Beware MPs brandishing FOIs

In Warrington, there is currently disquiet over plans by a housing developer to build on a park area known as Peel Hall.

Quite naturally, it’s a plan which has met with opposition and is a story closely monitored by the local paper, the Warrington Guardian.

Last week, it ran a story headlined ‘Council’s talks with Peel Park developer’ – the url is actually http://www.warringtonguardian.co.uk/news/9188090.Council___s_secret_talks_with_Peel_Park_developer/ – but the ‘secret’ appears to have been dropped from the main headline.

The story reveals that the council has met with the developer six times in the last eight month, thanks to an FOI put in by local MP Helen Jones:

They were revealed after a Freedom of Information request made by Warrington North MP Helen Jones.

“Residents will rightly be asking why it takes six meetings for the council to say no,” she said.

If ever there was proof that journalists should be wary of MPs brandishing FOI requests, it’s this. Why? Because there’s normally a political agenda at play. And that appears to be the case here.

Ms Jones surely knows that councils can’t just say no to planning applications which members of the public don’t like. There needs to be a reason, approved by law, to say no. If a council says no without legally-supported grounds, the council runs the risk of an expensive appeals process which could (and generally does) result in the Planning Inspectorate turning round and saying ‘actually, you can build there.’ The result is that the council has wasted money and still ends up having to approve the planning application no-one wants.

Seen in that context, six meetings in eight months with a developer who wants to embark on a controversial planning application doesn’t seem so bad, does it? In fact, it seems positively sensible.

But, as Ms Jones is aware, such an opinion would be unlikely to trouble the pages of the Warrington Guardian.

As for why the information had to be gleaned by a politician via FOI, I would suggests there are questions to be asked about the relationship between MP and council if Ms Jones really had no choice but to submit an FOI request – doesn’t really sound like a council and MP working for the common good of Warrington, does it?

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