On the 17th July 2014, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) issued Decision Notice FS50536742 against Scarborough Borough Council (SBC).
The Decision Notice issued relates to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by campaigners attempting to Save the Futurist Theatre from being bulldozed by the council.
The council has been attempting to build a case for the destruction of the theatre for many years. The council’s aim is to raze the Futurist theatre to the ground and join up the plot of land with one adjacent to the Town Hall, which will enable the council to sell off the larger plot to a developer and achieve a large capital receipt.
Despite the council having long had a policy of wilfully neglecting the maintenance of the theatre to build the case for bringing the wrecking ball in, the building has faired better than the council expected.
Estimates starting at £1.5million to bring the maintenance up to date have been the subject of discussion for many years, but the maintenance backlog was never addressed and the building was deliberately left to rot.
In 2010 the council commissioned a report by Gleeds & Knight Frank, which gave a variety of high level estimates for the development of the theatre site. The report was reviewed as part of the council’s Futurist Task Group, whose job it was to scrutinise the future of the theatre.
In 2012 a figure of £7million was quoted by Nick Edwards, SBC’s Director of Business Support and S151 Officer.
“significant backlog maintenance and upgrade costs mean that £7M of funding would be required to spend on the retained theatre“
The figure of £7million has been further used in press releases by the council, where it attempted to justify not investing in the theatre it had been deliberately neglecting for many years.
The Edwards’ quote prompted an FOI request by a member of the Save the Futurist Theatre campaign group, which was sent by letter to the council on the 11th March 2013.
Having received no acknowledgement or reply to the letter, the campaigner emailed the council on 17 April 2013 querying why no reply had been forthcoming from the council.
Another month passed and nothing was heard from the council, so the campaigner sent an email on 21 May 2013 chasing a response. The council replied the same day stating that the officer responsible for fulfilling outstanding FOI request FOIA2566 would be sent a reminder.
The council again failed to answer, so on the 11th June 2013 the campaigner requested the council perform an Internal Review as to why it has not responded to the FOI request.
An Internal Review is a complaint to a Local Authority about their response to your FOI request. If a Local Authority wishes to withhold information for whatever reason, then giving that Local Authority the chance to review their response to your FOI request is a required step before you take your complaint to the ICO.
The Information Commissioner first commented on the matter of the ignored FOI request in Decision Notice FS50506374 dated 18th December 2013.
“On 14 August 2013, the Commissioner wrote to the council recommending that it issue an internal review decision within 10 working days.”
“The Commissioner contacted the council again on 9 September 2013 and informed it that the complaint has been deemed eligible for formal consideration under section 50 of the FOIA.”
“To date, the council has not provided a response to the complainant. It is clear to the Commissioner that, in this case, the council has failed to respond to the request in accordance with the legislation.”
The pressure from the Information Commissioner eventually forced a response from the council on the 22nd of January 2014. The council stated it obtained the £7million figure from the 2010 Gleeds & Knight Frank report, which doesn’t actually contain a figure close to £7million!
Unhappy with the council’s response, the campaigner requested an Internal Review of the response on the 7th February 2014. The Information Commissioner contacted the council, and the council was then forced to explain themselves.
Laughably, the council claimed the £7million figure was derived from an earlier figure of £9million, minus 15% deflation, which still doesn’t add up to £7million.
The council further admitted to the Information Commissioner that it is unable to provide precise details of what the £7million would be spent on and what level of upgrade would be achieved as it did not hold that information.
“The Commissioner is therefore satisfied that on the balance of probabilities, the information is not held by the council.”
The admission by the council confirms that the Futurist Task Group had decided the fate of the Futurist Theatre using development estimates that could not be detailed nor substantiated. Therefore, any serious scrutiny of the subject matter, of which cost was a major factor, was essentially useless.
The broad estimates were not seriously scrutinised by officers of the council for accuracy. The council appeared to cherry pick figures to support the council’s aim of levelling the theatre to achieve a large capital receipt, which is in the best interests of the council and may or may not be in the best interests of the local taxpayer.
The council should be mindful of GIGO principle. If you put garbage into any decision, then you’ll get garbage out at the other end.
Perhaps the ticking off from the Information Commissioner will make Scarborough Borough Council think twice before putting further unsubstantiated and unrealistic figures into the public domain in an attempt to justify its actions.