FOI: The council facing legal action if it releases a report which is clearly in the public interest

Local journalism often gets accused of letting councils off the hook by being more interested in filling pages rather than hold the powers that be to account.

When I challenge the people who make these claims, it often turns out their accusation is as lazy as the journalism they think they are deploring.

Often, those making the claims simply don’t understand how hard it can be to hold councils to account. Awkward press officers, politicians with think they have a natural gift for media management, opaque decision-making processes and a begrudging approach to FOI all make life quite hard.

And that’s before you factor in consultants being paid by the council to deliver reports then threatening legal action the company they are paying to write a report if they release the report.

That’s the bizarre situation the Liverpool Echo reported yesterday when it disclosed Liverpool City Council bought one of the famous Three Graces buildings with the intention of turning into a grand cruise liner ticket hall … only to find out how expensive it would be to do the conversion.

The ECHO can reveal that the council only received a consultants’ report showing the “astronomical” price tag after it had gone ahead with buying the building.

The council is so far refusing to release the Royal HaskoningDHV report on the basis that the Dutch-based consulting firm has refused for it to be made public.

The company has declined to confirm the council’s view, saying it can’t discuss work done for clients.

However, the ECHO has seen numerous reports it has done for other councils that have been published.

According to a Freedom of Information response to the ECHO from the council, Royal HaskoningDHV could take legal action against the council if it released the report.

It says: “The City Council can confirm that Royal HaskoningDHV have indicated that they wish the report not be made available to the public.”

The council does intend to make the report public at the end of the month, however. All of which makes for a bit of confusion – Why would a company not want something released under FOI which the council is planning to release later this month?

And why would a council announce a plan to create a grand terminal building for ships without first doing the study to see if was feasible?

Lib Dem leader Richard Kemp said the feasibility of the grand scheme should have been checked before pressing ahead with taking on the building.

Cllr Kemp said: “Buying this building without checking if it was feasible to pull it off is like somebody buying a house without having the survey done.

“It’s now about 100% certain it won’t be being used as a ticket hall when we were told that’s what it was going to be.

“If they’re not doing that, then it’s just another office block.”

A £15m office block, in fact…

With 173 comments and counting, I think this story is a great example of the great work many newsrooms still do trying to hold authorities to account against the odds … and how readers are quick to react to the stories we expose.

3 comments

  1. The Wirral Globe (Newsquest) has been making a damn good job of exposing and following up local council scandal for quite a few years now, and winning awards.

    On the flip side of the coin is The Wirral News (TrinityMirror). Absolutely hopeless No Council scandal since February 2013 – yes, a number of people have been watching their ‘performance’ very closely.

    So…. absolutely no excuses, since Wirral Council has put itself through the mixer ever since whistleblower Martin Morton revealed that they’d plundered £736,756.97 from the bank accounts of 16, but an undeclared much larger number of learning disabled Wirral Council tenants. Martin also revealed connections between councillors, senior officers and serious organised criminals who’d been accredited by Wirral Council to provide “care” for vulnerable Wirral people. Martin, for his sterling actions in the public interest, was bullied, mobbed and driven out of his job.

    Back then, the Wirral News used to cover it. But something happened around early 2013 to put the kibosh on The Wirral News ever “holding the council to account” again (I use quotes because newspapers can never literally DO this). We quickly had soft focus lifestyle tripe featuring the then new CEO Graham Burgess. And it’s descended from bad to worse.

    Now, what we have to endure is happy clappy bilge, populated by Frank Field, Esther McVey, Angela Eagle and the Wirral South Labour lady whose name always escapes me. Oh, there’s also a MAYOR’s column every week. Who could the Mayor be?

    Step forward Steve Foulkes, portfolio holder for Adult Social Services during the height of the learning disabled abuse described above. The very man who tried and failed to deny it, minimise it and cover it all up.

    So…… think again.

  2. Er… so as you can see David. THIS TrinityMirror paper, far from “holding the council to account” is rewarding proven learning disabled abusers with free column inches to fill. And fill it they do, much to the disgust of the local public.

    Angela Eagle (a contributor to the Wirral News) was up there today for the nation to observe, laying into Lord Freud for his callous words re: disabled people. But where was she when disabled people were having their bank accounts emptied in her own back yard?

    Nowhere to be seen.

  3. Fascinating that the Wirral News changed in this way in Jan 2013. So did the Liverpool Echo, at around the same time, and this was preceded by closure of an award winning blog (Dale Street Blues) and the death of sister paper the Liverpool Post. Did this happen to any other Trinity Mirror regional papers?

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