A Rudgwick campaigner for openness and transparency in local government has been praised for his ‘tenacity and diligence’ in forcing information relating to the North Horsham development to be made public.
At the time HDC asked consultants Dixon Searle Partnership (DSP) to review the viability information supplied by Liberty, which the developer used to justify the level of affordable housing and infrastructure contributions it was planning to provide.
Rudgwick resident Paul Kornycky challenged the council on keeping parts of the DSP report secret, but only some redactions were reversed.
After permission was granted he took the fight to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which ruled in his favour forcing the council to publish the full unredacted DSP report in February.
He then submitted a work programme suggestion to the council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee asking for it to look at how and why some key data was ‘incorrectly classified as commercially sensitive and thereby consistently and repeatedly wrongly withheld from the public’.
At the committee’s last meeting in September, Mr Kornycky accepted the revised National Planning Policy Framework should improve matters as far as the disclosure of planning viability data is concerned.
But he pointed out how a Freedom of Information request for an unredacted copy of viability information for Countryside’s south of Broadbridge Heath development had also initially been refused by the council on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.
Meanwhile on the North Horsham case Sue Kornycky added: “The democratic process of both public involvement and councillor debate were, without any doubt, disrupted. This must not happen again.”
In a report presented to members, the council’s chief executive Glen Chipp argued that decisions from the ICO were not wholly consistent and in some cases notices found in favour of not disclosing the full information where the facts were similar to those of the DSP report.
He pointed out that the ICO had already issued a detailed report, all senior officers involved in applying the exemption have now left the council, while new planning policy guidance on viability information has since been published by the Government in the revised NPPF.
Mr Chipp told members the Government had made it absolutely clear the ‘default position’ going forward was that information should be disclosed to councillors as well as the public.
Brian O’Connell (Con, Henfield) said: “I suppose where mistakes are made the council should hold its hands up. I think mistakes have been identified now and I do not see how anything can be achieved that has not been achieved already with the presentation of this report and the planning guidance and lessons learnt by this council moving forward.”
Toni Bradnum (Con, Nuthurst) added: “I think we should accept the recommendation. There’s no excuse in this day and age for withholding information unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
But she added: “I do not regard these as mistakes. I have said in past meetings about the North of Horsham development, they were not mistakes they were a deliberate attempt at the time to withhold information from members and from the public.”
Leonard Crosbie (LDem, Trafalgar), chair of the committee, said he had personally ‘learnt a lot of lessons from this North of Horsham case’.
He added: “Mr Kornycky has to be complimented on his tenacity and his diligence and his application to detail that enabled him to put together a complaint which required the Information Commissioner to make a report that the consequences of which are in front of us now. I think that was a valid thing to do and an appropriate thing to do.
“Unfortunately some of us as councillors were uncomfortable with the process but did not understand why we were.”
The committee agreed to note the findings of the ICO decision notice and the fresh planning policy guidance from Government on publishing viability assessments.
Later in the meeting Mr and Mrs Kornycky also suggested scrutiny looked at the section 106 legal agreement signed by the council and Liberty in particular the affordable housing shortfall and the viability review mechanism.
Mr Kornycky said: “The issue now isn’t the initial deal, it’s the apparent failure to clawback extra profit to comply with policy. This deserves investigation.”
Mr O’Connell described how a small group of members had meetings with planning officers for regular updates on the progress section 106 process and would then report back to scrutiny but these had stopped.
He said it might be appropriate for these to be reinstated, something other committee members supported.