Argyll and Bute Council may not know how many empty or disused public buildings it is responsible for, the FOI commission has concluded.
The list of empty properties emerged during a frustrating nine-month battle using Freedom of Information legislation, which included an erroneous statement that a building was empty when it was actually used as a shop by an elected councillor, and ended with a Kafka-esque impasse.
Here is how the saga unfolded:
September 2016: A request is made under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act for a list of all the council’s empty or disused property, and its value. This request is completely ignored.
November 2016: The council responds to a request to review this failure to respond by providing a list of 23 properties, with a stated value of £2.3m. This list is believed to be inaccurate so the matter is sent to the Scottish Information Commissioner.
December 2016: After the commissioner’s intervention the council provides a list of further properties which were ‘under offer and as such not on the market’ although still empty and owned by the council. There are 14 properties on this additional list with a total value of £532,000.
January 2017: The second list of ‘empty’ buildings is found to include a shop unit in Rosneath used as a butcher’s business by Robert MacIntyre, who was then an elected councillor. The council says this was an administrative error and business rates and rent on the property are up to date. Despite this it is decided that the council seems to have provided a full list, so the case with the FOI Commission is dropped in order to avoid unnecessary work for all involved. This is a mistake…
Later in January 2017: It emerges that the Rothesay Academy building on Bute is empty and owned by the council, but wasn’t on the list despite being nominated on a list of the island’s worst buildings by the council’s own officials.
The FOI commission cannot reopen the case, so a fresh inquiry is made…
January 31: A similar list is provided – still no mention of Rothesay Academy, but the butcher’s shop run by a councillor is still there, albeit with the proviso ‘not vacant as tenant is purchasing’. In fact it wasn’t vacant because it has been used as a shop for many years.
January 31: The council is requested to review the information as it is thought to be inaccurate/incomplete.
February 23: The council’s executive director of customer services Douglas Hendry responds to the request for internal review, saying: “You raised concerns as to potential omissions and correctly gave the example of the former Rothesay Academy Building. On further investigation part of the site has been sold. The main school building and remaining site are vacant and at this point we consider them to have a nil book value. Because the site has been subject to a partial sale this was omitted from the list provided to you and we apologise for this error.”
February 27: The Scottish FOI Commission acknowledges the second request for a decision, which was made after yet another empty property was found not to be on the list – the Castle Lodge Gate House in Dunoon, which was discussed at an area committee meeting last year and is about 400 metres from the house of Dick Walsh, leader of the council at the time.
May 17: Scotland’s FOI Commissioner announces her decision, saying the council has checked its databases and provided all the information it held – although it demonstrably did not provide information which was contained in committee reports.
She states: “The commissioner can only consider what recorded information is actually held by the council and not information it should hold, or what an applicant believes it should hold.
“She notes the searches conducted of the various systems and records in place at the time the request was received, together with the council’s explanations of its own business needs and the records it maintains to meet these.”
She concluded: “On the other hand, it is perhaps unfortunate that some of the context provided above was not offered to Mr Calvert in responding to his request or his requirement for review, with a view to managing his expectations as to the available information.”
My expectations are now well and truly managed.
The commissioner’s decision notice is here: DN078-2017-1
See also these linked stories: