Monday, October 17, 2005

Can you do a u-turn on the underground?

Never mind.

It seems that one of the only big ideas of the Tory party in Birmingham at the 2004 local elections has spectacularly hit the buffers. This morning, a chastened and embarrassed Mike Whitless emerged from the Council House to admit that there was no hope at all of Birmingham getting an Underground system (a fact that I've noted a few times over the past year). They've decided to return to the original idea (and one backed by the other councils in the region) of an overground Metro, despite Cllr Tilsley's - the Lib Dem 'transport expert' and deputy leader - belief that the people of Birmingham won't stand for the construction mayhem.

What they aren't telling you is that this has only come out because of the persistence of one of my comrades and the threat of the Information Commissioner getting involved. You see, the city council rather hoped that we'd forget about this policy and it would all go away - they certainly didn't want to release the report.

Here's the story.

Back in August, he submitted a Freedom of Information Request asking to see the consultants' report into the proposal (well, if they are going to spend £125,000 of our money, he thought that reading it would be nice). Figures I've seen suggest that the true costs might be nearer £275,000, which makes it far worse.

Initially, this request was knocked back.

We are not able to respond to your request at this time as matters relating to the City Centre Tunnel Study have been deemed private and confidential for the duration of the work. This was agreed at the City Centre Tunnel Study Steering Group Meeting on Friday 7th January 2005 at 2pm. The attendees of this meeting included:
Councillor Mike Whitby (Leader)
Councillor Len Gregory (Cabinet Member for Transportation and Street Services)
Councillor Ken Hardeman (Cabinet Member for Regeneration)
David Pywell (Strategic Director of Development)
David Bull (Assistant Director - Development Strategy)
The minutes of the meeting recorded the following statement:
"It was agreed that all information regarding the City Centre Tunnel Study be determined as confidential under the Freedom of Information Act which came into effect on 1st January 2005 due to potential commercial sensitivities and effects on City Centre land values and developments."
As the study is now complete a report to Cabinet reporting the findings is being prepared for Monday 12th September 2005 which will be a public report.

Now, if you know anything about the FOIA 2000, you know that this is complete cobblers, so my comrade ploughed on. He wrote back, reminding them that this sort of 'determination' has absolutely no force in law (decisions on disclosure can only be taken when a request is received and this sort of prohibition requires the senior council legal officer to sign off on it, not some bunch of councillors and officers) and that he was entitled to know under which section of the Act the council proposed to withhold the data.

In the middle of August, the reply came back explaining that the council were refusing the request because they intended to publish the report (s22 of the FOIA 2000) and also because the report wasn't complete.

As explained above, the report has not yet been finalised, and the final version has not yet been released to us. Furthermore, as the delay between making a disclosure as a result of your request, and the scheduled release date, is approximately one month, I feel that the public interest in withholding, until the publication date of the report, is justifiable.
A date of the 12 September was given. Predictably, this date came and went, with no report being published and as late as last week, there was no date from the Cabinet member in charge, as Zoe Hopkin's comment reveals. Now my friend is a patient and fair-minded kind of bloke, so he gave them a few weeks and then lodged a complaint, asking that the decision be reviewed - entirely in line with the FOIA. Answer came there none, so last week, he fired off another note to the Birmingham City Council legal services team asking for the decision to be reviewed as a priority and threatening a complaint to the Information Commissioner unless the council properly discharged its responsibilities.

This seems to have stuck a rocket up somebody's backside and the council realised that they had no hope of keeping this embarrassing little secret under wraps any more. Indeed, to delay publication would mean almost-certain censure from the Information Commissioner. Hence this morning's press briefing - which wasn't, amazingly, preceded by a leak to the press over the weekend. That alone should tell you how hurried the whole affair was - let alone the fact that they haven't had a press release written.

And the result? Precisely what I forecast last year. The only difference is that my piece costs rather less than £275,000. Money that Mike Whitless and his gang of fools have wasted on a back-of-an-envelope, hare-brained scheme that was always doomed to failure rather than on investing in the people of Birmingham.

No comments: