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Transparency matters: why is Bristol City Council failing on freedom of information?

Cable research shows that Bristol is worse than many other major cities at handling citizens’ FOI requests. Why is this a problem – and will the end of the mayoral system next year bring more open local government in the city?

credit: Laurence Ware

Investigations

“You are spending our money, and the Freedom of Information Act means we’re able to ask you questions about that, to make you accountable for your actions.”

So said local resident Suzanne Audrey in 2021, while grilling Bristol City Council on its failures to deal with freedom of information (FOI) requests – only six in 10 of which were being answered on time.

Deputy mayor Craig Cheney said the council was working to address the “systemic, longstanding issue” with answering FOI requests, which were introduced by Tony Blair to give citizens the right to access information held by public bodies.

But two years on, little has changed. This summer, the independent watchdog set up to uphold information rights slapped the council with a notice telling it to improve by the end of 2023. With Bristol’s mayoral system having faced criticism for years over a perceived lack of scrutiny, some argue the delays are a serious barrier to efforts to hold city bosses to account.

In barbed exchanges with residents at a public cabinet meeting in October, Mayor Marvin Rees blamed financial pressures for the council’s poor performance. “My invitation to you, in a political debate, is which frontline [service] should we take money from to put into these backroom issues?” Rees challenged Sid Ryan, an ex-Cable journalist who had asked a question about FOI performance.

It’s undeniable that the council, which has a budget shortfall of tens of millions of pounds, is skint. All councils are – with Europe’s largest local authority Birmingham having declared effective bankruptcy in September, and dire warnings other cities could follow. But new research by the Cable has revealed that almost all other large English cities do better at answering FOI requests on time despite the savage cuts they have faced over the past decade.

With Bristol set for political change from a mayoral to a committee system in six months’ time, is it time for a rethink on how it handles transparency and information rights?

Why transparency matters

It’s easy to see FOI requests as a niche concern, of interest to journalists and campaigners rather than most residents. The mayor makes a fair point when he asks where to prioritise service cuts after years of austerity and with inflation soaring.

Bristol, like most councils, has been forced to carve its backroom staffing levels to the bone. That’s so it can keep funding departments that deal with life-and-death issues, such as children’s and adults’ social care.

Local government is the most important site for FOI – it’s issues like potholes [that matter], not whether Michael Gove has a smoking shelter on his roof

Ben Worthy

But as with those crucial services, the council has legal duties under the Freedom of Information Act. The law says it must in most cases give requesters the material they ask for within 20 working days.

FOI requests also shed light on how well public authorities are carrying out the responsibilities that affect people’s day-to-day lives. When public money is tight, this is arguably even more important.

At a national level this process has been under attack. Research by Open Democracy highlighted the Tory government’s “secret war” on transparency, with “underhand tactics and legislative loopholes… used and abused to deprive the public of its right to know”.

This kind of work, which has included revelations about an ‘Orwellian’ unit set up to frustrate potentially damaging requests, has deservedly grabbed attention. But, argues Ben Worthy, a politics academic specialising in FOI, it’s at least as important to keep a focus on councils getting the basics right.

“Local government is the most important site for FOI – four in every five requests go [there],” he says. “Central government gets the headlines and the controversy – but it’s the potholes and other local issues [that matter], not whether Michael Gove has a smoking shelter on his roof, or whatever.”

Within the last few months, material that has come to light from FOI requests to Bristol City Council includes:

  • The “jokey” emails between the chair of a planning committee and developers seeking – ultimately successfully – to get the refusal of their controversial scheme to redevelop south Bristol’s Broadwalk Centre overturned.
  • The fact that over six years, not one complaint against a Bristol councillor had been upheld.
  • Bristol’s status as the area with the second-highest number of CCTV cameras pointing at public spaces in the UK.

Many of these important requests do not come from people sending them as part of their job. Instead they are from residents concerned about the place they live in.

But of course, FOI has also been crucial to local news organisations.

In the wake of this month’s chaotic evacuation of the Barton House high-rise, leaving 400 people temporarily homeless, material we had previously obtained under FOI showed us that fire safety surveyors had posed questions about the building’s structure as long ago as 2019.

And after two terrifying tower block fires last year – one fatal – the same batch of reports showed just how many of the city’s tower blocks (38) still had flammable material stuck to their walls five years on from Grenfell, which is now being removed.

Looking back further, freedom of information requests have also allowed the Cable to dig into the council’s use of bailiffs to hound residents over tax debts – which it subsequently promised to stop doing. They also revealed just how bad conditions had got for people housed at the Imperial Apartments development in south Bristol, helping force a review of the scheme.

How is Bristol failing?

Even when we managed to uncover information in the public interest, our experience was that the council often took far longer than 20 days to respond. So, we set out to find out how it compares to similar-sized provincial cities, by sending requests asking about their FOI performance. The results were striking.

Over the last five years Bristol has managed to respond on average to just under 70% of requests on time, with some years well below that. This compares with nearly 90% for cities like Bradford, Leeds and Manchester – and almost 100% for Leicester. This June, only 56% of Bristol’s requests were answered on time, the notice issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) this summer revealed.

Percentage of FOI requests answered on time, 2016-17 to 2022-23

The notice said that of 147 outstanding requests, two-thirds (96) were overdue by between 21 and 100 working days, with 12 exceeding the limit by more than 100 days. For a request about a live issue in the city, a lot can happen in 20 weeks.

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Nor is it simply a case of waiting. When investigating Imperial Apartments, we had to complain directly to the ICO just to get the council to reply – something members of the public also sometimes mention.

And sometimes the council’s approach comes across as downright obstructive. We sent our original request for the FOI performance data, on which this article was based, in early June. Most of the 12 big urban councils we contacted replied on time, while withholding some information that they said would take longer than the 18 hours maximum an officer can spend answering a request.

Not for the first time, Bristol did not even acknowledge our request until we chased it close to the due date – something it blamed on a technical issue. It then opted to withhold all of the information asked for, rather than releasing what it could within the 18-hour limit. This meant we had to start over and send a fresh request.

The council is within its rights to do this. But one former FOI officer called its approach “legal but rude” – especially as it offered no advice on refining the request, as required to do under the law, until the 20-day timespan had passed.

“It’s unhelpful towards requesters and against the spirit of the law, although in line with the letter of the law,” says Martin Rosenbaum, an FOI expert who worked for nearly two decades at the BBC. “It’s also a waste of everybody’s time – particularly for councils complaining that it is an administrative burden, this is an example of them increasing that burden on themselves.”

What’s to blame – and what comes next?

While Rees and Cheney put the problems squarely down to backroom cuts when questioned in October’s cabinet meeting, the council has sometimes been more reflective.

Papers from the same meeting admitted there was a “culture of de-prioritisation” around FOI in some departments. A year earlier, another report said the council needed to be more “transparent in its operations to reduce the number of requests” it receives. Yet those numbers, relative to the population (see box), are not out of line with what other comparable cities that perform better receive.

On that note the report, from November 2022, also lashed out at Bristolians for backlogging the system. It complained “most FOIs come from the same small group of people and have minimal public interest”.

We asked the council for any data it had to back up this statement. But it declined to provide any, because doing so would take too long, indicating the claim was at best based on anecdotal evidence. None of the other councils we contacted had any data on how many FOIs were sent by ‘prolific’ requesters, although some, like Manchester and Bradford, said the requests they receive have tended to become more complex and time-consuming over the years.

Whatever the reasons, it is worth noting that Bristol’s FOI problems predate Marvin Rees, whose critics have sometimes claimed he is solely to blame for a bunker mentality that avoids scrutiny wherever possible. The stats we obtained for 2016-17, when the mayor was only just getting his feet under the table, show Bristol’s record was the same then as it has been this year: just six out of 10 requests were answered within 20 working days.

At the time of publication, the council has little more than 20 working days – until the end of the year – to “find the root cause of delays” and be answering 90% of FOI requests on time. We requested an interview with Craig Cheney to discuss this, but instead received a statement from a spokesperson. “We have conducted an internal assessment and an action plan is being developed which addresses procedural, technical, and organisational issues identified following an internal assessment of our own current compliance,” it said.

Ahead lie May’s local elections, when the mayoral system will be replaced by a committee model where decisions are made by groups of councillors. Its supporters – including the opposition Green Party – argue that a higher level of scrutiny is ‘baked in’ to the more collective system.

“It will give the public more opportunity to engage with and scrutinise the decision-making process,” says Tony Dyer, one of the Green councillors for Southville. “The expectation is that the number of FOI requests will come down as decisions are made in a more transparent way.

“The ability for the public to access information that helps them understand decision making is an essential part of confidence in the system,” Dyer says, adding that if the Greens end up leading the council they would look to communicate “proactively” with citizens, including by helping them clarify requests, routinely publish more data and keep this process under review.

Should the Greens indeed end up in charge, they will face a far higher level of scrutiny than they have in their years of opposition. Just like Rees, they will have a near-impossible juggling act around keeping core services afloat. But whoever is leading the city, delivering a change in culture around transparency that convinces critics they are doing their best with scarce public money will surely be almost as tough a challenge.

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