Council ordered to disclose Rocklands report
Hastings Borough Council has been ordered by the Information Commissioner’s Office to release a document which should throw light on the cause of the landslip that has led to the closure of part of the Country Park. Nick Terdre reports.
The document, a geotechnical report prepared for HBC by Coffey Geotechnics on the possible causes of the landslip running from Rocklands Caravan Park into Ecclesbourne Glen, was first requested nearly two years ago. A previous report by Coffey was put in the public domain.
HBC put forward different reasons for declining to provide the second Coffey report. These have all been rejected by the Information Commissioner. The council is considering its response, spokesman Kevin Boorman told HOT. It has until 2 May to either send a copy of the report to the complainant or appeal against the decision.
SEG welcomes report
The ruling was welcomed by The Save Ecclesbourne Glen (SEG) group, whose spokesman, Chris Hurrell said, “This decision will let us have a proper and better understanding of the causes of the landslip and what measures can be taken to restore and re-open the glen.
“It is a real pity that HBC have spent nearly two years trying to prevent the public from having access to this information.”
SEG had previously been told they would be provided with a copy of the report, but the council reneged on this commitment, Mr Hurrell said.
HBC’s refusal to supply the document was referred to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) by Richard Heritage, an SEG supporter. His first request was lodged in 2015, but refused on the grounds that it would jeopardize an appeal made by Rocklands in connection with the holiday home, known as ‘The Bunker’.
“This was my second request, having been refused the first time after being told the report would be used for the planning appeal for The Bunker,” Mr Heritage told HOT. “It was never used. After nine months of challenging, it has been worth waiting to see that we the public are entitled to have sight of this report.
“The work carried out by Coffey Geotechnics cost the local taxpayer £24,000, with further costs of £68,000 in various professional fees for consultants and other reports. I think the public are more than entitled to know the full extent of what has happened in the Country Park. “
After the appeal process was completed, with a decision in the Rocklands owners’ favour, Mr Heritage resubmitted his request and following the council’s continued refusal, referred the matter to the ICO in autumn 2016.
The ICO decision bears several similarities with its ruling last October that HBC should disclose the site plan for Rocklands to SEG. While the initial request was lodged and refused under Freedom of Information legislation, the ICO directed the council to reconsider the request under the Environmental Information Regulations.
This it did, but continued to cite grounds for refusing the request, arguing that the document contained commercially confidential information, that disclosure would jeopardise Rocklands’ economic interests and that it would jeopardise Rockland’s current appeal against the new site licence, which it was recently issued.
The Information Commissioner dismisses all these arguments. In the case of alleged commercial confidentiality, she says she “considers that the lack of clarity in the council’s submissions suggests that the council either does not properly understand what the effects of disclosure would be or has struggled to meet the evidential burden set by the exception [invoked by the council].”
The ICO’s decision should eventually be posted on its website.
Further requests to be made
SEG will now pursue previously refused requests for further information on the landslip, including geotechnical conditions, drainage and sewage. “We believe that this information is essential to an understanding of the causes of the landslip and the potential ways it can then be resolved,” Mr Hurrell said.
In December the local government ombudsman upheld a complaint about the council’s handling of various developments in the caravan park, including construction activities on the lower slopes where the landslip took place.
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