The Scottish Information Commissioner has criticised the City of Edinburgh Council for its response to a Freedom of Information request about a recent cut price land deal at Meadowbank.
In his written ruling, Kevin Dunion has called on the Council to review its procedures and release further information. He also expressed his “surprise” at the lack of information the Council says it holds about a significant land purchase.
Said Mr Dunion: “I found that the Council was correct to withhold some documents that are publicly available in the Register of Sasines. However I also found that the Council was wrong to withhold two marketing reports.” The Council now has six weeks in order to provide these documents or risk being found in contempt of court.
His report details failings in how the Council processed a request for information from local resident Chris Gallacher. In addition to the information that was wrongly withheld, the Council ‘found’ information it originally said it did not hold only after repeated requests from the Commissioner. But it’s the lack of information relating to recent land deals at Meadowbank that drew greatest criticism from the Commissioner.
Two Council employees – who have since left – conducted negotiations themselves and kept no written record. The Council originally argued commercial confidentially as a reason for non disclosure before it finally admitted to the Commissioner what really happened.
Wrote Mr Dunion: “Mr Gallacher sought any information that the Council held relating to its purchase of 2.4 hectares of land in the Meadowbank area in 2005 for £100,000. In its responses, the Council advised Mr Gallacher that this land purchase was negotiated commercially and that it had no further information to add.
“Later, in communications with the Commissioner, the Council advised that the negotiations for the purchase were conducted orally, by the Council’s then Property Development Manager (who no longer works there) and that it held no record of any exchange of correspondence between the parties prior to missives.
“The Council submitted it had searched the email accounts and files of the Property Development Manager along with the files of a surveyor who had assisted him (and who had now also left the Council) and had found nothing relating to the transaction.
“When questioned further in order to understand why there would be no records prior to the missives, the Council explained that the purchase was carried out under delegated authority that permitted its Property Development Manager to purchase land (up to a cost of £100,000) for a specific project that had been budgeted for.
“Although the Commissioner is surprised that so little information was held by the Council in relation to a significant land purchase, he is satisfied following detailed investigation that the Council has now located all the material falling within the scope of Mr Gallacher’s request.
“However, the Commissioner is disappointed that the Council did not identify all relevant information when Mr Gallacher initially submitted his request. Additionally, he is concerned that the Council only located documents … after several requests from his Office. It is the Commissioner’s view that during its handling of Mr Gallacher’s request and the investigation by his Office, the Council repeatedly failed to conduct adequate searches. The delay in identifying relevant information had a significant impact on the time Mr Gallacher had to wait to receive additional information and a decision into this case.
“The Commissioner recommends that the Council review its procedures for handling information requests, and particularly for identifying relevant information, in the light of the failures identified in this case.”
Chris Gallacher welcomed these findings. He said: “I thank the Scottish Information Commissioner for his ruling but am very disappointed my Council withheld information and forced me to lodge a complaint.
“It now turns out the Council has NO documentation relating to the purchase three years ago of around 20% of the Meadowbank site. Today they expect £17 million from the proposed sale of around 40% of the site. Land that today is valued at around £8.5 million was sold three years ago for just £100,000, a fraction of its real worth.”
Save Meadowbank spokesman Kevin Connor said: “Aside from the obvious Council failings highlighted by the Commissioner, the main concern is the way Council officials refused legitimate requests for information about a cut price land deal on the Meadowbank Stadium site.
“The Council says it has no written record and the only two people who knew what went on have since gone. That’s a real pity as they managed to negotiate a deal over the phone to purchase land at 1% of its market value. It would be interesting to know how they did that, and if this is standard practice.”