When councils shroud their deals with private developers in secrecy, you get the feeling something's up

Openness and transparency is on trial at the Heygate tribunal

Share

Is taking the Information Commissioner to a tribunal to protect deals done with private developers a proper way for local councils to spend public money?

In case you hadn’t guessed, this is a rhetorical question.

The purpose of the Freedom of Information Act is to increase transparency in public life. When councils decide to deny FoI requests citing, as they often do, “commercial confidentiality”, it is up to the Commissioner to balance the pros and cons and reach a decision as to what best serves the public interest.

When councils decide to challenge such rulings, my nasty mind immediately suspects the worst. So when Southwark Council appealed against a ruling to reveal documents regarding the financial deal it made with Australian giant Lend Lease to redevelop the Heygate estate, near the Elephant & Castle in South London, into 2,500 mostly private new flats, those suspicions went into overdrive.

I had already been concerned about the Heygate deal when I found that dozens of leaseholders on the estate had to accept Compulsory Purchase payments so low that they were forced out to live in places like Sidcup and Slough. Good-sized two-bedroom flats were valued at under £150,000, while Lend Lease are pricing their cheapest “regenerated” studios at over twice that.

It was obvious to me that the deal was a license to print money for Lend Lease, but I was mystified by Southwark Council’s stubborn insistence on keeping the terms agreed with the private developer confidential. I still am.

The Heygate tribunal hearing lasted six days, ended last week and a decision is expected in around four weeks. In their summation, counsel for Lend Lease argued amongst other things that the public interest is best served by the company protecting its own commercial interests. Southwark suggested that disclosure of the Heygate viability assessment would “damage regeneration”(!)  

The Information Commissioner robustly defended his decision to order disclosure to allow the public their right to effective participation in the planning process. The barrister representing Adrian Glasspool, who was the Last Leaseholder Standing on the Heygate before being physically evicted, suggested that the secrecy surrounding the finances allowed developer and council to breach their own planning policies, and not only on affordable housing. 

Whatever the outcome, the tribunal hearings offered fascinating insights. For instance, it was revealed that no Southwark planning officer had actually seen the viability assessment. This job was given to the District Valuer Service (DVS), an agency of HMRC. This is a good way of reducing the possibility of bias, but it is neither transparent nor accountable, especially when the DVS report is deemed confidential. Moreover, the tribunal heard that Lend Lease has established a restricted-access ‘data room’ which admits only selected Southwark Council officers on a need-to-know basis. This process is therefore opaque and not democratically accountable.

One of the Lend Lease’s arguments I found hilarious. It claimed for itself, as a “legal person”, the Human Right to ‘peaceful enjoyment of its possessions’, arguing that disclosing the viability assessment would amount to “unjustified interference with this enjoyment”.  The Information Commissioner, bless him, robustly rejected this daft argument.

Southwark offered the incredibly patronising argument that there could be no public interest in disclosing a very hefty and complicated document, which many would simply not be able to understand, poor dears.

Mr Glasspool’s barrister made the main arguments on behalf of the public interest.  Full participation in the planning process, he said, had been thwarted by the secrecy of the viability assessment. Without it, no one could judge whether the loss to the public benefit from the development was outweighed by anything other than the developer’s self-determined “human right” to maximise profits. 

The outcome is crucial. Campaigners up and down the country are being denied vital information about development schemes on the grounds of “commercial confidentiality”. If the Heygate campaigners are victorious their success will level the playing field for many other, to the benefit of open local democracy.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...