Open spaces sell-off – Council refuses FOI request to release list

Bexley Council is proposing to ‘dispose of’ 27 open spaces, which it has admitted includes some parkland, in the period to 2018, and is consulting on doing so in its current budget questionnaire. It has declined several written requests to provide a list of the sites concerned, so that we can make a more informed decision. Mandy Stevens of FoTS therefore  submitted a freedom of Information request. The response is set out in full below. The Council is still arguing that releasing the information would ‘bias’ the outcome of the consultation, and is claiming that it is entitled to keep it under wraps as it is only being used for the purpose of ‘policy formulation’.

We continue to strongly urge residents to vote ‘disagree’ to the following question in the budget consult here:

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/strategy2018

to which responses must be submitted by 9 January 2015.

22. Parks: Bexley has 106 parks and open spaces plus numerous pieces of ‘green’ highway land across the borough. Disposal of 27 of these sites would generate receipts which would reduce the financing costs on the Council’s capital programme. Half the saving would be generated through the disposal of half of one site.This proposal is the disposal of 27 out of 106 open spaces or pieces of ‘green’ highway land (Total savings over four years = £1,620,000) current budget

* Since the Council will not say what sites are on the list, any sites could be on it. There is no guarantee that the ‘secret’ list won’t be changed if there is an ‘agree’ majority. Nor is the council going to promise that this will be the end of it. If given an ‘agree’ in principle, this could be used to justify more sell-offs in the future without prior consultation on the underlying assumptions.

* The Council has said that the list includes some parkland.

* Despite arguments about cutting maintenance costs by disposal, there is no promise to ring-fence the sales income for other open spaces, leaving them open to attack on the same grounds in future.

* Once given the ‘go ahead’ in principle, there is a high probability that Council will press ahead with selling off at least some sites irrespective of any opposition over particular ones. Given the revenue implications, and the fact that the Council is dancing around on a pin-head over how to squeeze its five-fold hike of housing numbers to 22,000 by 2030 into the Borough, larger sites with greater building potential – which would likely be of more importance to wildlife – could be at risk.  The Council’s dystopian ‘vision’ for ‘growth’ claims it can deliver large amounts of extra ‘development’ whilst ‘protecting’ what we ‘value’ about the Borough. To many of us, what is valued is the amount of greenspace.  We ask: what does the Council leadership ‘value’, and will they tell us?

* The best way to try and avoid having to go through the slog of fighting off site-by-site sell-off and planning proposals later is to get a heavy ‘disagree’ vote now.

* We actually think less ‘maintenance’ could be far better for wildlife if done in an informed way. The Council has a policy of enhancing biodiversity in parks and open spaces that is not fully implemented yet.

* In our view the Council should have sought public involvement to help cut management costs. It must know that the reality is that a lot of people will only get engaged when there is an immediate threat outside their front door, so it should have treated us like adults, published the list and invited volunteers to come forward before moving to the sell-off consultation stage. We now have to hope that once the list is brought out of the hat, the Council will allow proper time for discussion of alternative ways to cut costs without sell-offs.

* Land sales produce one-off income, not ongoing revenue.

Public opposition kept the Local History Archive in the Borough. Let’s stop open spaces sales ………..

Mandy commented “Some fairly dismaying statements in the letter.  The Council believes that at this stage:  ‘‎that‎ only those residents living in closed proximity to the potential green sites would participate and therefore the Council would not receive a wider response from residents in other parts of the Borough’ – i.e. we are all NIMBYs with no wider environmental concerns.  It also believes  it is entitled to develop policy and reach decisions ‘away from external interference and distraction’ – or local democracy as it’s also known!!

IMG07289-20140530-2037

More of Bexley’s green spaces disappear – here further former marshland at ‘Belvedere Park’ is being lost to ‘development’. (Photo: Chris Rose)

BEXLEY COUNCIL’S RESPONSE TO THE FOI REQUEST FOR THE LIST OF GREEN SPACES IDENTIFIED FOR POSSIBLE SELL-OFF

Dear Ms Stevens,

Freedom of Information Act 2000 – Information Request
Further to our acknowledgement of your request dated 5 December, I am now able to provide you with a response on the following question: “I ‎would ‎like ‎to ‎make ‎a ‎formal ‎request ‎under ‎the ‎Freedom‎ of ‎Information ‎Act ‎2000 ‎for ‎a copy of the list of green spaces‎ that ‎you ‎have ‎identified ‎for ‎possible ‎disposal.”‎

Firstly, as your request for information relates to land it needs to be considered under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, as opposed to the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

As indicated to you in previous correspondence on this matter I can reconfirm that at this time ‎the ‎Council ‎is ‎currently‎ consulting ‎publically ‎on ‎only ‎the ‎“principle”‎ of ‎releasing ‎from current use a comparatively small total area of park and highway land as an alternative to making significant reductions to the grounds maintenance work undertaken in the Council’s ‎106 ‎parks ‎and ‎open ‎spaces. ‎‎Consequently ‎at ‎this ‎early‎ stage ‎it ‎is ‎believed‎ that‎
only those residents living in closed proximity to the potential green sites would participate and therefore the Council would not receive a wider response from residents in other parts of the Borough.

The‎ information ‎you ‎are ‎requesting ‎is ‎held ‎by ‎the ‎Council ‎as ‎“internal‎ communication” which is being used to inform the formulation of Council policy in accordance with regulation 12(4)(e) of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. At this early
stage of policy development the Council believes it is entitled to space to develop ideas, debate live issues, and reach decisions away from external interference and distraction. It also believes that disclosure of the identity of these sites would inhibit free and frank discussions in the future, and that the loss of frankness and candour would damage the quality of advice and lead to poorer decision making.

Subject‎ to ‎the ‎outcome ‎of ‎the ‎“in ‎principle” ‎consultation ‎and ‎any ‎decision ‎by ‎Council ‎to proceed with the release of some or all of the provisional sites, all residents of the borough would be consulted on the proposal. Any intention to dispose of each site will be subject to the placing of a public notice within a local newspaper for two consecutive weeks.

Unresolved ‎objections ‎would ‎be ‎referred ‎to ‎the ‎Council’s‎ General ‎Purposes ‎Committee for determination. Any subsequent decision to develop one of these sites would then also be subject to more localised public consultation through the Planning process.

In reaching the decision not to provide this information to you at this stage, consideration has been given as to whether or not there is an overriding public interest that means the information should nevertheless be disclosed. The conclusion has been drawn that,
given that the disclosure of information as to the potential sites for disposal to the public at this stage might impact adversely upon effective public participation, it is not considered to be in the public interest to disclose the identity of the green spaces to you
at this time.

If you are unhappy with the way your request for information has been handled, you can make a complaint and request a review by writing to:
Complaint and Freedom of Information Officer
London Borough of Bexley
Civic Offices
2 Watling Street
Bexleyheath
Kent
DA6 7AT
Or by email to foi@bexley.gov.uk
Yours sincerely
Colin Rowland
Head of Park and Open Spaces

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3 Responses to Open spaces sell-off – Council refuses FOI request to release list

  1. Pingback: Bexley Council Strategy 2018 Budget Consultation | Blackfen Past and Present

  2. Muriel Simmons says:

    Disgraceful, they should remember who puts them in office. We have a right to know what is being considered.

  3. Pamela Andrews says:

    Hey guys. There’s is a draft budget review meeting open to the public at 7:30pm on 18 Feb at Bexley Civic offices where all proposals as result of massive gov cuts will be discussed. I’m awaiting the link to the agenda for that and will post. Then full council meeting open to public to discuss, agree and set that budget on 4 March 7:30 at Civic Offices. We can’t speak at the meetings but can take action when we know what’s at stake.

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