Shrewsbury Town Council ordered to release land sale documents by commissioner

Shrewsbury Town Council has been ordered by the information watchdog to disclose previously withheld documents relating to the sale of a piece of public open space for housing.

Shrewsbury Town Council, which is based at Shrewsbury Library, has been ordered to comply with the notice from the commissioner.
Shrewsbury Town Council, which is based at Shrewsbury Library, has been ordered to comply with the notice from the commissioner.

In four separate investigations by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the authority was found to have wrongly refused requests to release the documents by claiming they were commercially sensitive and subject to “professional privilege”.

The requests were made by Dr Peter Day on behalf of Greenfields Community Group, and related to the sale of an area of land at Greenfields Recreation Ground to CSE Developments in 2017.

At the time of the sale, the council claimed the land in question did not form part of the recreation ground – a view also taken by Shropshire Council when it granted planning permission for homes to be built on the site the following year.

A judicial review brought by Dr Day concluded both councils had failed to establish the legal status of the land, which had been held in trust for the community – but that the trust had not survived the sale. The ruling was later upheld by the Court of Appeal.

During the course of the legal proceedings, Dr Day made several requests to the town council under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in an effort to obtain more information about the sale.

He asked for copies of correspondence between the council and its architects, Base Architects, and solicitors, Hatchers, as well as correspondence between Hatchers and the developer’s solicitors.

He further requested statements made by councillors and council officers to Michael Redfern QC, the independent investigator hired by the council last year to review its actions in selling the land.

The investigation was commissioned after the council’s “serious governance failings” in the sale were criticised in a Public Interest Report by its external auditors.

The town council refused Mr Day’s request for copies of the statements made to the investigation, saying they were held by Mr Redfern who, as an independent person, was not subject to the requirements of the FOIA.

A report by the ICO said: “The council added that [Mr Redfern] was not willing to release the requested statements. This was because when inviting statements… he stressed that honesty and transparency were paramount.

“Had he intended to release the information he would have had to warn potential witnesses that their comments could be released to third parties which would have required their consent.”

Upholding all four complaints, the ICO ruled that the council was wrong to refuse the requests.

The commissioner said all four requests should have been dealt with under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) rather than the FOIA.

The ICO concluded that “insufficient arguments have been advanced by the council” to justify withholding the requested correspondence with and between the architects and solicitors.

Turning to the statements made to Mr Redfern as part of his investigation, the ICO said the council was wrong to claim the statements were not subject to disclosure requests.

The report concluded that statements held by Mr Redfern “are held by him on behalf of the council,” and should therefore be released.

The commissioner ordered the council to disclose all the requested documents within 35 days.

The reports also found the council had exceeded the statutory time limit to respond to requests in all four cases.

Councillor Alan Mosley, leader of the town council, said: “We have taken very careful note of the Information Commissioner’s review and after seeking their further advice have fully complied with their findings.

“We are also reviewing our procedures to ensure that any errors on our part cannot occur in future.”

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