The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has instructed Reading Borough Council (RBC) to publish an unredacted version of an internal report used in the sale of Arthur Hill Memorial Baths. The ICO said that RBC had not provided evidence or arguments to supports its decision to withhold this information for reasons of commercial confidentiality.
In July 2018, the Arthur Hill Campaign’s Peter Burt used freedom of information (FOI) provisions to ask the RBC for the full and unredacted report into Arthur Hill Baths that had been presented at a council policy committee earlier that month. This report identified the purchaser of the baths, how much it had been sold for, and the background to the decision.
In August 2018, the council refused to make this report public on the grounds that it contained commercially sensitive information. Mr Burt asked the council to review their decision, and in September 2018 the council again refused to disclose the information, citing section 43 of the FOI act, the section that covers commercial interests.
In September 2018, Peter Burt complained to the ICO about how RBC had handled the FOI request, disputing that the commercial interests of the council or potential buyers would be compromised by disclosure.
In January 2019, the council revealed that the buyer of Arthur Hill Baths was OOAK Developments, a Reading company directed by Arjun Singh Gill. In the same month, the council released a redacted version of the report to Mr Burt.
The ICO made their decision in May 2019. They said that although the council was permitted to claim they could withhold information for reasons of commercial confidentiality, they had to provide evidence and arguments to support that claim, and had failed to do so:
The Council has not explained how the release of the requested information would prejudice the commercial interests of the Council or the third parties (the buyer or the bidders) for Arthur Hill swimming pool.
The Commissioner considers that the Council has been given sufficient opportunity to provide evidence and arguments in support of its position.
The Commissioner therefore maintains her view that the Council did not provide adequate information to support its application of the exemption.
The ICO instructed RBC to publicly disclose the full report into the Arthur Hill baths by 25 June 2019.
In response to the ICO decision, Peter Burt said:
RBC’s arguments were so flimsy that it didn’t even bother replying to the Information Commissioner’s questions on the matter, and the Commissioner has quite rightly thrown out the council’s case and rejected its excuses.
But for deliberate foot-dragging by the council, this matter would have been resolved months ago and local residents would know why the council has decided to sell the pool to a property developer rather than keep it in community use.
There is no excuse for any more delays: if the council does not release the report immediately it will be clear that this is intended as an act of contempt for east Reading residents by the Labour councillors who run RBC.
The Whitley Pump asked the council when it would publish a full version of the Arthur Hill Baths report, why they were unable to support their arguments for withholding it, and if they plan to review their FOI procedures. RBC declined to answer any of these questions, and instead issued a statement:
The council has received a decision notice from the Information Commissioner’s Office requiring us to release information related to the disposal of Arthur Hill Pool, which we have withheld as exempt under S43 of the FOIA 2000 as likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any party involved in the disposal of the site. The council is currently reviewing its position and will be contacting third parties involved in the bidding process.
- The Arthur Hill Baths on the Whitley Pump
- Reading Borough Council FOI requests
- Information Commissioner’s Office
- Freedom of information act
- RBC policy committee 16 July papers and webcast
- Government watchdog says Reading Borough Council broke the law in concealing Arthur Hill swimming pool sale information
- Reading MPs join fight over secrecy of Arthur Hill Pool sale
- Arthur Hill Pool buyer revealed
- OOAK developments Facebook page and at Companies House
- Redacted Arthur Hill Baths report (PDF)
- Arthur Hill Baths blog