Uttlesford District Council blocks Indie bid to reveal spending on Stansted Airport legal advice
Uttlesford District Council (UDC) leaders are refusing to reveal how many tens of thousands of pounds of residents' money they are spending in the fight against expansion at Stansted Airport.
The decision by the Residents for Uttlesford (R4U)-run authority to conceal the bills has been condemned by the Liberal Democrat and Conservative opposition parties.
The council has rejected a Freedom of Information Act (FOI) request from the Indie to detail the total paid to legal eagles since March – when the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government rejected moves by opponents to take control of the process.
That signalled the Government was happy for the council to rubber-stamp its own planning permission for 43m passengers a year, up from the current cap of 35m.
However, R4U and the Lib Dems joined forces to stop the then Conservative administration signing off the details of the deal, and after R4U won control of the council in May's local elections, councillors sent the application back to the planning committee for review, in defiance of legal advice.
UDC's own public records show extensive spending on counsel this year, such as £26,429 to 39 Essex Chambers LLP PFA on February 27 and £24,870 to Cornerstone Barristers on April 17, but the itemised list for the period where R4U has commissioned second and third legal views is not yet available.
The Indie asked UDC for a total of its spending on legal advice related to the airport since March 20, when the permission could have been finalised.
The council's solicitor, Elizabeth Smith, denied the request, saying: "This matter is still ongoing, litigation is in progress and further proceedings may yet be initiated, and therefore the advice we have received is subject to legal professional privilege. Given the existence of actual litigation, we consider it to be in the public interest to maintain that privilege.
"Furthermore, that advice has been received from members of the independent bar. As individuals, they are entitled to the protection of the Data Protection Act and GDPR, and their fees are financial information and therefore sensitive personal data."
When the Indie responded that the newspaper was only requesting a total, not the contents of the advice or any individual payments to chambers – even though these will be made public in due course by the council itself – Ms Smith again refused, saying: "The council may be prepared to entertain a request for a global, anonymised figure at the conclusion of the matter, but not until then."
Cllr Christian Criscione, the UDC member for Flitch Green and Little Dunmow and deputy leader of the Conservative group, said: "It's absolutely unacceptable to withhold this information from the taxpayer.
"This sort of behaviour seems to be all too familiar of this R4U administration after just a little over four months. It's remarkable that the administration – who fought their campaign on the promise of transparency and open government – have refused this very simple request.
"This political football that they're trying to play is costing the council great time and resource that it simply cannot afford to expend.
"We're not asking for the content of the advice to be shared, we simply want to know its true cost. To say this would compromise the council's case is a nonsense, especially when you compare it to the fact that someone with access to the legally privileged information shared the first of these opinions with a lobby group!"
Cllr Alan Dean, a UDC member for Stansted North and leader of the Lib Dems, said: "It's clearly in the public interest that the cost of legal advice is made public. I'm hoping that the original decision to reject the FOI application will be reconsidered by council officers.
"An FOI request should not even have been necessary. Expenditure over £500 would normally be transparently published and the legal costs will be many times that amount; thousands of pounds."
Cllr John Lodge, the R4U leader of the council, was also asked to comment but has not done so.
According to Stansted Airport, some ten months after the council's planning committee approved its expansion to 43m passengers a year within the existing 274,000 flights-a-year cap, a date has still not been set when the matter will be concluded.