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Extension of the landslip which started within Rocklands caravan park towards the sea, causing the long-term closure of a footpath which crosses it.

The extension of the landslip which started within Rocklands Caravan Park towards the sea has caused the long-term closure of footpaths which cross it.

HBC ordered to disclose Rocklands document

When Save Ecclesbourne Glen (SEG) group requested documents which they believe will throw light on the causes of the landslip at Rocklands Caravan Park in the Country Park, Hastings Borough Council refused to release some of them. However, SEG’s complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has been upheld and the council has now supplied the withheld documents. Nick Terdre reports.

The Information Commissioner issued her decision in late October, upholding SEG’s complaint at being refused site plans for Rocklands and requiring the council to release the documents.

“This was a complex case, and we believed we acted correctly in not providing what would normally have been considered to be commercially sensitive information exempt from publication, meaning that the caravan site owners could have taken action against the council for publishing it,” council spokesman Kevin Boorman told HOT.

“The Information Commissioner, whilst agreeing with the council that the information was commercially sensitive, decided that it was in the public interest to publish it anyway, so we are now making the information that was requested available to the Save Ecclesbourne Glen group.”

“This was an initial complaint to the ICO,” Chris Hurrell, a member of the SEG committee, told HOT. “There are a series of other documents relating to Rocklands which the council has refused to disclose to us. We will ask them to reconsider their refusal and if they continue to withhold the documents, we will again take the matter to the ICO.”

Not the site plan

The document supplied to SEG turns out not to be a site plan, which would be expected to show the location of facilities such as washrooms and waste disposal areas as well as the caravan berths, but a diagram of wiring installations produced by electrical subcontractors in 2007. It has been in the public domain since 2014, when an environmental report by the RH consultancy concluded it could not be classed as a site plan. Mr Hurrell has taken up the matter with the council’s information officer.

A tree uprooted by the landslip just outside the Rocklands site.

A tree uprooted by the landslip just outside the Rocklands site.

SEG, which was prominent in opposing the council’s retroactive approval for the so-called Bunker holiday home on the Rocklands site, believes that the landslip which occurred in early 2014 in the south of the site appears to be linked to unauthorised developments within the site. The landslip extends beyond the caravan site some way towards the sea and has caused the long-term closure of three footpaths across this area, cutting off direct communication between Ecclesbourne Glen to the east and the East Hill to the west.

Strange decision

Mr Hurrell says he found the council’s decision to withhold the Rocklands’ site plan strange, as they willingly provided SEG with site plans for other caravan parks in the Hastings area. Moreover, the site plans are supposed to be posted for all to see in the caravan parks, so they are effectively in the public domain.

SEG’s request to HBC was made under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act. When it made a similar request to Rother District Council requesting the site plan of the Beauport Caravan Park, it met a different reception: RDC advised SEG that the type of information requested fell under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR), but supplied the plan anyway, without requiring the request to be resubmitted.

So when the Rocklands site plan was refused by HBC, SEG submitted its request again, asking for it to be considered under the EIR. HBC replied in writing that they themselves had been informed by the ICO that EIR was not applicable in this case. But the ICO has since told SEG, also in writing, that they had no record of such a phone conversation and that it was extremely unlikely that one of their officers would have given such a reply.

EIR rules

In fact the first important decision made by the information commissioner was that EIR was the applicable legislation, and she directed the council to reconsider the request under the terms of the EIR. Some further information was divulged, but the site plans were still withheld, on grounds of commercial confidentiality – the EIR allow an exception to the requirement for disclosure on this ground.

It transpired, as described in the ICO ruling, that before submitting their reply, the council had consulted the caravan park owners, who also considered that the requested information was “not a matter for public consumption…”, adding that “…they were concerned that disclosure would inflame relationships with a local protest group” – presumably SEG.

Contrary to the council’s statement, the information commissioner was not persuaded by the argument of commercial confidentiality. Instead she notes in the ruling that “…the council has not explained why the disclosure of, for example, information showing the positioning of ablution blocks or refuse points would result in harm to the legitimate economic interests of the Caravan Parks.”

She also had some harsh words for the council’s legal department: “The Commissioner 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 and explanatory burden set by the exception.”

The damaged barrier preventing use of the footpath across the landslip from the west.

The damaged barrier which prevents access to the footpath across the landslip from the west.

Criminal damage

Meanwhile HBC reported last week that criminal damage had been caused to metal barriers put up to prevent access to the footpaths across the landslip and appealed for any information on how this had happened to be reported to the police. East Sussex County Council, which is responsible for rights of way, recently extended the closure order for a further 18 months as the land is still slipping.

In a Facebook message, SEG say they do not condone the destruction of the barriers, which they consider to be “…very necessary as the landslip can be very dangerous in wet winter weather.” They say they will be happy to meet with Cllr Warren Davies, HBC’s lead member for environment, to discuss what remedial measures can be taken to prevent further slippage and reopen public access to the glen.

Posted 19:57 Tuesday, Nov 15, 2016 In: Home Ground

9 Comments


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  1. Chris Hurrell

    Yet another update:

    HBC have now released a plan dated 14/07/2015. Yet they say that this is not the latest plan as a newer draft plan exists. I have sought clarification as I fear that HBC are still not releasing the latest site plan as requested by the ICO.

    Comment by Chris Hurrell — Thursday, Dec 1, 2016 @ 16:49

  2. chris hurrell

    Another update:

    HBC has now told SEG that they have supplied us with the “latest” site plan (i,e the 2007 plan). However they say that they have a “draft” site plan which is currently being used to form part of the new site licence for Rocklands Caravan Park. The “draft” plan is the one that the ICO have requested is released.

    SEG are puzzled about what a “draft” site plan can be. The site licence conditions state that any changes made to the site must be lodged on a new site plan lodged with HBC. The concept of a “draft” site plan really does not exist. Any site plan should reflect the latest changes on the ground. We assume that the “draft” site plan is the latest site plan and reflects all changes on the ground.

    A draft site plan is a nonsense. It could be a sketch plan, i.e. not accurate, or it could be not yet accepted, i.e. not checked. It could even be ‘not compliant’, i.e. accurate but inconsistent with regulations. HBC are still muddying the waters with their choice of words.

    SEG now wait for the latest site plan to be released by HBC. Once we have this we hope things will become clearer.

    Comment by chris hurrell — Wednesday, Nov 30, 2016 @ 19:00

  3. Chris Hurrell

    As stated in the article HBC released an invalid plan that was intended as a wiring diagram. This plan was dated 2007 and had been in the public domain since 2014.

    The plan did not meet the minimum requirements for caravan site licencing and had been criticised as inadequate by HBC’s own auditors. The release of this site plan did not comply with the ICO decision.

    HBC spokesman Kevin Boorman has stated in a press statement and in an interview with BBC South East that HBC had complied with the ICO decision and released the latest site plan. Despite this SEG were certain that a later site plan existed.

    SEG informed the ICO that HBC was not complying with the ICO decision as a later caravan site plan existed that was being withheld.

    Furthermore the site plan released by HBC had been in the public domain for more than 2 years despite HBC telling the ICO that the plan was not in the public domain.

    The ICO have now confirmed that HBC do have a later site plan dated July 2015. The ICO has instructed HBC to release this latest site plan.

    The ICO has stated that it is unfortunate that the commissioner was not provided with accurate facts by HBC during the investigation.

    The ICO have said that they were not aware of the existence of this latest plan when the decision notice was issued and that they have concerns about the failure of HBC to identify the information during the ICO investigation.

    The ICO has advised HBC that,in future, HBC should ensure proper searches are made for requested information.

    SEG now wait for the latest site plan to be released by HBC.

    SEG are very concerned that HBC has consistently tried to avoid releasing the latest site plans for Rocklands and is especially concerned that HBC continued to do so after the ICO had instructed them to release the site plan.

    SEG remain concerned that HBC have persistently refused to release other critical information about the landslip,drainage and geotechnical issues.

    SEG have requested that HBC now release this information in the light of the ICO decision.

    Such information is critical for a proper understanding of the causes of the landslip and for future remedial action that will allow the stabilisation of the glen and the re-opening of the footpaths.

    Comment by Chris Hurrell — Wednesday, Nov 30, 2016 @ 15:32

  4. Richard Heritage

    According to my reliable network of contacts and information, I hear there is another ICO complaint in the pipeline. This also involves information pertaining to Rocklands that HBC has refused to handover. In view of this result it will be interesting to see what the outcome will be with this case.

    When I look back over the years this fiasco has been rolling on, it is amazing how many instances you find where HBC has been defending, helping and denying access to information with this site. The owners certainly appear to have some wonderful supporters and allies in the council.

    Comment by Richard Heritage — Friday, Nov 18, 2016 @ 09:25

  5. chris hurrell

    In response to Michael Maddens comments – here is the correspondence on the issue of whether the request should be dealt with under the EIR

    Hastings Borough Council’s Original Response sent on the 10th March 2016: Information Officer Lisa Greathead
    ——————————————–

    “Hastings Borough Council sought advice from the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) and the above request does not fall under the remit of the Environmental Information Regulations Act 2004 therefore we will not be providing the information requested.”

    Hastings Borough Council responded on the 17th March 2016 information Officer Lisa Greathead
    ———————————————————

    “I refer to your e mail dated 14th March 2016 requesting an internal review to our response to your EIR request.

    As mentioned in our response, we contacted the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) to seek advice on your request and they advised that they did not think that the Caravan Site plans was Environmental Information therefore we responded this way.

    HBC Review 20/04/2016 by ICT Manager Mark Bourne
    ————————————————

    “Hastings Borough Council contacted the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) when your request was initially received. The ICO advised that the caravan site plans that we hold for licensing purposes do not fall under the remit of the Environmental Information Regulations. This accords with the Hastings Borough Council’s view. Therefore the council did not supply the requested information.

    In reviewing this case, I am satisfied that Hastings Borough Council correctly sought the advice of the ICO. I am therefore satisfied that the requested information falls outside the remit of the Environmental Information Regulations.”

    ICO statement from senior case officer 12/08/2016
    —————————————————

    “In relation to your other request for information and the council’s comments re: advice from the ICO, I cannot really comment on this as I do not know when or from whom the advice was provided. In general, we would not give authorities direct advice about how to handle specific requests for information as this may generate a conflict of interest should a complaint subsequently be referred to us for investigation.”

    Comment by chris hurrell — Wednesday, Nov 16, 2016 @ 13:56

  6. Ms. doubtfire

    What on earth has Kevin Boorman got to do with this issue? He is classified as Head of Communications and Marketing at HBC – yet he is always popping up and making comment about issues which should be answered by those qualified to make comment on specific issues;
    As far as I am aware, our Kev’ isn’t qualified to make comment on the issues raised in this complex ICO case….he does however, give an excellent performance when parading around the Old Town dressed as a Roman soldier with whip in hand during the Easter celebrations…
    Best perhaps to stick at what you do best eh?

    Comment by Ms. doubtfire — Wednesday, Nov 16, 2016 @ 13:42

  7. Andy Ammo

    The Hastings Borough Council spokesman says:
    ‘The Information Commissioner, whilst agreeing with the council that the information was commercially sensitive, decided that it was in the public interest to publish it anyway . . . ‘

    The Information Commissioner’s report (paragraph 41) says:
    ‘Contrary to the council’s assertion, the Commissioner considers that it is not clear that the withheld information would be of benefit to
    competitors and in the absence of an explanation why she must
    conclude that, on the balance of probabilities, it has not been shown
    that disclosure would result in harm being caused.’

    HBC is shambolic and prone to expediency. This damages everyone.

    Comment by Andy Ammo — Wednesday, Nov 16, 2016 @ 13:31

  8. Michael Madden

    To add to Ms Doubtfire’s point, doesn’t the following section of this very revealing article indicate something beyond incompetence?

    “So when the Rocklands site plan was refused by HBC, SEG submitted its request again, asking for it to be considered under the EIR. HBC replied in writing that they themselves had been informed by the ICO that EIR was not applicable in this case. But the ICO has since told SEG, also in writing, that they had no record of such a phone conversation and that it was extremely unlikely that one of their officers would have given such a reply.”

    Doesn’t this written statement from the ICO mean that they are accusing someone in HBC of actually lying?

    I wonder who that person was and whether they would care to make a comment?

    Comment by Michael Madden — Wednesday, Nov 16, 2016 @ 11:41

  9. Ms. doubtfire

    Even after the ICO has produced this critical report it appears this council is endeavouring to play games by not releasing the documents which it is ordered to release – it is interesting to hear the ICO’s outspoken criticism of this fiasco…

    “the Commissioner considers that the lack of clarity in the council’s submission suggests that the council either does not properly understand what the effects of disclosure would be or has sturggled to meet the evidential explanatory burden set by the exception…”

    Many have for a very long time wondered whether this council had adequate capability to organise their planning department, and now it seems our fears have been proven. Incompetent comes to mind here. All praise to those who had the will power to continue with their campaign to get some justice for the people of this town.

    Comment by Ms. doubtfire — Wednesday, Nov 16, 2016 @ 10:39

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