What is it with @SurreyCouncil and their private meetings?

A recent article in the Surrey Advertiser ran with the headline: Lack of Transparency Over Eco-Park Meetings.

AT least 29 secret meetings between Surrey County Council and its eco-park partners took place after threats were made to pull the financial plug on the project.

No records were kept to show how decisions behind building the behemoth in Spelthorne were reached, it has emerged.

Campaigners and councillors have been fighting plans to build an anaerobic digester and gasification plant in Charlton Lane, Shepperton, since the proposals arose as part of the county’s £863m waste Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deal.

But despite repeated requests to discover how and why the site was chosen, they have hit a brick wall as the county did not keep records of key meetings with its eco-park partners.

The majority of meetings were project board sessions chaired by Trevor Pugh, strategic director for environment and infrastructure at the county council.

Lower Sunbury and Halliford county councillor Caroline Nichols said: “In my view, this lack of information means proper scrutiny was never done on the eco-park proposal.

“To approve the eco-park at Charlton Lane, very special circumstances had to be shown as to why there was no alternative to the application.

“If perfectly good alternative schemes did exist which could use other sites, it follows that the planning committee wasn’t really in a position to judge whether it had to give up green belt at Charlton Lane.”

In May 2010, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) wrote to Ian Boast, head of waste and sustainability, saying it was keen to see tangible progress on the eco-park.

Defra stated the next milestone would be planning approval, after previous efforts to build versions of the plans were rejected at Trumps Farm near Chertsey, and in Runfold, near Farnham.

If planning was not approved, Defra would advise the government the PFI contract had failed and would need to be paid back, costing the county millions.

Since that letter, there have been 29 private meetings between Defra and the county council.

Cllr Nichols said: “We know from Defra’s letter to Surrey in April 2010, [that] there was a very real threat the PFI grants would be withdrawn if Surrey didn’t get a move on with the eco-park project.

Without any minutes to show for subsequent meetings, the public has no way of knowing what promises Surrey made to Defra. With such an important decision at stake, this lack of transparency is not, in my view, in the public interest.”

A county council spokesman said: “The Project Board is an advisory, not decision-making body. It is made up of officers examining issues and preparing reports to give councillors all the information and guidance they need to make the best possible decisions to benefit Surrey residents.

“As such, it is not a requirement for minutes to be produced, though individual officers will be responsible for the delivery of actions agreed.

“To announce every meeting to the public and produce minutes would take up a disproportionate amount of time and resources better spent delivering services to residents.”

And in the recent parking consultation process for Haslemere, a Freedom of Information request for all the minutes of Councillor Renshaw’s meetings resulted in only three sets of minutes were produced:

We have considered your request which was for the minutes of the meetings that Mr Renshaw has attended specifically with respect to Haslemere parking changes.

The only meeting where minutes were recorded are linked below.

The Waverley Local Committee meeting where reports were considered.

The Reports are available on-line:

September P&D:

http://online.surreycc.gov.uk/legcom/CouncilP.nsf/f5fb086c73d64f3000256954004aed25/ef003323a62eb6878025790400356cef?OpenDocument

September Parking Review:
http://online.surreycc.gov.uk/legcom/CouncilP.nsf/f5fb086c73d64f3000256954004aed25/ca4c0c90b0249619802579040035d296?OpenDocument

December:
http://online.surreycc.gov.uk/legcom/CouncilP.nsf/f5fb086c73d64f3000256954004aed25/1a514de30485c3a88025795f003823e5?OpenDocument

There have been other meetings in Haslemere with residents about parking proposals that Mr Renshaw may have attended, however minutes were not taken by the the Council’s officers (although they may have been by the residents association/group).

We supply this information based on your original request.

Surrey County Council states:

“To announce every meeting to the public and produce minutes would take up a disproportionate amount of time and resources better spent delivering services to residents.”

Is that a legitimate reason or is Surrey County Council hiding information from Surrey residents?