scrutiny by others who could form an independent view on whether the numbers added up.  The Council refused, three times changing their reasons for not releasing it.”

Diana Moore, former parliamentary candidate for the Green Party in Exeter, said:

“Exeter Green Party are not opposed to a new leisure complex in principle, but openness and real public engagement are essential in major projects of this sort.  The Council must now respect the Information Commissioner’s decision and publish the information without delay and before any contracts are signed.”

Peter Cleasby commented further:

“I have no quarrel with the Council’s officers who have simply carried out their duties to support their political bosses’ determination to proceed with this project, whatever the costs and consequences.”

ENDS

Notes to editors

[1] See www.ico.org.uk

[2] A summary of the complaint is attached

[3] The decision is case number FS50617410, available at www.ico.org.uk/media/action-weve-taken/decision-notices/2016/1625023/fs_50617410.pdf

Contacts

Peter Cleasby   01392 271899 or 07973 820811    pcleasby.egp@outlook.com

SUMMARY OF COMPLAINT TO THE INFORMATION COMMISSIONER

Exeter City Council proposes to spend £26m of public money on a new leisure centre.  The authority refuses to disclose the information contained in the business case for the development, thus preventing any public assessment of the value for money of the proposed development.  In view of the very substantial pre-emption of public funds, this is a significant failing by the council. 

Further information is in the supporting documents: (NOT ATTACHED HERE – available on request)

Attachment 1 – my original enquiry to the Deputy Chief Executive dated 6 October 2015, and the reminder.

Attachment 2:  the initial response from the Deputy Chief Executive and the subsequent emails leading up to the review decision from Mr Luxton (dated 4 February 2016), about which I am now making a complaint.

Attachment 3:  the published information sheet which gives partial but insufficient information about the proposal.

I make the following points in support of my complaint:

  1. The Council’s first response (Mr Parkinson’s email of 4 November) relied on commercial confidentiality as grounds for declining the release the information.  The second response attempted to use s.22 as the reason (Ms Betts’ email of 9 December).  I challenged this, and Mr Luxton’s review of that decision reverted to reliance on s.43(2).  It is far from clear why, if the council were confident that s.43(2) was a valid justification, they ever brought the s.22 option into play.
  2. The Council have either adhered to, or exceeded, the 20-day limit for a response.  “Promptly” does not appear to be a consideration.  The sequence of emails shows the timeline.
  3. The information sheet provided by Mr Luxton does not provide a sufficient response to my request for information.  For example, no information is provided about on-going running/maintenance costs, or about the assumptions about usage of the facility.  It is therefore impossible for the Council’s planning to be exposed to wider scrutiny.
  4. Although there may be items of information that are commercially sensitive, the Council has not explained what these are, despite the request in my email of 8 November that they should do so. 
  5. As background, the Council’s recent decision to give itself planning permission for the development is very controversial locally.  The Council will argue that it has consulted publicly about the leisure centre, but the consultation was of the “would you like a swimming pool” variety, and no other uses for the £26m were floated or even invited.