Council’s arguments for withholding information from public engagement exercise

Bristol City Council is continuing to refuse a Freedom of Information request to release the full feasibility report on proposals for the Cumberland Basin road network. Unfortunately, the reasons given seem to reflect a wider reluctance by the current administration to provide comprehensive information about large-scale development proposals for our city.

In this case, the Council’s argument for not allowing the public to see the full range of proposals outlined by Arup et al are below:

 The Western Harbour feasibility study (the requested information) assessed different approaches to changes to the Cumberland Basin road network, some of which have not been taken forward because they are not viable. Early engagement on three initial ideas opened on 19 August and will not finish until 15 September. The decision on the next steps for the area is therefore on-going. There is a public interest in ensuring that public officials have a ‘safe space’ to work candidly and freely without being concerned that information could be released in a form where it is potentially misleading. While there is a strong public interest in knowing the decisions and actions taken by BCC are meeting transparency and accountability principles, disclosure of an early study would inhibit the council’s safe space to  consider the information, deliberate on issues and reach decisions.

 There is considerable public interest in favour of ensuring that disclosure does not interfere with the early engagement process or cause delay in making a decision on next steps if officers are diverted to deal with public and press enquiries on rejected ideas. Furthermore, releasing information on approaches that are not part of the early engagement process may result in significant public confusion and concern, however BCC would not be in the position to provide reassurances as the engagement process is on- going and a decision has not been taken.

 The decision-making process on the Cumberland Basin road network has not yet reached a conclusion and is still ‘live.’ Disclosure of all approaches included in the feasibility study while the early engagement process is on-going would disrupt this process as it would be likely to result in fruitless public debate and interrogation of officials as to unadopted positions and abandoned arguments. This would be likely to make it more difficult to bring the decision process to a proper conclusion.

 The feasibility study (the requested information) will be published on the BCC website when the engagement process has completed and the results have been analysed. It is not in the wider public interest to release the information before the process has been completed.

 Releasing information where the policy is still under development runs the risk of misleading public debate. Changes to the Cumberland Basin road network are subject to a high level of public and local media scrutiny. While we are aware that we can contextualise information on the approaches that are not currently under consideration, we are not confident that this will be sufficient to correct any misleading impressions or confusion that could be created within the local community if this information were released. We therefore consider that it is important for the public to know exactly what ideas are included in the current engagement process, rather than information about approaches which may not in the end be relevant.

CRN00225673 public interest test Reg 12 4 d (1)