Thursday, 28 August 2014

Knowle relocation project: FOI request goes to tribunal: further reports

Further to feedback from today's tribunal in Exeter by the Express & Echo
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: FOI request goes to tribunal: latest reports... AND District Council puts Knowle on the market

... here are further reports issued today.

From the Save Our Sidmouth blog:


August 28, 2014 by sidmouthsid Leave a comment

This report has been sent to us by an observer.

‘The Tribunal hearing into whether East Devon District Council (EDDC) was correct in refusing to release information following an Information Commissioner (IC) ruling that it should do, took place at Exeter Magistrates Court on 28 August.

Sidmouth resident Jeremy Woodward had submitted an FOI request to EDDC, seeking information about the proposed relocation of the EDDC offices from The Knowle, Sidmouth.

The first session included detailed consideration of the role of Steve Pratten of Davis Langdon. Mr Pratten has been working full time on the project for EDDC; it was said that he was “embedded” into the staffing structure at EDDC, and had access to extensive email correspondence and contacts at EDDC. He said that Richard Cohen was acting as his line manager.

This confused the Tribunal Chairman who thought that it was at odds with the description of Mr Pratten being an independent consultant. The Chairman said the Tribunal needed to understand Mr Pratten`s role ast EDDC “without any fudging.”

The discussion produced the first bizarre moment of the morning. In seeking to demonstrate his independence from Davis Langdon directors on the project, Mr Pratten said that he only attended the DL offices in Bristol four or five times over two years, for reasons such as when he had IT problems to resolve. When he did so he had “extremely informal debriefs” (rather than meetings) with directors, which lasted only five or ten minutes. The directors did give him input from time to time – but not during the informal debriefs.

This prompted the IC barrister to ask Mr Pratten if they were “silent meetings”, to which Mr Pratten replied that the directors might “shrug their shoulders, but they didn`t speak”.>

When Richard Cohen of EDDC was on the stand he was questioned by the EDDC barrister, who was reading extracts of documents exceedingly quickly. Roger Giles asked the Chairman if he could ask the barrister to read at a speed at which the twenty five or so members of the public and press present could take in what was being said. The Chairman agreed with the request; however, later in the proceedings we were again treated to machine gun speed delivery.

The second bizarre element of the proceedings occurred towards the end of the morning session when Richard Cohen was being cross-examined by Richard Thurlow for Jeremy Woodward, who was unable to be present. Mr Pratten appeared to be indicating to Richard Cohen how he should answer the questions (I am far from being an expert in legal proceedings – but I thought that this was not permissible). There was considerable public laughter when Richard Thurlow asked Richard Cohen if he checked Steve Pratten`s work – and Steve Pratten nodded, and Richard Cohen said “No”.

At lunchtime the Chairman announced that the beginning of the afternoon session (which he anticipated might last an hour or two) would be taken in private so that confidential information could be examined. He said that the Tribunal decision would be available probably in two or there weeks time.

So we shall have to be patient for some time longer before knowing the outcome. It appeared to me that a key consideration in the Tribunal decision might be when the IC barrister asked Mr Pratten how he would feel if Richard Cohen decided to pass Mr Pratten`s reports to other companies, and Mr Pratten said: “I don`t think I`ve got anything to fear, to be honest.” This was a direct contradiction of the claim by Richard Cohen that to publish the reports would prejudice the project.’


From the independent Cllr Claire Wright:

Revealed at secrecy hearing:EDDC overview and scrutiny cttee was given edited report on office move

Thursday, 28 August 2014 3 Comments by Claire

EDDC’s overview and scrutiny committee was given an edited report to examine on the state of the Knowle buildings, it emerged at today’s Information Commissioner ICO) appeal tribunal.

The hearing, which took place at Exeter Magistrates’ Courts, was set up by the ICO after EDDC refused to comply with the ICO’s request to make public six progress reports on the office relocation project, insisting that they remain secret.

While trying to establish how much information about the office relocation was in the public domain about the project, a senior EDDC officer revealed that the overview and scrutiny committee in July 2012, had been given an edited version of a key report.

As a member of the overview and scrutiny committee, I remember this report clearly, which was decidedly sketchy. However, at no time was the committee told that it was a different version from the one that officers had access to.

At today’s hearing there was standing room only, with around 25 members of the public present.

The hearing was presided over by a judge accompanied by two lay people.

As each witness faced the legal teams, they took an oath to tell the whole truth.

There were barristers acting for both the ICO and EDDC. The cost surely ran into thousands for today alone.

EDDC had brought its appeal to the tribunal on a technicality. Officers were arguing that its relocation consultant from Davis Langdon, was effectively a member of staff because the key link with the council, Steve Pratten, worked at EDDC’s offices.

If this (very tenuous) argument convinced the judge and laypeople, it may be possible that EDDC could keep the information secret.

However, it emerged during questioning that:
- Mr Pratten mainly uses a Davis Langdon owned laptop to carry out his work
- Reports for the council are on Davis Langdon headed templates
- Mr Pratten has no responsibility in EDDC for decision-making or any involvement in council core business
- He has no staff reporting to him
- The contract was awarded to Davis Langdon, not to Mr Pratten
- The contract refers to possible wider help from Davis Langdon, not just from Mr Pratten

Save Our Sidmouth chair, Richard Thurlow acted in the stead of Jeremy Woodward, who had brought the original Freedom of Information request and subsequent complaint to the ICO.

Mr Thurlow asked several questions of both the EDDC officer and Mr Pratten.

It was pointed out (with a little irony) that while EDDC were now arguing that Mr Pratten was akin to a member of staff, the council had previously claimed that Mr Pratten’s reports were independent, when the overview and scrutiny committee had voted in favour of EDDC allowing Save Our Sidmouth to commission a properly independent report!

The judge intervened often, asking pertinent questions about Mr Pratten’s role, of Mr Pratten himself and of a senior EDDC officer, who was present to argue the council’s position.

Mr Pratten confirmed when asked by the ICO barrister, that he would be comfortable with the idea of another company (even a rival) viewing his reports.

This seemed quite odd to most of us, as this was surely far more potentially damaging to Davis Langdon than members of the public reading his reports!

At times the judge seemed sceptical and frustrated at what he was being told.

He asked for less “fudging” at one point

At other times the EDDC officer and Mr Pratten appeared to be disagreeing with each other as while one answered in the affirmative or negative, the other could be seen either shaking or nodding his head in disagreement with what was being said.

The ICO barrister suggested that if the Davis Langdon reports walked like a duck and quacked like a duck, they were in fact ducks. But EDDC teams insisted that the use of Davis Langdon headed paper was “arbitrary.”

The EDDC barrister talked in a frustratingly unclear gabbling manner, especially when reading out passages from reports. He had to be asked to speak more slowly and clearly so that members of the public could hear. In reply, he asked if members of the tribunal had copies of what he was quoting from, apparently irritated that he had to take account of members of the public trying to hear.

The word “embedded” was used a lot. The EDDC team was arguing that because Mr Pratten was “embedded” in the council he was effectively an officer and so his reports should remain confidential.

While much of the tribunal was interesting, I think most of us left thinking how disgraceful it was that EDDC should refuse to provide important information to members of the public (or even its own scrutiny committee) about a project that taxpayers will be paying for handsomely, if it goes ahead.

We should also not forget that the council has a truly dreadful record on openness of the entire project, with virtually all decisions on the relocation taken behind closed doors – see this blog post from a year ago - http://www.claire-wright.org/index.php/post/virtually_all_decisions_on_eddc_office_move_taken_in_private/

And that a request from the overview and scrutiny committee (led by me) that a group such as Save Our Sidmouth be allowed to commission their own survey on the state of the Knowle, were voted down by the conservative group at full council in February - 

Here’s a report from that overview and scrutiny committee meeting in January – 

Sessions may continue after today and a decision is not expected for two to three weeks yet.


1. At 08:23 pm on 28th Aug Mark Hawkins wrote:

Was it made clear who was responsible for the O & S committee receiving an edited report?

2. At 08:25 pm on 28th Aug Claire wrote:

No, but I think we can hazard a guess.

3. At 08:34 pm on 28th Aug Sandra Semple wrote:

I was at the court case and I am 100% certain that Mr Cohen said that it was his decision that the committee should receive his shorter report rather than the original longer one. He also said that the Committee was aware that it was receiving a redacted report and that “members of the O and S who were also on the Relocation Working Party should consider their position”. He did not elaborate on what he meant by that.

Revealed at secrecy hearing: EDDC overview and scrutiny cttee was given edited report on office move - Claire Wright

See also:
Today’s Tribunal : EDDC vs Information Commissioner & Jeremy Woodward | East Devon Alliance
First report on Information Commissioner v East Devon District Council | East Devon Alliance
Notable Sidmouth Residents outside Exeter Magistrates Court this morning (Information Commissioner v East Devon District Council) | East Devon Alliance

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