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The Argus's two-year battle for the truth about King Alfred
The Argus fought a two-year battle to force the council to release documents it had tried to suppress about the King Alfred application.
The release of the information has revealed the extent of unrest among city council planners before the controversial planning permission for the £290 million development on Hove seafront was approved.
It came after an intervention by the national Information Commissioner.
In July 2007, The Argus asked the council, under the Freedom of Information Act, to publish all correspondence between officers, relating to the King Alfred scheme.
The council refused the request, forcing The Argus to complain to the Information Commissioner.
In his ruling, Graham Smith, Deputy Information Commissioner, went as far as suggesting the council had provided information it knew to be inaccurate in its bid to block the publication of the letters.
The council had suggested that finding the relevant emails would involve trawling through the accounts of more than 100 staff.
Mr Smith wrote: “The council would have known that the relevant group of officers numbered around six rather than 106.”
He also suggested that if the council had known the documents would later be exposed, it may have led it to come to an “improved outcome”.
The report found that the council’s arguments had failed on all but one count and that it had breached three regulations in its bid to withhold the information, including using exemptions to justify the decision, which were not revealed to The Argus.
The commissioner wrote: “The council said it considered that, in the event that an appeal was lodged, the existence of an internal grievance about the recommendation to give planning permission would have adversely affected the council’s ability to defend that appeal.”
The Information Commissioner rejected this, saying that the council’s argument only showed it should have resolved the planning officers’ concerns.
The council also argued publication could reveal “the planning process might have been compromised” because of “political pressure”.
When the council was pressed by the commissioner, it then argued there had no pressure.
He also questioned the council’s statement that the release of the information would “call into question” the officers’ recommendation.
The commissioner wrote that if the concerns raised did not warrant serious consideration, the council should not fear the release of the information, but if they did, then “presumably that consideration should be addressed in the corporate report”.
He concluded: “Alternatively, if the concerns warrant serious consideration but are not addressed in the report then there would be a strong public interest case for disclosure elsewhere and the weight given to considerations which had been taken into account in framing the report’s recommendation should be called into question.”
A council spokesman declined to deal with specific criticism from the Information Commission.
In a statement, he said: “Any council is entitled to a view on whether a request meets FoI requirements.
However, we respect the commissioner’s alternative view and are happy to comply with it.”