Thursday, 25 April 2019

Council ordered to release emails

GORING Parish Council has been threatened with legal action after failing to provide a resident with emails between one of its volunteers and a developer.

The council is to appeal against an order by the Information Commissioner’s Office to confirm whether or not it holds the correspondence.

It says it has already told the complainant that it does not have it as the volunteer was operating in a private capacity using a personal email address.

The row was prompted by a complaint in July from a villager who had submitted a request to the council under the Freedom of Information Act for all communications between developer Bramhill, of Blewbury, and members of its neighbourhood plan steering group.

The company wants to develop a field to the east of Wallingford Road, behind the houses in Springhill Road.

It submitted the 3.8-hectare site for inclusion in the neighbourhood plan and a section of the field was included in the final draft earmarked for about 46 homes.

The council sent Bramhill’s site plans and drawings to the resident but said it didn’t have copies of all emails sent to the steering group members.

The resident queried this, saying the council was obliged to provide them.

The council replied that one group member had contacted Bramhill to arrange a study into the landscape impact of the development but it couldn’t release the emails as the individual was refusing to release them and it didn’t have copies.

It had no direct contact or legal arrangement with the company.

The Information Commissioner’s Office accepted that the council didn’t have the information on its systems but added: “The council ultimately carries legal responsibility for the neighbourhood plan, even where it has appointed community groups to work on it.

“The fact that it paid for works instigated by the steering group supports this contention.

“Any information held by the steering group… is for the business purposes of the council. It follows, therefore, that any information held by a working group member is held on behalf of the council under regulations.

“The council is required to confirm or deny whether the information is held and issue a fresh response that complies.”

The council was given until Wednesday this week to comply or face possible legal action but it decided to appeal against the ruling.

Chairman Kevin Bulmer said: “They’re asking us to do something which we have no power to do. Even the police have no power to demand emails from private citizens so it seems unfair for us to be taken to task over this. The ICO is treating us as though we were a district council or even a governmental body with no limit on our time and resources.”

Nigel Gilson, co-chairman of the neighbourhood plan steering group, said the group member had “declared their intention” to release the emails within the next few weeks.

The draft neighbourhood plan has gone forward for independent examination but has been held up by a European court ruling on wildlife habitats.

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