Friday, 2 December 2011

Nocton Hall - FoI and Internal Review

This is the result of North Kesteven District Council's Internal Review into my Freedom of Information application and their response to it.

"From: Freedom of Information
Sent: Thursday, December 01, 2011 8:34 PM
To: Geoff Hall
Subject: RE: FOI Request 11/0588 - Nocton Hall - Internal Review Outcome.
Dear Mr Hall
I am writing in response to your request for an internal review of the FOI response made by the Council in relation to your request 11/0588 – Nocton Hall.

Before giving the outcome of my review, may I first address the issue of the delay in sending this communication. Whilst there are a number of reasons behind this, the length of this delay does not meet the expectations of the Council in terms of its customer service standards, and rather than make excuses, I would like to offer my sincere apologies for the poor service that I personally have provided to you. I fully understand your frustration in the matter, and your decision to refer the matter to the Information Commissioner, and am sorry for the inconvenience that this will have caused you.

Moving on to the outcome of the review.....  I note that the original request from you was

An account of all NKDC’s
  • Considerations
  • Decisions
  • Actions
  • Outcomes
  • Applicable Dates
with regard to the protection of Nocton Hall as a heritage property in the district of North Kesteven

As you are aware, the situation with regard to Nocton Hall is complex and actions related to this have been ongoing for a considerable period of time. Discussions as to the future of the Hall are underway at this time, and the Council have been working with English Heritage and/or the owners to try and resolve the issues. However, at the same time the Council has to be mindful of the potential for enforcement or legal actions against the owners dependent on the outcome of these activities.

I have taken these factors into account when reviewing the FOI response made and have the following comments:
  1. A large amount of information is available via the Councils internet on Nocton Hall, including Planning Application Consideration and Decision information - through the Planning Portal; and Officer/ Councillor considerations and decisions through formal committee papers and minutes via the Councils Committee System.   The links for these was provided as part of the response.   Where the information is available in a publically accessible format, the Council does have the right under the Freedom of Information Act to direct the customer to this format and in this case I uphold this element of the response. However, should you not be able to access this information, the Council would usually offer this information in an alternative format, but has the right to charge for both the extraction of this information and the provision in that alternative format, as this would exceed the time limit for formulating responses under the FOI Act. Should you require this, (and in light of comments later in this email), please contact the FOI Assistant through the Freedom of Information Email box.
  2. In relation to current activities associated with the options appraisal, any activities are in a ‘work in progress’ stage and could not be regarded as considerations, decision or outcomes at this stage.  I have considered the use of exemption Section 22, and the public interest test, and in the case agree that it would not be to the public interest to publish information that is incomplete or subject to change at this stage.   The outcome of the options appraisal will be published at a future date, and at that stage we will ensure that a copy of this is provided to you.
  3. As this is very complex situation and as previously advised, the Council has to be mindful of their position to carry out enforcement or legal actions against the owners of Nocton Hall, the view of the Council is that it cannot jeopardise their ability to carry out these actions, and again I have to upheld the decision to withhold documentation under Section 31.

In relation to your request for this review, you also commented on (a) your astonishment on not receiving one document through this process and (b) the facility to provide redacted information. 

On Point (a), whilst the Council has not attached documentation to the response, the Council has provided you access to a significant number of documents relating to actions, decisions and considerations on Nocton Hall and I refer to point 1 above.   I cannot therefore agree that we have not provided you with documentation.   If you would like to provide further clarification on the nature of the documentation you expected to see, then the Council may be able to consider this further (subject to the exemption comments above, and the paragraph below).

On Point (b), I have considered whether it was practical for the Council to inspect each document, committee paper and communication etc within our records to identify those that are not already in the public domain, and then to extract and provide you with appropriate documentation. The amount of information held by the Council would mean that the listing of, and extraction of, this information would significantly exceed the time limit previously referred to under the Act. As a result, the Council would have to charge for provision of this information. Should you wish to go down this route, the Council would assess the extent of this charge and notify you accordingly.  However, I note that your request was very open, ‘namely all’, and would suggest that a second option would be to refine your request to specific decisions, consideration or actions, or to a reduced timeframe, which may reduce the cost to yourself.  However, I should also state that until the Council had gone through this exercise, we would not be able to define whether documentation (which is not already publically available) exists which would not significantly be affected by the exemptions above, and therefore how much of the document may be redacted. Irrespective of the amount of redaction undertaken, the Council would still charge the full amount advised for this exercise.

This completes my full response to your request for an internal review.   If you are unhappy with the outcome of the review, your next course of action is through the Information Commissioner.   However, I note from your communication earlier today that you are already planning to undertake this action.

Should you have any further questions or comments on this matter, I would request that you contact the Council through the Freedom of Information email address rather than personal email addresses to avoid issues of messages not being picked up when named individuals are absent from the office for a period of time.
Yours sincerely
Michelle Carrington
Head of Strategy and Customer Services
North Kesteven District Council"

I have felt it necessary to conclude matters with the following correspondence, whilst awaiting the Information Commissioner's report into my complaint.
"From: Geoff Hall
Sent: Friday, December 02, 2011 5:45 PM
To: Freedom of information
Cc: Stephen Phillips [MP] ; Information Commissioner
Subject: Re: FOI Request 11/0588 - Nocton Hall - Internal Review Outcome.
Dear Miss Carrington,
Thank you for your Internal Review of my Freedom of Information request. I have noted the content.
You will be pleased to know, I do not intend pursuing any further information at this time under this particular FoI. This decision will not prejudice any future FoI request directed to a more focused timeframe and specific Council consideration.

However, I will not be retracting my submission to the Information Commissioner (sent 1st December before your reply arrived in the evening), as I would like a second opinion on the matter, especially that relating to the FoI action of referring me only to a generic search facility of your web portal. My opinion is the response should have at very least included provision of specific web links to the relevant documents concerned (however I do accept your comment on supply of hard copy documentation).

I will await the Commissioner's report with interest, but meanwhile would like your Planning Officer’s/Development Manager's comments on the following, so that I can better understand the difficulties that are faced by a District Council in preserving properties of merit:
I believe the following statute are available to Local Planning Authorities (LPA) for the preservation and protection of vulnerable properties - S215 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990; S77/78 and 79 of the Building Act 1984; S54 Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas Act) 1990 and S48 Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas Act) 1990.
It would appear S215 provides a LPA with the power to take steps requiring land to be cleaned up when its condition adversely affects the amenity of the area. S54 is for an 'Urgent Works Notice' which only insists on the minimum work required to provide stability and weather-proofing to a property, and provide against theft and vandalism... and is only a temporary measure whilst consideration can be given to future action; whereas S48 is a formal 'Repairs Notice', possibly leading to Compulsory Purchase, if there is non-compliance.
Q: What other statute is available to a District Council for preserving 'at risk' properties, especially those that are Grade II Listed?
It seems that LPAs experiencing a lack of co-operation with the owners of a property, is one of the main reasons why an Urgent Works Notice (UWN) is served. In some cases, I believe Councils may be reticent about serving such an order, due to the perceived bad publicity and because of financial and resource implications. Therefore, as a general rule it is preferred to tackle problems through negotiation and persuasion, using building or historic grants to secure repairs, where these are available.
If an UWN is unsuccessful in persuading an owner to carry out at least emergency works, it would seem unlikely the owner has any interest in preserving the building and the LPA should consider using its compulsory purchase powers to bring about a change in ownership. Furthermore, as an UWN is unlikely ever to result in a full repair, the threat of compulsory purchase has been shown to be more effective in enforcing action.
Q: This is how I understand the processes involved, is this an accurate précis?
I would appreciate you letting me know which Officer this is directed to for a response and the timeframe under which I might expect a reply under your normal Customer Service standards. I will also look forward to receiving a copy of the Options Appraisal in due course.
Yours sincerely,
Geoff Hall"

The following concludes the correspondence on this whole affair.

From: Freedom of information
Sent: Friday, December 02, 2011 7:55 PM
To: Geoff Hall
Subject: RE: FOI Request 11/0588 - Nocton Hall - Internal Review Outcome.

Dear Mr Hall
Thank you for your response.

As you have not asked for additional information under the FOI Act, and on reading your additional questions, would regard these as a request for advice on development policy, I have not registered this under the FOI system.   Instead I have forwarded your email onto Andrew McDonough, the Councils Development Control Manager.   Our normal customer service standards for responses to written communication is 10 working days.

Yours sincerely
Michelle Carrington
Head of Strategy and Customer Services
North Kesteven District Council
From: Andrew McDonough
Sent: Tuesday, December 13, 2011 12:57 PM
To: Geoff Hall
Subject: Nocton Hall

Dear Mr Hall

With reference to your email below, and in particular the two questions that you raise with regard to Statute, I am happy to comment as follows;

Q1: The main enforcement powers available to the Council with regard to the repair of Listed Buildings are Urgent Works Notices and  Repairs Notices. Such powers should normally to be considered only as a last resort, and following negotiations with the land owner who ultimately, as custodian of the property, has the liability for the upkeep and repair.  The drafting of a Condition Survey and an Options Appraisal are an integral part of the process for understanding the extent of works that need to be undertaken, and also for informing decisions with regard to possible formal enforcement action.

Q2: The use of compulsory purchase powers can be considered as part of the pursuit of enforcement action, but such a decision is dependant on many factors being taken into account. Such factors can include  the financial risks to the public purse, but more importantly relate to judgements as to whether enforcement and CPO action is expedient and proportionate. I must stress that as at this point in time, the Council has not formally considered the use of either enforcement action or the use of CPO powers in relation to Nocton Hall.

I hope the above is of some interest and no doubt you will be able to keep track of progress as part of the briefings to the Parish Council.


Andrew McDonough
From: Geoff Hall
Sent: Tuesday, December 13, 2011 1:39 PM
To: Andrew McDonough
Subject: Re: Nocton Hall

Dear Andrew,
Thanks for this reply.

I am encouraged by the recent report by Karen Bradford to our Parish Council on progress with the Options Appraisal. 

I shall be watching developments with interest and hope to be attending the update meeting with Karen, scheduled for 26 March at Sleaford.  I do appreciate the work you have been doing to progress matters in what are difficult circumstances.  May I wish you every success with your forthcoming strategy.

Best regards,
From: Elizabeth Woodworth
Sent: Thursday, January 19, 2012 2:24 PM
To: Geoff Hall
Subject: Information Commissioner's Office
19 January 2012

Dear Mr Hall,
Re: Complaint about North Kesteven District Council

Please find attached correspondence relating to your complaint to the Information Commissioner's Office.

Please note that to reply to this email it will be necessary to reply directly without changing any of the details in the subject box. This will ensure that your correspondence is allocated to the correct case.

Yours sincerely,
Elizabeth Woodworth
Senior Case Officer
From: Geoff Hall
Sent: Thursday, January 19, 2012 3:23 PM
To: Elizabeth Woodworth
Subject: Re: Information Commissioner's Office

Dear Ms Woodworth,
In consideration of:

1. The workload currently facing your Office, and that
2. I do not want to prejudice future good working relationships with the District Council

I have decided not to pursue with my formal complaint.

Yours sincerely,
Geoff Hall
From: Elizabeth Woodworth
Sent: Thursday, January 19, 2012 4:20 PM
To: Geoff Hall
Subject: Information Commissioner's Office
19 January 2012

Dear Mr Hall,

Thank you for your email. I have now closed the case.

Yours sincerely,
Elizabeth Woodworth
Senior Case Officer

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