A step forward in accessing environmental information

Plymouth City Council reprimanded over fee charging policy

Public bodies that think they can deter persons seeking environmental information by charging them for it should think again.

In a letter to Plymouth City Council (PCC), following a complaint made on behalf of our client, the founder of Save the Trees of Armada Way (STRAW), the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has issued PCC with a strong rebuke. The ICO is clear that:

  • a blanket fee for charging after anything less than 18 hours of work (as applies under the Freedom of Information Act regime) is most likely unreasonable;
  • any fees imposed must not deter persons from requesting environmental information;
  • charges levied must not exceed the costs incurred for making the information available; and
  • crucially, it is not reasonable to charge where the information is of wider public interest, such as in this instance where PCC’s scheme involved felling over a hundred mature trees in the city centre.

Public bodies that receive multiple requests for environmental information must, instead of aggregating requests and deeming them either manifestly unreasonable or subject to a fee, consider instead whether they have met their duty to make such information publicly available (regulation 4, of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR)).

As the ICO pointed out to PCC, when numerous people are asking for information about a scheme “it strongly supports the argument that there is a wider public value to this information being disclosed”. Sage advice for a Council that routinely charged individuals who were simply trying to understand the basis for the widespread destruction of urban trees in the heart of Plymouth.

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