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Council rejects FoI request: ‘Safe space needed to consider congestion charge’

Council rejects FoI request: ‘Safe space needed to consider congestion charge’

🕔03.May 2016

Birmingham city council is refusing to release reports about research into a congestion charge, arguing that to do so would inhibit “free and frank discussions” between officials and council leaders in future.

The council rejected a request under the Freedom of Information Act to provide copies of all reports and correspondence between officers and cabinet members about proposals to charge drivers entering and leaving the city centre.

The council is arguing that the possibility of imposing a charge was still “live” when the FoI request was submitted on February 22, even though council leader John Clancy publicly ruled out any possibility of a congestion charge weeks earlier and has repeated his pledge several times since.

In response to a request for information from Birmingham resident Alan Wright, the council stated it had simply conducted an evaluation of congestion charging and there were no proposals to introduce a charge.

However, the authority is also relying on the so-called safe space argument, guidance issued by the Information Commissioner allowing councils to maintain confidentiality when controversial policy discussions are ongoing.

The issue has featured regularly throughout the 2016 Birmingham city council elections campaign, with Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors accusing the Labour-led authority of sitting on a secret plot to impose a congestion charge in the future.

A week ago, Cllr Clancy again ruled out any type of charge, including a workplace parking levy.

Mr Wright appealed against the decision, but a council panel upheld the refusal to release documents.

The panel noted that public authorities “may also need a safe space for a short time after a decision is made in order to properly promote, explain and defend its key points, and as such, determined the chilling effect argument as a reason for withholding internal communication.”

The panel said it was satisfied the “disclosure of internal discussions will inhibit future free and frank discussions, and the loss of openness and candour will damage the quality of advice and lead to poorer decision making” and that this carried “significant weight” in refusing Mr Wright’s application.

The question submitted by Mr Wright was:

I have read with interest recent press coverage of the proposals for a congestion charge in Birmingham City Centre which the Leader has reiterated is no longer being considered.

I would be grateful if, under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 you could provide me with copies of all reports and correspondence (from both officers and executive members) in which this proposal has been discussed, including those that led to the original decision to include the charge on the draft budget for 2016+ and those relating to its removal.

Mr Wright, who is appealing directly to the Information Commissioner in an attempt to reverse the council’s decision to refuse his request, said:

What is interesting is the reason for refusal- that is that discussion on subject of congestion charging is still live, or at least was at the point the request was made, and so officers need a safe space to discuss the policy without the ‘chilling effect’ of the correspondence being made public.

This is despite the leader of the council stating on numerous occasions that there would be no congestion charge.

I believe the council is being deliberately pedantic with semantics here – and contrary to its duty to provide support and assistance. Whilst the congestion charge was not included in the draft budget consultation document that was eventually published, it was very clearly a part of the draft budget during its preparation prior to the leader announcing it would not happen.

Indeed according to comments made in the chamber at the budget meeting, the equality impact assessments that were shared at cabinet in February and council in March still contained explicit reference to it.

The council states that the issue of congestion charging was still live at the time the request was made but the leader of the council had publicly ruled it out in early December, and reiterated that stance to the media some ten days before the request was made.

Either the option of introducing a congestion charge was not still live at that point or the public were being misled which significantly adds to the public interest in disclosure.

Even if the issue was live at the time the request was made, given the delays in responding enough time has now passed for any potential detriment to have lessened. Unless of course the discussions are still ongoing, in which case, as above there is a significant public interest in disclosure.

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