MPs call for inquiry after reporter's FoI revelations

By Sarah Lagan and David Rose

MPs have called for a public inquiry after a local journalist
secured background information about Colchester Borough Council’s
development plans under the Freedom of Information Act.

Chief reporter on the Colchester Evening Gazette , Tom Weatherill,
applied for information, which had previously been marked private and
confidential, under the Act It revealed that the council had carried
out a property swap with a developer to secure different buildings
which would be key to the regeneration of the town’s St Botolph’s
Quarter, and had handed over £2.7million to complete the transaction.
The development includes a new bus station, contemporary arts gallery,
and retail and residential development.

It was known to the paper
that the council was working with a developer on the project, but the
extent of involvement between the parties was not known. Weatherill
asked for all documents relating to the transaction to be released.

Within
two weeks private and confidential reports to the council, setting out
the history of the transaction, were given to him and resulted in a
front page exclusive and background feature in the Evening Gazette .

Weatherill
said: “The Freedom of Information Act, despite its many flaws through
the numerous exemptions, does provide the journalist with a useful tool
to ensure proper scrutiny of councils, government bodies and other
agencies.”

Colchester MP Bob Russell has lodged an early day
motion with the House of Commons which “urges other regional and local
newspapers to follow the excellent example of the Colchester Evening
Gazette to use the Freedom of Information Act to glean from local
authorities information which otherwise will be kept from residents.”

Other Liberal Democrat MPs have backed the motion and called for a public inquiry into the St Botolph proposals.

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