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Monday, 5 March 2012

More Information on Freedom of Information Requests

In January I visited the Cornwall Council 'roadshow' at the Pool Innovation Centre as part of the Core Strategy consultation process.

One of the more illuminating conversations that I had with a planning officer was that this latest consultation wasn't actually a statutory consultation. In other words it was one that the Council were conducting even though there were not required to by law.

Now you might think that this was jolly nice and considerate of a council that was determined to listen to people and seek views from the public.

In fact the planning officer rather spoiled that utopian image as he went on to explain that there would in fact be a further statutory consultation on the core strategy but by that time the whole plan would be set in stone and there would be no room to make any changes.

What is the point of a consultation if you can't act on the information received - clearly in this case the next consultation will, once again, not be a true consultation but simply a box ticking exercise - or so the council hopes!

If you look at the council's Statement of Community Involvement (SCI) it sets out the various stages at which consultation on 'Local Development Documents' (including the Core Strategy) will take place. The problem is that the SCI is less than specific about the exact format and timing of these consultations.

If there is, in fact, to be another round of consultation on the Core Strategy then I would be interested to know exactly when this will take place and what format will be adopted.

I emailed Cornwall Council and asked them these questions. After a week my questions had not even been acknowledged - let alone a full answer sent. I emailed the council again and still received no reply. Finally, I have asked for the answers to my questions as a FOI request.

We are told that FOIs cost £150 a time to answer. We are made to think that using FOI requests can be a waste of public money. The point is that without FOI legislation public bodies are free to ignore quite legitimate requests for information. It is not the FOI legislation that costs money to administer. What costs money is that fact that public bodies are forced to provide information that otherwise they might choose not to.

My questions will not take any longer than 10 minutes to answer by anyone who knows the answers - how does this cost £150?

Surely they are legitimate questions and a public bdy, supposedly there to serve the public should be looking to provide answers as part of its everyday service - especially when it claims to be open and transparent. Instead, two simple questions will take over a month to be answered.

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