Arun rapped by regulator over data release ruling

Arun Civic Centre, Littlehampton ENGSUS00120130418113852
Arun Civic Centre, Littlehampton ENGSUS00120130418113852

ARUN District Council faces potential contempt of court proceedings if it defies a regulator’s order to reveal data sought by a freedom of information request.

The authority told a resident it did not hold full details of costs relating to a key Bognor Regis regeneration contract.

After delaying its initial response – and taking nearly five months to conduct an internal review – Arun was reported to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

“The commissioner’s decision is that Arun District Council does, on the balance of probabilities, hold further information and has therefore incorrectly applied the exception,” the ICO ruling read.

The request had sought details of all financial costs relating to the town’s regeneration, from the creation of the Bognor Regis Master Plan.

Key to this was expenditure relating to the £106million St Modwen contract, which saw the developer walk away last year.

Westergate resident Tony Dixon, speaking on behalf of Roger Thomas, who made the original request, said: “The idea that the council cannot identify records of its expenditure in relation to this contract is not credible.

“If its true then it seems that the appropriate checks and balances on the authorisation of public expenditure are not in place.”

The St Modwen deal, which related to schemes for the Regis Centre and Hothamton sites, depleted in value to between £25million and £40million by the time it collapsed.

Both parties entered into a deed of surrender on the basis of no compensation.

The council said it could not comply with the FOI request because it only held regeneration data for the region as a whole, not specifically for Bognor Regis.

It provided limited details but not the full costs requested.

Chief executive Nigel Lynn apologised for the ‘unacceptable’ delay in completing the internal review, which he said was due to the high volume of requests received.

The council is still considering its position on the ICO’s ruling.

He said: “We could not comply with this request as it only analyses its gross expenditure, gross income and net expenditure by reference to service areas, not geographical areas.

“There is no financial incompetence whatsoever as we conform to the code of practice on local authority accounting.

“We have a period of 35 calendar days, from the date of the Information Commissioner’s decision, to consider its position and, if necessary, appeal.

“This time period has not yet expired and we are therefore still considering the issues the decision raises.

“It would therefore be inappropriate to pre-empt our response to the decision at this time.”

Between April, 2014, to March 2015, Arun received 535 FOI requests.

Mr Lynn added: “We would like to emphasise, however, that, in this financial year, we have responded to an average of 96 per cent of information requests within the statutory timescales and in the previous financial year, the response rate was 97 per cent.”

Arun must supply the data within 35 days or release an acceptable refusal notice.