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Watchdog orders Mid Devon council to release information

Monday, 10 June 2024 06:47

By Bradley Gerrard, local democracy reporter

MDDC HQ Phoenix House, Tiverton (image courtesy: LDRS)

Tenth finding against authority in three years

A complaint to the government’s information watchdog about Mid Devon has been upheld, a second ruling against the council in as many months that increases its number of cases lost in recent years.

Resident Paul Elstone asked for information linked to Mid Devon District Council’s now-closed controversial housing firm 3 Rivers Developments.

His request in September last year for a draft business plan and its appendix from 2017 was partly rejected by the authority, as it decided to withhold the appendix citing commercial sensitivity.

But the council has now been ordered by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to provide the information to Mr Elstone.

The ruling came in May, following another in April.

Data on the ICO website shows that since 2021, 10 complaints have been upheld against Mid Devon, while only five in the same period have not been upheld.

Some cases can contain multiple complaints where one complaint goes against the council and one for it. For instance, a case in April this year saw four complaints upheld against the council.

The details being sought by Mr Elstone in the latest case were already the subject of a previous ICO request in 2018, which compelled the council to make the information public.

However, the council appealed that decision at the time, and while most of the information still had to be disclosed, the tribunal that heard the appeal did not order the revealing of the appendix that contains financial information because it was “satisfied that the public interest at that time favoured withholding [it]”.

But when Mr Elstone tried to access the information on the authority’s website last year, he felt it should now be available given the passage of time, and escalated his request to the ICO.

The ICO said there must be “significant risk” of prejudice to commercial interests for information to be withheld, which the council argued remained relevant as it sought to wind up 3 Rivers and potentially sell some of the assets.

“However, at the date of the request being considered here [in December 2023], the information was over six years old, and it is likely that later, more specific costings for the project have superseded the approximate figures in the [2017] report,” the ICO said.

“The commissioner is therefore not convinced that the withheld information would retain the same sensitivity more than six years after its creation, meaning the likelihood of any prejudice occurring is reduced further.”

The ICO added that the council could not presume that because it had been allowed to withhold the appendix under a previous decision that the information should never be disclosed.

Mr Elstone’s initial efforts to get the council to provide the information prior to escalating the case to the ICO were unsuccessful, with the authority conducting an internal review where it decided its stance was correct.

Mid Devon District Council has confirmed the information has now been released.

 

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