H&F Council ordered to provide transparency on property deal

I have written before about the refusal of Hammersmith and Fulham Council to publish the viability assessments for property developers. This opposition to transparency is very foolish. If we are to get the attractive new homes built that we need than public confidence in the process is crucial. Openness can allow the proper trust and understanding that is demanded.

Other councils have started publishing the viability assessments. Create Streets backs the idea. It also has cross party support on the London Assembly.

Now there has been a small victory with the Information Commissioner ordering Hammersmith and Fulham Council to come clean:

“1. The complainant has requested from the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham the Financial Viability Assessment it obtained in relation to the development of Five Star Car Wash, 10B Shepherd’s Bush Road, London W6 7PJ.

2. The London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham withheld the requested information under Regulations 12(5)(e) and 12(5)(f) of the EIR.

3. The Commissioner’s decision is that the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham has not correctly applied Regulations 12(5)(e) and 12(5)(f) of the EIR. 4. The Commissioner found that the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham has breached Regulations 5 and 11 of the EIR.

5. The Commissioner requires the public authority to take the following step to ensure compliance with the legislation.  Disclose the Financial Viability Assessment commissioned by the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham requested by the complainant on 16 October 2016.

6. The public authority must take this step within 35 calendar days of the date of this decision notice. Failure to comply may result in the Commissioner making written certification of this fact to the High Court pursuant to section 54 of the Act and may be dealt with as a contempt of court.”

The judgement added:

“The Commissioner acknowledges that developers might prefer that information relating to their business interests should remain private. Since the coming into force of the EIR it is the responsibility of public authorities to advise third parties that any information held can be subject to disclosure. Moreover, the Commissioner does not consider it plausible that prospective developers would stop engaging or negotiating with local planning authorities where potentially lucrative development opportunities are at stake on the basis that information held might be disclosed.

“The Commissioner accepts that there are occasions where the real potential for damage to legitimate economics interests caused by the release of information warrants non-disclosure–which is the purpose of the exception. However, in this case, despite being given an opportunity to do so, the Council has failed to explain the specific effects of disclosure and link this to specific parts of the withheld information.”

The full text is here.

How much more straightforward it would be if the Council adopted a policy of transparency. The Council’s planning department has been known to make mistakes. Let’s allow proper public scrutiny of these “viability assessments” at an early stage – not these messy and clumsy efforts to maintain secrecy.

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