Council accused of ‘ducking answers’ on County Hall in Lewes

EAST Sussex County Council has been accused of avoiding giving a satisfactory explanation on the future of County Hall in Lewes.

Matt Kent, of Lewes Town Council, wants a definitive answer to persistent rumours the headquarters may be relocated away from the county town – possibly to Polegate.

His campaign under the Freedom of Information Act was highlighted in the Sussex Express last week.

Since then Cllr Kent has had a further response justifying reasons for not releasing details of an internal review currently being conducted by the council.

He was told his request for information on feasibility studies, cost analysis or internal communications would be too expensive.

A council Freedom of Information officer told him: “’Section 12 FOIA 2000 provides that a public authority is not obliged to comply with a request for information if it estimates that meeting the request would exceed the appropriate cost limit.

“This ‘appropriate limit’ is also set out in the Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2004. The ‘appropriate limit’ for non Central Government public authorities is currently set at £450. This is calculated at a rate of £25 per member of staff per hour. This effectively equates to a time limit of 18 staff hours.”

The statement continued: “To ensure an effective estimate of the time it would take to respond to your request, I have asked the relevant officer to estimate how long it would take for them to identify and locate the information you seek. The estimate for responding to your request exceeds 18 hours and therefore exceeds the ‘appropriate limit’.

“Where a public authority estimates that responding to the request would exceed the appropriate limit, there is no obligation on the public authority to carry out searches up to the 18-hour limit.

“Section 12 effectively removes the information from the scope of the duty to disclose altogether. I am therefore refusing your request under the provisions of Section 12 FOIA 2000.”

Cllr Kent said: “In the world of transparent local government, and irrespective of the time it takes officers to dig some or all of this information out, surely estate managers, council officers, or even county councillors for that matter, could at least step up to the plate and publicly respond to what the short- and long-term plans are for County Hall and the whole site. They must know.”

He added: “I now have two options; to either refine my request to East Sussex County Council under the Freedom of Information Act, or refer this insufficient FOIA response to the Information Commissioner’s Office in Cheshire.

“I hope in the meantime, however, somebody from the county council can respond to my concerns and Council Tax payers, instead of finding reasons to duck a fairly simple question.”