You know that feeling you get when an FOI request comes back and it says that there isn’t anything to reveal? Sometimes, that can be the best result of all.
The Fitzrovia News, a hyperlocal community news group covering the Fitzrovia area of central London, has been doing some digging into plans at Camden Council to create a Business Improvement District in the area, by the Fitzrovia Partnership.
BIDs will be familiar to many journalists – if enough people support them locally, the partnership can up taxes (or put a levy on businesses, depending on your view of the jargon) on the grounds the additional revenue will be pumped back into improving that particular area. How that money is spent had the potential to change a district entirely – which is why you’d assume that involving the public would be a given.
The Fitrovia News appears to have uncovered evidence that that isn’t obvious at all. It should go without saying that to take part in a ballot on the proposal, you need to be well informed, and the sentiment among many in Fitzrovia is that consultation had been distinctly lacking.
The council denied this in July, but then in August confirmed it should have done more to make sure people were aware of what was going on – by making sure that local councillors knew what was going on.
What prompted the change of heart? Well, it appears it was a well-timed FOI which, on the face of it, seemed to reveal very little documentation. But in this case, that rather proved the point:
In July Fitzrovia News submitted two freedom of information (FOI) requests to the council asking about the decision-making process leading up to allowing The Fitzrovia Partnership to hold a ballot for the BID. We asked what information was provided by The Fitzrovia Partnership and which elected members of the council were consulted.
There was very little actually recorded about the decision-making process with meetings not being minuted and so the information trail is not very clear. But the FOI response did reveal that the leader of Camden Council Sarah Hayward (who was a cabinet member at the time) was consulted about creating a new commercial district in Fitzrovia. This information she did not pass on to local councillors. Instead she asked The Fitzrovia Partnership to do so, but after the process to create the BID was under way.
What residents and small businesses were unaware of was that in 2011 The Fitzrovia Partnership published a “business engagement” brochure. In this brochure which we obtained via a FOI request from Camden it states: “Elected officials and community groups will be included in the engagement programme designed to inform the evolution of the Partnership”. The brochure outlined plans for the creation of a business improvement district and a likely timetable for its creation.
Yet this brochure was only distributed to 229 of the largest businesses in the neighbourhood. Fitzrovia News had never seen it before and neither had small business owners, residents or our local councillors.
The rest of the post can be read here. The council is now pushing the Fitzrovia Partnership to include the community in decision making. Which is good, but should it take an FOI from a community news organisation to ensure that the council takes the initiative to ensure that the public at large are kept informed? I would argue not.
It’s a complicated FOI but one which proves the point that when you ask the right questions, getting a ‘not much held here’ reply isn’t always bad news.