Council ‘sought to withhold’ hub data

A computer generated aerial view of the proposed Hollow Road Farm waste and recycling centre or hub
A computer generated aerial view of the proposed Hollow Road Farm waste and recycling centre or hub

A council has been accused of withholding financial information about the proposed Fornham St Martin operational waste hub.

A probe by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)said St Edmundsbury Borough Council could have sought to withhold documents from a member of the public ‘on a general or blanket basis’.

Mark Aston, of Fornham St Genevieve, wrote to the council last March requesting detailed financial information about the hub, which had been presented to the cabinet in June, 2016.

His Freedom of Information request was declined, leading Mr Aston to question the council’s lack of transparency and to lodge a complaint with the Information Commissioner.

The council said it had withheld the information on the grounds of commercial confidentiality – a claim quashed by an investigation by the ICO, which also ordered the council to release the information within 28 days.

The ICO concluded: “The absence of any reference to specific elements of the withheld information and the potential harm that disclosure would cause also suggests to the commissioner that the council has sought to withhold the information on a general or blanket basis.”

The released documents included a high-level cost estimate which reveals that an initial December 2014 costs estimate for the hub was £16.7million, which increased to £23.7million within 16 months.

“It is an astonishing increase,” said Mr Aston.

Mr Aston described the ICO findings as “extraordinary” and said the situation raised questions about the council’s lack of transparency.

“Behind all this is the shadow of the Apex – which increased from a £10million estimate to costs of £18million – because we have been here before,” said Mr Aston.

A St Edmundsbury Borough Council spokesman said it had always been clear and transparent about the overall costs of the project, which are split: £14,174,000 Suffolk County Council, £13,758,00 St Edmundsbury and £4,042,000 Forest Heath.

“Mr Aston asked for all the detailed financial information and estimates that supported the figures in the public report to cabinet in June, 2016,” said the spokesman. We took the view that putting this detailed information into the public domain while in the midst of a procurement process with prospective construction contractors would not be in the public interest.

“The council therefore decided not to answer the FoI request on the basis it believed the information would be commercially sensitive and potentially damaging.”