Local government transparency & information access rights

A guide to help potential contributors develop their skills.

If you are considering contributing to Exeter Observer please see our contributors guide.

More contributor guides:

Local government transparency

Access to local authority meetings and documents and reporting rights

  • Relevant Exeter local authorities all leader & cabinet/executive local government model (vs directly-elected mayor) under Local Government Act 2000 (since amended by Localism Act 2011) but root legislation remains Local Government Act 1972 as amended by Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985.
  • Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 and Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014 additionally allow audio/video recording, live blogging etc.
  • Meetings of decision-making bodies must be open to the public (but position re. semi-formal or multi-authority meetings is unclear).
  • Minimum five clear days’ notice of meetings & agenda inc. reports publication required (then decisions record/minutes).
  • BUT public may be excluded from parts of the meeting if either confidential or exempt information would be disclosed (or to maintain order).
  • Confidential information has narrow definition.
  • Exempt information has wider definition (see below) - and is arguably misused.
  • A public interest test can be applied to exempt information claim to challenge redaction, esp. when significant public money involved.
  • Freedom of Information requests might be used to obtain exempt information.
  • Registers of member’s interests and personal expenses must also be made publicly available.
  • Where local authority is the copyright holder, documents/reports may be reproduced (with some privilege rights).
  • 1972/1985 acts apply to fire authorities and some joint committee and board meetings.
  • Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960 applies to local health authorities and NHS Trusts.
  • Health and Social Care Act 2001 gives powers similar to 1985 act re. local authorities with social service responsibilities, but with extended exemptions.
  • Also specific provisions for Police & Crime Commissioners & police and crime panels.

Schedule 12A to the Local Government Act 1972

Part 1 - Descriptions of Exempt Information: England

  1. Information relating to any individual.

  2. Information which is likely to reveal the identity of an individual.

  3. Information relating to the financial or business affairs of any particular person (including the authority holding that information).

  4. Information relating to any consultations or negotiations, or contemplated consultations or negotiations, in connection with any labour relations matter arising between the authority or a Minister of the Crown and employees of, or office holders under, the authority.

  5. Information in respect of which a claim to legal professional privilege could be maintained in legal proceedings.

  6. Information which reveals that the authority proposes -

    • to give under any enactment a notice under or by virtue of which requirements are imposed on a person; or
    • to make an order or direction under any enactment.
  7. Information relating to any action taken or to be taken in connection with the prevention, investigation or prosecution of crime.

    Part 2 - Qualifications: England

  8. Information falling within paragraph 3 above is not exempt information by virtue of that paragraph if it is required to be registered under -

    • the Companies Acts (as defined in section 2 of the Companies Act 2006);
    • the Friendly Societies Act 1974;
    • the Friendly Societies Act 1992;
    • the Industrial and Provident Societies Acts 1965 [Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies and Credit Unions Acts 1965] to 1978;
    • the Building Societies Act 1986; or
    • the Charities Act 2011.
  9. Information is not exempt information if it relates to proposed development for which the local planning authority may grant itself planning permission pursuant to regulation 3 of the Town and Country Planning General Regulations 1992.

  10. Information which -

    • falls within any of paragraphs 1 to 7 above; and
    • is not prevented from being exempt by virtue of number 8 or 9 above,

is exempt information if, and so long as, in all the circumstances of the case, the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information.

Local Government Transparency Code

Commercial confidentiality:

“The Government has not seen any evidence that publishing details about contracts entered into by local authorities would prejudice procurement exercises or the interests of commercial organisations, or breach commercial confidentiality unless specific confidentiality clauses are included in contracts.

“Local authorities should expect to publish details of contracts newly entered into – commercial confidentiality should not, in itself, be a reason for local authorities to not follow the provisions of this Code.

“Therefore, local authorities should consider inserting clauses in new contracts allowing for the disclosure of data in compliance with this Code.”

Exclusions and exemptions:

“Where information would otherwise fall within one of the exemptions from disclosure, for instance, under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, the Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community (INSPIRE) Regulations 2009 or fall within Schedule 12A to the Local Government Act 1972 then it is at the discretion of the local authority whether or not to rely on that exemption or publish the data.

“Local authorities should start from the presumption of openness and disclosure of information, and not rely on exemptions to withhold information unless absolutely necessary.”

cf.

Public accounts inspection aka audit rights

Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 & Local Audit (Access to Documents) Act 2017:

  • Conveys the right to examine and/or copy records of all transactions referred to in statement of accounts covering previous financial year.
  • Covers bills, invoices, receipts, deeds, property transactions, books, contracts (inc. commercial, exc. staff) etc.
  • Covers most public authorities except health service.
  • Only applies for six weeks in June/July each year, must be advertised inc. contact details (press officers must not be involved).
  • Local electors have additional right to ask questions (inc. of the auditor), object to auditor, request investigation.
  • BUT some commercial confidentiality (and personal identification) exemptions apply.

cf.

NB the government announced a review of local authority financial reporting in July 2019.

Information access rights

Freedom of Information Act 2000

Environmental Information Regulations 2014

NB covers more bodies than Freedom of Information Act 2000 with fewer exemptions.

Recent stories
Harlequins revised redevelopment scheme illustrative elevation

News  ⁄  Planning & place

Harlequins developer plans to scrap hotel to build second "co-living" block on shopping centre site

Existing planning approval will be factor in decision to return to earlier, rejected, vision which would mean 378 studios and "cluster flat" rooms along Paul Street.

Positive Light Projects - Sidwell Street entrance

Analysis  ⁄  Arts & culture

Positive Light Projects opens community arts centre despite CityPoint redevelopment threat

Parts of Exeter city centre are experiencing an unplanned renaissance as small shops and cultural venues move in to fill empty units on Paris Street and Sidwell Street, but uncertainty remains as the council still plans to demolish and redevelop.

New Haven Field in Exeter's Riverside Valley Park

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

River Exe green spaces and heritage harbour site threatened by "Liveable Exeter" development scheme

Exeter Civic Society and Green, Liberal Democrat and Independent councillors raise alarm at prospect of Exeter City Council development in river valley park and historic canal basin.

Extinction Rebellion climate activist Imogen May

News  ⁄  Climate & environment

Environmental activist Imogen May defiant after second liability order for non-payment of council tax

Extinction Rebellion demonstrated at Exeter Law Courts in support of Crediton lone parent who has withheld council tax for two years in protest over government climate crisis inaction.

Clydesdale, Nash and Birks Grange Village redevelopment illustrative elevations

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

University drops environmental standards for huge student flats development with council approval

University of Exeter and Exeter City Council both ignore own policies in plans to demolish 30 buildings and construct 50,000m2 of new student accommodation, telling us more about their priorities than their climate leadership claims.

Kinder Exeter community festival on Cathedral Green

News  ⁄  Community & society

Kinder Exeter community festival brings compassion and colour to city centre

Week-long event bringing artists, academics, students and communities together for online and outdoor activities was first of planned annual festivals facilitated by Maketank artists' collective.

Recent stories
Harlequins revised redevelopment scheme illustrative elevation

Harlequins developer plans to scrap hotel to build second "co-living" block on shopping centre site

Positive Light Projects - Sidwell Street entrance

Positive Light Projects opens community arts centre despite CityPoint redevelopment threat

New Haven Field in Exeter's Riverside Valley Park

River Exe green spaces and heritage harbour site threatened by "Liveable Exeter" development scheme

Extinction Rebellion climate activist Imogen May

Environmental activist Imogen May defiant after second liability order for non-payment of council tax

Clydesdale, Nash and Birks Grange Village redevelopment illustrative elevations

University drops environmental standards for huge student flats development with council approval

Kinder Exeter community festival on Cathedral Green

Kinder Exeter community festival brings compassion and colour to city centre

Never miss a story on Exeter Observer


Help power our public interest journalism

Featured stories
Kinder Exeter community festival on Cathedral Green

News  ⁄  Community & society

Kinder Exeter community festival brings compassion and colour to city centre

Week-long event bringing artists, academics, students and communities together for online and outdoor activities was first of planned annual festivals facilitated by Maketank artists' collective.


UN Secretary General António Guterres briefs the media

Comment  ⁄  Climate & environment

António Guterres on the climate crisis: "We are coming to a point of no return"

An interview with the UN Secretary General on the eve of the G7 summit in Cornwall published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration.


Devon Pension Fund fossil fuel holdings

Analysis  ⁄  Climate & environment

Devon Pension Fund fossil fuel investment position exposed by Shell and BP AGM votes

Shareholder support for Paris Agreement-compatible goals increases but fails to prevent continuing oil and gas exploration, extraction, production or consumption as experts intensify warnings that emissions reductions goals will be missed.


Exeter City Council 2021 election results ballot share percentage by ward

Analysis  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Did Exeter's local elections results tell a Labour success story?

Exeter Labour lost just one seat in the city council elections and held all seven of its county hall seats, but on closer inspection its performance was more mixed than these headline results imply.


Centre for Cities Exeter City Monitor graphic

Comment  ⁄  Economy & enterprise

Selective use of statistics presents an unbalanced account of Exeter's economic & environmental status

Exeter City Council's Chief Executive uses statistics to show the city in a good light, but in doing so presents a picture which omits important information about the city's true position.


Train at Okehampton Station in 2015

News  ⁄  Transport & mobility

Okehampton to Exeter "Dartmoor Line" passenger rail service reinstatement confirmed

£40 million Department for Transport "Restoring your Railway" funding to enable trains every two hours by end of this year, with plans to increase to hourly service during 2022. Stakeholders combine to get South West infrastructure needs onto Whitehall agenda.


Maclaines Warehouses beside Exeter ship canal

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

Maclaines Warehouses development tests Exeter Heritage Harbour status

Decisions taken behind closed doors in favour of commercial interests threaten maritime and waterway heritage vision for Exeter’s historic quay, canal and canal basin.


Global lockdown pollution level changes

Comment  ⁄  Climate & environment

I'm a climate scientist – here's three key things I have learned over a year of COVID

A leading climate scientist's perspective on what the community has learned over the past year about the interactions between the pandemic and the current and future global climate.


Exeter Guildhall needs repairs

Analysis  ⁄  Democracy & governance

£37.5 million council maintenance backlog caused by underinvestment to be part-funded by asset sales

Exeter City Council has allowed property assets to deteriorate while prioritising new schemes including the £44 million St Sidwell's Point leisure centre, forcing it to identify assets for sale to pay its outstanding repair bills.


Exeter City Council offices on Paris Street

Analysis  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Council pushes back on Liveable Exeter Place Board scrutiny following membership change

Exeter City Council has responded to an enquiry about disproportionate Church of England representation on the Liveable Exeter Place Board by accusing Exeter Observer of promoting a "partisan narrative" and claiming our public interest reporting "bears no resemblance to fact".


Harlequins shopping centre

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

First Liveable Exeter homes are substandard "warehousing for people" which is student accommodation "in all but name"

Harlequins shopping centre redevelopment approved by Exeter City Council includes 251 co-living units in seven storey tower block despite widespread opposition from conservation charities and community campaigners who have since appealed to the Secretary of State to call in the decision.


St Sidwell's Point development site outline aerial view

Analysis  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Exeter City Council executive members take direct control of city planning decisions

Council's executive now possesses majority on city planning committee, with council leader and planning portfolio holder also included despite national guidance, offering basis to challenge decisions and increasing democratic deficit.


Net Zero Exeter 2030 plan proposals vs Exeter territorial emissions vs Exeter carbon footprint bar chart

Analysis  ⁄  Climate & environment

Is the "Net Zero" Exeter plan fit for purpose? Part I: Exeter's carbon footprint

Exeter City Futures' carbon reduction plan ignores over a million tonnes of carbon emissions and massively underestimates the challenges facing the city. First in a series examining its flaws by Fridays For Future youth climate activists.


Food retailers at Queen Street Dining in Exeter Guildhall shopping centre

Analysis  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Unelected Liveable Exeter Place Board created to oversee city from the shadows

Exeter City Council has convened an unelected board that meets in private, does not publish its discussions or decisions and is taking responsibility for major policies which will determine Exeter's future.


Department for Transport New Road Layout for Social Distancing coronavirus road sign

Analysis  ⁄  Transport & mobility

Coronavirus exposes council failure to deliver Exeter transport plans

Devon County Council's failure to deliver overdue Exeter transport strategy and cycling and walking plan has led to an inadequate response to government demands for emergency coronavirus road layout changes.


Pulling Road Pinhoe Exeter zero carbon housing development site plan

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

Exeter's first "zero carbon" housing development includes 96 car parking spaces for 40 homes

Exeter City Council has approved plans to develop land at Pinhoe with a parking ratio of 2.4 cars per household as part of an "exemplar scheme for future residential development in the city" while accepting that zero carbon construction comes "at a cost to the provision of affordable housing".