Sheffield City Council accused of 'suppressing information' on expensive cancellation of public consultation
Sheffield City Council has been accused of ‘suppressing’ information it had on the reasons behind the expensive cancellation of a public consultation over the future of Castlegate.
Last year, Councillor Mazher Iqbal cancelled consultations over the declaration of Castlegate as a conservation area, offering no explanation as to why after £10,000 was spent on consultation on the declaration, more than 50 letters were sent out and an exhibition was advertised.
In emails seen by The Star, the councillor – who is now under investigation for alleged breaches of code of conduct including in relation to these cancellations, which he ‘robustly denies’ – also informed officers not to release any information to the public or press about his decision.
Now, Sheffield City Council has been accused of withholding information it had in its possession from the public and of a having ‘culture of secrecy’ over the cancellation.
This comes following the submission of Freedom of Information requests by a member of the public regarding the reasons for the cancellation of the consultation, which they believe the council failed to answer honestly and in a timely manner.
Sheffield City Council has denied this is the case, and said that it does not yet have all of the information it needs to provide according to the FOI demands.
Mark Smith is a Sheffield resident who submitted the FOI request last October, in which he wrote: “Please provide any and all information held, associated with the Castlegate Conservation Area Consultation. Particularly (but not limited to) the cancellation of the consultation.”
He said: “When the consultation was cancelled the day before I thought that was highly suspicious. So having learnt about Freedom of Information Requests, I made one in October 2020.
"I thought it was a straightforward question, but the council delayed and delayed the response. I started to think that was looking suspicious in itself.”
SCC acknowledged its receipt of the FOI in October 2020, but Mr Smith believes his FOI remains unanswered. When he pressed the council for a response in the months since he first made the request, its responses ‘appeared contradictory’.
A response Mr Smith received from an SCC Information Access Officer in December 2020 cited a ‘backlog of cases’ as the reason for the delayed response, but said: "I can confirm that we have now received the relevant documents from the City Growth department but we need to review these before we can disclose them."
However, since then the council’s position on whether it has all the information apparently changed.
When he asked again on June 2, 2021, nine months after his initial request for information was made, SCC Information Management Officer Leon Kaplan wrote: “I assure searches for the information you have requested have been underway this week."
As revealed in The Star on June 1, evidence that the consultation was cancelled on Councillor Iqbal’s instruction was provided to the council by former SCC Head of Regeneration Simon Ogden in October 2020, when he submitted his formal complaint which prompted the investigation into Coun Iqbal’s alleged code of conduct breaches.
Among the documents submitted by Mr Ogden to the council were emails from Mazher Iqbal to officers in which he explicitly instructed the postponement of the Castle site consultation in September 2020, although he offered no explanation as to why.
Mr Smith said: “It now seems that Simon Ogden had prepared the information in October but it had been suppressed.
“The Information Commissioners Office are now investigating the case and have issued a decision notice on June 15 requiring response with 35 days. Failure to respond is seen as contempt of court.
"This issue has tied into [my] growing sense that there is culture of secrecy and covering up within some parts of the council."
Sheffield City Council said that there are two sets of records that are in the scope of the FOI request.
The first are reports and business documents relating to the Castlegate consultation from the City Growth service. The SCC FOI team says these were the documents it confirmed it had in its possession in its update to Mr Smith on December 11.
Although he knows of their existence and the fact SCC’s FOI team has had hold of them since last year, Mr Smith has still not been shown these documents in response to his request.
The council also said that the second set of documents it requires before it can complete the request need to be supplied by Coun Iqbal, and the team said they only initiated searches to retrieve these shortly before it issued Mr Smith with the update on June 10 – and these were the documents it was referring to in that update.
David Hollis, Assistant Director of Legal and Governance at Sheffield City Council, said: “We have responded to the applicant of the FOI request and have informed them of the receipt of emails dating 20 October 2020.
"The council takes the requests it receives from members of the public for official information very seriously, and is aware of the requirements to comply in a timely manner.
"The delays to processing the request are only because of the significant backlog of requests that have accumulated during the pandemic which we have outlined throughout.”