I must have been one of the very first people to use the Freedom of Information Act, submitting my request to the Cabinet Office on the very first day possible. OK, it took me several years and a ruling from the Information Commissioner after appeal to get the information I wanted, but we got there in the end.
I was trying to track down details of a curious meeting between government and Wal-Mart, ahead of the latter bidding for Asda. This meeting was the subject of obfuscation, mis-leading information and denial – including to Parliament – and it is difficult to see why or what people felt they had to hide. The full story is told in a subsequent Environment and Planning A article “When Tony met Bobby” available from our depository.
I recall this as last week my interest was piqued by the use of the FOI Act by an independent retailer to find out how spending on the High Street Innovation Fund was going. This fund was set up as part of the response in England to the Portas Report.
The fund awarded money to 100 councils with the worst high streets in England. But in over a year it seems that less than 7% of the money has been spent and 47/72 responding councils had not spent a penny.
This follows earlier FOI requests by the same retailer, Paul Turner-Mitchell, which revealed that only 12% of the Portas Pilot Town money had been spent.
There are a number of points that can be made:
- FOI requests like these are really valuable in shining lights in to places and holding official groups to account – this is good use of the legislation and should be more common
- How can 28 councils, who received the money, get away with not meeting their legal duties to respond in full and in time? Should failure to comply cause a reduction or removal over their grant from the fund?
And in regard to the High Street spending itself:
- At a time of great need how can this slow pace be justified? High Streets need attention and delaying spending is wrong at this time
- Many of the projects though on which the money has been spent seem either to be cosmetic or replacement of spending that should be in place anyhow. They are trivial for trivial sums and projects – £165 for on a snow machine seems unlikely to me to “Save the High Street”
- Thus, if there is money to spend don’t we have to target this to make it actually have an impact (and not spread it around) and/or make sure that it is spent appropriately and quickly – delay seems perverse in our current climate and trivial cosmetics seem a ludicrous misunderstanding of what is needed.
We need to think big and radically in terms of our high streets and town centres. Paul Turner-Mitchell and his FOI responses have illuminated just how far off the pace we are.