Sat, 05 Oct 2019
WEST Berkshire Council is refusing to publish its email exchanges with developer St Modwen regarding the redevelopment of Newbury’s London Road Industrial Estate (LRIE).
The council spent £109,000 of taxpayers’ money on selecting St Modwen as its preferred partner for the regeneration of the LRIE and entered into a development agreement in 2015.
But last year, the Court of Appeal ruled that the agreement was unlawful.
The council was found to have breached EU law by failing to follow the correct procurement process and the development agreement was subsequently declared ineffective.
The local authority spent a further £363,545.66 of taxpayers’ money defending itself in the High Court and the Court of Appeal against Faraday Development Limited (FDL).
These costs, plus the £5.1m on delivering the new link road from the A339 into the estate, has brought the total amount of public money spent to £5.9m.
The Newbury Weekly News had requested to see correspondence between the council and St Modwen during a one-year period leading up to and after a Court of Appeal ruling.
However, the council dismissed the Freedom of Information request on the grounds of confidentiality of commercial or industrial information to protect a legitimate economic interest.
It said it had turned down the NWN’s request to see emails on three grounds.
It did acknowledge that there would be one benefit to releasing the information – transparency of its operations and use of public funds and value for money.
However, the local authority said that disclosing the information would prejudice itself and the developer by disclosing information relating to the development agreement.
It claimed releasing the emails would also prejudice confidentiality because it would (directly or indirectly) publicise information which may be used by “potential competitors, tenants and/or contractors tendering for construction work to strengthen their respective commercial positions”.
The council said publishing the information would also “likely threaten the future of the development compromising the council’s ability to deliver the development effectively”.
It said: “Accordingly, disclosure could prejudice the legitimate economic interests of both the contractor and the council.”
In its reason for refusal, the council said: “Provision of this commercially-sensitive information to other competing contractors would be likely to prejudice the operation of our contractors and could also impact on our capacity to obtain future contracts at value for money.
“In addition, it would be prejudicial to the council’s ability to tender and to achieve best value for money, disadvantaging our stakeholders and residents.
“While there is a factor for disclosure in the council’s requirement to be accountable for public monies, this can be satisfied by the normal accounting and auditing processes.
“It is therefore our view that the public interest in withholding this information outweighs the public interest in supplying it.”
The NWN has requested that the council conducts an internal review of its decision to refuse the request.