East Lothian Council has responded to just eight per cent of environmental information requests since it introduced a blanket policy of charging for information in 2019.
Figures released to The Ferret under freedom of information (FOI) law revealed that just 101 of 1,157 environmental information requests (EIR) received a response in the four years since the charging policy was brought in.
Many of the 945 EIRs which did not receive a response may have been dropped because the requester did not want to pay for information. However, the council has pointed out that some did not receive a final response because information was already in the public domain.
The data also showed that East Lothian Council (ELC) has recouped over £4,500 in fees for EIRs since 2019 with the average completed request costing just over £45.
Critics said the figures showed charging had “repeatedly deterred” requests and was creating “two-tier access to vital data” in East Lothian. This should “sound an alarm bell” for anyone interested in “identifying and preventing local issues with the environment”, one critic claimed.
ELC said it was “in the process of reviewing the charging regime” and was “considering issues raised” by campaigners.
Members of the public have been able to request environmental information from public sector bodies since 2004.
Organisations are allowed to charge for staff costs incurred when dealing with an EIR. However, the practice of charging is far from widespread. Just three per cent of the EIR requests made across Scotland result in the issuing of a fee.
ELC was rapped by the Scottish Information Commissioner in 2020 for “wrongly processing” non-environmental information under EIR legislation, which resulted in a fee being issued incorrectly.
East Lothian Environmental Information Requests (2019-2022)
|Year||EIRs received||EIR responses after fee paid||Fees paid (£)|
The Ferret spoke to a resident of Musselburgh who is part of a group that is critical of plans for a £52m flood protection scheme in the coastal town. They said that ELC’s policy of charging had created a “veil of secrecy around fairly standard information relating to the flood scheme”.
The scheme is to protect Musselburgh from flooding from the River Esk – which is expected to become more common as climate change worsens – as well as sea level rises.
But its cost has spiralled from an initial £8.9m to £95.9m, although the scheme now includes the replacement of the Ash Lagoons seawall which was not part of the original plan. The preferred scheme would see flood walls erected along large parts of the banks of the Esk.
Some locals argue it will negatively affect the local environment and wildlife and the way that the town looks.
“It’s a huge disadvantage that ELC is, as far as I’m aware, the only council that charges for information”, the Musselburgh resident told us.
“This is definitely putting people off pursuing their legitimate right to ask questions.”
McIntosh added: “The climate crisis is the single biggest issue that we will ever face, and the decisions that local authorities are making really matter.
“These charges are clearly putting people off from pursuing inquiries and holding local authorities to account.”
Read more stories that The Ferret has uncovered using freedom of information legislation here
Carole Ewart, convener of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland, condemned the blanket use of charging for environmental information requests and queried if there is a “means testing” process so people living in poverty can access environmental information.
She said that charging for information could be a “false economy” as it costs to issue invoices and process payments. There was also “reputational gain” to be had in proactively providing information, she claimed.
“The statistics show that charging has repeatedly deterred the majority of requests and that should sound an alarm bell for the public interest in identifying, preventing and detecting local issues with the environment,” she added.
An ELC spokesperson said: “Given the potential for the information being requested to be complex and held in different formats therefore requiring time and resource for collation, the council introduced a charging scheme as permitted by the regulations.
“We are currently in the process of reviewing the charging regime and will be considering the issues raised as part of this work.
“While 101 of the EIR requests were formally responded to, we know there were instances where we were able to point the requestor to the information elsewhere, as it was already in the public domain.”
Photo Credit: iStock/jdwfoto
This story was updated at 13:33 on 04/01/2022 to change the total cost of the Musselburgh flood defence scheme.