Our public face sent his Environmental Information Request to the Council on the 6th Jan 2017. Yesterday 31st Oct 2018, the First Tier Tribunal (General Regulatory Chamber) finally handed down its decision/judgement. The Council’s appeal was dismissed and our public face won his case. Twenty two months from beginning to end the case has taken, but it was worth it, as it was in the “public interest” to release the requested information.
The case and the request was about the full Financial Viability Assessment for the land at Biggins Wood Cheriton.
10.7.5 Acres or 4.35 Hectares where F&HDC wish to build 77 homes – 23 affordable and 54 light industrial units
Biggins Wood is a 10.75 acres site which is contaminated, as the land was formerly used as a brick works and a refuse dump. This is land the Council purchased for £1.5 million from Adrian Kirby, a convicted criminal. Dr Susan Priest used urgency powers to buy the land in Dec 2016 for £1.5 million when it was valued at £1.2 million.
The case revolved around the “Public Interest“. The Council used the services of Cornerstone Chambers and in particular the services of Philip Coppel QC. It was Mr Coppel QC who wrote a near 1,500 page tome on Information Rights which so ably assisted our public face in his arguments.
This is the land the Council wish to build 77 homes (23 affordable homes) and 54 light industrial – commercial units on the site. They have recently received £1 million pounds from Home England’s Accelerated Development fund.
We have written about this site quite extensively
The Council prevented our public face from seeing the full Financial Viability Assessment and cited 12(5)(e) of the Environmental Information Regulations; as the Council considered “it would adversely affect the confidentiality of commercial or industrial information where such confidentiality is provided by law to protect a legitimate economic interest.“
However, to cut a 23 page judgement short the Tribunal led by Judge Taylor summed up at para 43 as follows:
To conclude, on balance, when considering all the factors set out above and in all the circumstances of the case, the public interest in disclosing the information that is the subject of this appeal outweighs the public interest in maintaining the exception that is set out in reg.12(5)(e) (Confidentiality of commercial or industrial information). We find disclosure of the disputed information would both be unlikely to have caused and to cause such a degree of commercial prejudice so as to justify withholding it in the public interest. Conversely, on the facts of this case, there is an overriding public interest in the disclosure of the disputed information to ensure public participation in environmental decision-making. This is heightened by considerations of Value For Money where legitimate questions are raised in respect of significant costs spent by a public authority that clearly has limited means. The interest is additionally weighty given the nature and history of the land in question, which has been contaminated and neglected.