The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has won a Freedom of Information battle to find out how Thurrock Council spent £1bn of public money, calling it a “victory for investigative journalism”.
The website revealed last year that the Essex council had borrowed £1bn from other local authorities to gamble on an investment in the solar industry, but was blocked when it tried to find out exactly who the money came from and how it was spent through FoI.
The Conservative-run Thurrock Council argued that divulging this information could be commercially damaging and its position was backed by the Information Commissioner’s Office on appeal.
But the Bureau has now succeeded after taking the case to a tribunal with the backing of The Times, regional publishers Reach and Archant, the Local Government Chronicle, the Municipal Journal and freedom of expression group Index on Censorship.
The tribunal ruled there was a “significant public interest in transparency in relation to the actions of councils borrowing for the purposes of making a profit”.
It ordered Thurrock to either disclose the information, or produce further submissions relating to the application of exemptions under Section 36 of the FoI Act (prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs), by 12 April.
The Bureau believes the case will have a wide-ranging impact, increasing public access to information across UK local government.
Bureau managing editor Rachel Oldroyd described it as a “victory for investigative journalism”, adding: “If councils are spending millions – and in this particular case, incredibly, a billion – of taxpayers’ cash we must have an absolute right to know what they’re spending it on.
“Local authorities have been sent a clear message that they can no longer get away with impeding public understanding of the decisions they take by making them behind closed doors.
“Trying to hide behind a smoke-screen of commercial sensitivity just won’t wash. We are delighted that the information rights tribunal upheld our argument.
“Fighting such decisions is absolutely what the Bureau is all about. We are an independent, not-for-profit organisation that holds power to account.”
Thurrock Council’s Labour opposition leader John Kent said it was a “very positive ruling, not just for Thurrock, but for open local government across the country.
“Good local governance relies on openness and transparency – this administration attempted to keep secret how they were spending hundreds of millions of pounds of public money and that was just wrong.”
Thurrock Council said it was “disappointed” with the decision but welcomed the tribunal’s acknowledgment there is still a “strong argument to be made for exemption under section 36 of the FOIA and that a final decision will not be made until that full argument has been considered”.
“The initial exemption, upheld by the ICO, said that disclosure of information would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any individual, business or the local authority itself. It is the ICO’s decision to uphold this which has been the subject of the tribunal so far.
“The as yet untested exemption under section 36(2) of the FOIA maintains that disclosure of this specific information would create prejudice in the council being able to conduct public affairs.
“The approach and the delegated borrowing was approved by members on numerous occasions through budget processes, and the council recently again unanimously agreed its investment approach. Group leaders have been fully briefed on what it is doing and investing in. This has raised over £70m for Thurrock services over the last two years and £13.5m for other councils and emergency services pension funds in 2019/20, while also massively investing in green renewable energy and technology.”
Picture: Rob Stothard/TBIJ