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freedom of information Burgess Hill Uncovered Versus The Mid Sussex District Council Freedom Of Information Officers

19th August 2015
By Peter Chapman

It's another round of Burgess Hill Uncovered vs Mid Sussex District Council and their freedom of information officers.

As all good readers should be aware by now, the district council are looking to dispense of the Martlets Hall for retail development. The issue being the total lack of public consultation and the fact the council have indicated that they won't be providing a replacement facility.

Resorting To The FOI System
With so many questions, and no answers being provided through the traditional lines of enquiry, you have to resort to making a freedom of information request.

So your reporter did. By law, a council has 20 working days to respond to a FOI request.

On July 2015, I wrote the following request via whatdotheyknow.com

what do they know Freedom Of Information Request17th July 2015

Dear Mid Sussex District Council,

On November 19th 2014, MSDC agreed to pay Max Associates 4,800 to carry out a Facilities Appraisal on the Martlets Hall in Burgess Hill.

Please could you supply a copy of the resulting report.

Yours faithfully,

Mr Peter Chapman



18th August 2015

Dear Mr Chapman,

Thank you for your request for information. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Council can apply an exemption if it believes one exists. In this particular instance we believe that Section 43 commercial interests, applies.

This exemption is subject to the public interest test. In this particular case, it is considered that the public interest in releasing the information does not outweigh the public interest in withholding the information. The release of information would prejudice the ability of the Council to carry out negotiations with potential developers. It is important that the council achieves the most economically beneficial outcome for all concerned.

Yours sincerely,

MSDC FOI/DPA Team


Yes, that's right ladies and gentlemen, Mid Sussex Disitrict Council waited the full 20 working days to play the commercial confidentiality card. AGAIN.

They played the same trick back in December 2014. See here... https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/martlets_hall_burgess_hill#incoming-594606

Under FOI guidelines, you are supposed to respond to FOI requests as soon as possible. Could it really have taken 20 working days for Mid Sussex District Council to decide that the information sought falls under a confidentiality clause?

Needless to say I was having none of it and emailed MSDC's communications department to say this wasn't on, that I'd be bringing this to the public's attention and invited MSDC to respond.

Their response:

19th August 2015

Dear Mr Chapman,

I have been asked to respond to you regarding response times for FOI Requests. I would like to assure you that we do not treat anyone any differently when responding to requests and always endeavour to respond to FOI Requests as quickly as possible and within the 20 working day limit. Our figures for response times can be viewed on our DataShare pages, please see https://data.midsussex.gov.uk/View/information-governance/freedom-of-information.

I understand that you are disappointed with the response, but any decision to withhold information is not taken lightly and in the majority of cases where it is a qualified exemption, we must also consider the public interest test, which can change over time. This can often be what takes the time.

yours sincerely,

FOI/DPA Team

Digital and Customer Services

01444 477422

foi@midsussex.gov.uk

http://www.midsussex.gov.uk/6559.htm



A very infuriating response, lacking in a real explanation. The council hilariously included a link to their FOI response rates which shows they respond to about 50% of all requests within just 10 days. How is that supposed to make things better for someone that has to constantly wait the full 20 working days?

My response.....

19th August 2015

Dear Nameless FOI team member (Why nameless?)

It is the public's right to know what MSDC's plans are for entertainment and arts provision in the town. What is commercially sensitive about that?  That's two FOI requests now you've not released anything of interest. You do realise you can redact commercial information in documents?

Request Number 1: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/martlets_hall_burgess_hill#incoming-594606

Request Number 2: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/martlets_hall_facilities_apprais#incoming-693417

MSDC leader Garry Wall boasts of being a transparent, accountable and open council, then why do I always need to go down the FOI route?

All the council are doing is fobbing people off about the Martlets Hall and it is NOT right.

As for your claim that you respond as quickly as possible to FOI requests, I do not believe this to be true.

On  September 8th 2014, I sent you an FOI simply asking how many fines were issued in one car park on a particular date in East Grinstead when travellers invaded.
Here: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/parking_fines_issued_at_kings_ro

You took the full 20 working days to reply with ZERO as your answer.  How on earth does it take 20 days to find that out?  I had to make the FOI request as MSDC wouldn't answer by other means.  I put it to you that you deliberately delayed your response until the last possible moment as to lessen the effect of any story written as a result

Three FOIs in a row now you've taken the full 20 days. You'll tell me I'm just unlucky?

There's a deeply unhealthy situation at Mid Sussex District Council  now that every sitting councillor is from the same party. No one will rock the boat, there's a lack of true transparency (you're only transparent on what you are happy for people to know) and no one is accountable anymore.

I can't even turn to a local councillor for help because of the council's groupthink mentality.

As for how FOIs work, clearly I need educating on the public interest test, so why don't you invite me to your offices so we can discuss this in person? Invite Cllr Garry Wall along too.

Peter Chapman
BurgessHillUncovered.co.uk




We await the council's next move and will update this page when we hear more.

In the meantime, BHU have tabled another FOI request on the same subject, you can see it here:
https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/future_arts_entertainment_venue


Why All The Fuss?

I appreciate that some readers will be wondering what all the fuss is about. Well this goes beyond the potential loss of the Martlets Hall.

This is about Mid Sussex District Council behaving like North Korea. Deliberately keeping residents in the dark about about important matters and doing all they can to not release anything and fobbing people off with weak letters and emails.


Spread the word - It's BHU vs MSDC & The Freedom of Information Officers


Got an opinion on this story? Leave a comment below.....
Mid Sussex District Council, behaving honestly or deliberately witholding information to keep us all in the dark?

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