Council criticised over Oxted parking request failure via @GetSurrey

In today’s Surrey Ad, by Chris Caulfied, Council criticised over Oxted parking request failure.

DEEPLY unpopular and ultimately abandoned plans for on-street parking charges have returned to haunt the county council (SCC) after it was criticised for not providing information requested by campaigners in Oxted.

The charging proposals saw 26,000 residents and traders across the county unite in opposition to them during the first half of 2011.

On February 20 last year, the Oxted Chamber of Commerce and Oxted and Limpsfield Residents’ Group wrote to SCC under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act and requested a copy of any business plan relating to the proposals as well as reports or other supporting documents.

More than a month later, and past the FOI 20-day deadline for responses, the council said there was no business plan in existence and provided five links to documents relating to the second part of the request.

After several communications, a complaint was made to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

The commissioner found that SCC failed to provide the information requested, failed to comply with the Act’s time limits and failed to provide the required advice and assistance.

Catherine Sayer, from the residents’ group, said: “The county council’s behaviour was totally obstructive, like being faced with a brick wall.

“They treated us with contempt and gave us virtually no information, in fact some of the little info they did give us turned out to be inaccurate.

“They wouldn’t engage with us in any meaningful way.

“We very much hope the Information Commissioner’s decision will lead to changes and that, in future, people will be treated with some respect and given proper answers to reasonable questions.”

Mrs Sayer added: “We very much hope SCC does learn and that they are more helpful in the future to people who are coming forward with reasonable requests and that at the very least they manage to tell us what information they can and cannot give.

“They didn’t take part in any discussions and we just hope that they will become a lot more helpful.

“We had businesses that were really threatened by the proposals, and their livelihoods threatened, and they could not get answers.”

Following the ICO decision, which was also debated at County Hall, the authority was given 35 days to rectify the complaint.

Liberal Democrat councillor Stephen Cooksey tabled a question to the leader of the authority, Cllr David Hodge, asking if SCC would comply with the ICO’s decision, that all SCC councillors be made aware of the decision, and that appropriate training was in place for officers to properly respond to such requests in the future.

Cllr Hodge replied: “The answer to your three questions is yes, yes, yes.”

But he went on: “It is disappointing that the commissioner did not recognise SCC’s position on the matter, that in the authority’s opinion, the number of officer hours – 40 hours in this case – could be considered as ‘manifestly unreasonable’, taking into consideration the administrative burden on officer time and distraction from core functions.

“Information was provided as part of the ongoing process of consultation and the internal review recognised further information that could be provided.

“I can confirm that the Corporate Information Governance Team will continue to review the lessons learned from this to ensure that adequate support, advice and training is available to officers across the council.”