LOCAL CIVIC QUARTER DEVELOPMENT

With confidence in our local councils at an all time low, it’s hard to see how things could get any worse. Until now.

Previously it was reported that despite a huge amount of public objection to development work, Hart District Council – in conjunction with Fleet Town Council – had no qualms about offering false reassurances and flat out lies to push their ‘regeneration’ plans for the Civic Quarter through.

Recently the council mentioned that it had put plans for the development work out to tender and using a Freedom of Information request, the public finally got a glimpse of what FTC and HDC have in mind for the future of Fleet…but if it’s so positive, why hide it in the first place and why make it a battle to get the information to share with the people they are supposed to represent?

So to bring us all up to date, according to the paperwork, a final design for the town has now been chosen….yep, they know what they have in store for Fleet, they have chosen the particulars of a scheme which may possibly build over Gurkha Square, which may involve more flats being crammed into the area, or shops, or….but wait, why are we guessing? Oh here’s why…

CIVIC REGENERATION PLANS KEPT FROM PUBLIC

After a second Freedom of Information request to ask what the plans for Fleet are, the council have decided you have no right to know. Yep, they refused flat out to tell anyone…(and took over their allotted time period to do it), they must have been searching extremely hard to find a clause they thought they could get away with. Here’s their official reply:

Re: Civic Regeneration Plans

The Council does hold the requested information and our response is as follows:

I refer to your recent request for information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  

 I can confirm that Hart District Council (the Council) holds the information that falls within the scope of your request.  

 As this request refers to a potential land regeneration scheme, the Council deems it appropriate to consider it under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR). The Council are withholding the information under Regulation 12(5)(e) which states: 

 “A public authority may refuse to disclose information to the extent that its disclosure would adversely affect the confidentiality of commercial or industrial information where such confidentiality is provided by law to protect a legitimate economic interest” 

The Council acknowledge that in order to successfully engage the exception, the Council has to establish that:  

·  The withheld information is commercial or industrial in nature,  

· The withheld information is confidential under the common law of confidence, contract or a statutory bar,  

· The confidentiality is protecting a legitimate economic interest, and  

· The confidentiality would be adversely affected by disclosure 

1) The withheld information is commercial or industrial in nature 

The Council considers that the withheld information is commercial in nature because it relates to the potential development of land owned by the public authority.

2) The withheld information is confidential under the common law of confidence 

The Council conducted a tender process to select the preferred bidder / project team. This process included a summary document which was released to potential bidders on a private and confidential basis. The respondents submitted their proposals on a confidential basis and the Council must respect that confidentiality.  

3) The confidentiality is protecting a legitimate economic interest 

The Council considers that the confidentiality is protecting the legitimate economic interests of the public authority and its potential partners. Without the mutual obligation in respect of confidentiality, the activities undertaken and the financial interests would be severely harmed. The commercial value in the confidential information would be lost if it was made public.  

4) The confidentiality would be adversely affected by disclosure  

Further the Council consider that by revealing potential plans, costings and land values at this stage would adversely affect the ability of the public authority and its potential partners to secure the most economically advantageous commercial agreements. Maintaining the confidentiality of the information is necessary to protect the commercial bargaining position of the public authority and its potential partners in respect of future negotiations. 

Public Interest Test 

1)      Public interest arguments in favour of disclosing the information  

The Council acknowledges that the potential proposed regeneration of the Civic Campus in Fleet is of importance to its residents and the proposals may have a direct impact on them. However, the Council argues that the financial information about the viability of a development project is different from the issue of the financial impact on individual residents.  

The project is still in its infancy and The Council has a communications strategy to allow the Council to provide information to residents to enable them to make informed decisions about financial matters that the area.  

2)      Public interest arguments in favour of withholding the information 

The Council argues that it is in the public interest that it is able to function effectively in a commercial environment and make the best use of public resources, including obtaining the benefit of a properly competitive tender exercise. 

The Council considers private sector development partners may be deterred from involvement with the project if commercially sensitive information is disclosed and this would not be in the public interest as it would impact on the Council being able to negotiate the best terms for the financing of the project.  

3)      Balance of the public interest arguments 

The Council recognises the key role in public engagement on potential regeneration schemes as being vital to understand feedback from the residents’ and users of the site. However, the Council also recognises that in this case, the specific information requested contains financial data that could be misinterpreted given the infancy of the project.  

On review of the above considerations, the Council have concluded that it is not in the public interest to divulge the information and is therefore withholding the requested information. 

As stated above, the project is still in its infancy and the Council are aiming to employ a communications strategy for this project in due course detailing progress and relevant information where possible. This strategy is not yet approved by the Council. 

IT’S NOT IN YOUR INTEREST TO KNOW THE TRUTH…

So the official reply clearly confirms that Hart District Council does indeed hold the information on the future development plans for Gurkha Square and the Civic Quarter. It then goes on to state that “revealing potential plans” would adversely affect the councils ability to get the best “commercial agreements”. Why is that? Could it be that the plans would be so unpopular that it would bring the development to a grinding halt under the weight of public opposition? – Maybe.

The council goes on to acknowledge that the proposed regeneration plans are of importance to residents and may even have a direct impact on them…but they really, really don’t want you to know what’s going on. In fact they appear to be saying that by sharing information about the future of your town with you, may deter developers from working with them…so they really don’t think it’s in your best interests to tell you. Are you fuming yet?…oh it’s ok though as “the council recognises the key role in public engagement on potential regeneration schemes as being vital” (seriously?!)….you just couldn’t make it up.

And the grand finale of the piece comes with the council summarising their skewed reasoning by admitting that they are going to withhold the information as “it is not in the public interest to divulge the information”.

“On review of the above considerations, the Council have concluded that it is not in the public interest to divulge the information”

Do you think the residents of Fleet have a right to know what’s being planned for their town behind their backs?

At a recent Hart District Council meeting, Councillor Steve Forster asked Councillor Richard Quarterman (head of the Civic Campus Regeneration Working Group) the question:

“Following the debacle over Gurkha Square, can the cabinet member confirm that that Gurkha Square will be saved?”

Councillor Quarterman replied: We haven’t made specific provision in our stipulation to the surveyors that it cannot be touched in any way but we are aware of public sensitivity of the square and umm…the cross party working group will I’m sure take that into account when its looking at any proposals that come forward”.

So the answer then, is that after everything Fleet has done to protest against the development of Gurkha Square, including having it made an Asset of Community Value (which remember, Councillor Bob Schofield made clear would not stop their development plans), they still have no intention of saving it.

Below: Is there no protection for Gurkha Square?

FLEET FOBBED OFF FOR ANOTHER YEAR

True to form, as the topic is getting a little heated again, Hart District Council suddenly find reasons to hold many more meetings and to send you packing until you’ve found something else to worry about. In fact Councillor Quarterman was clear to list all names of the companies involved in the upcoming discussions…let’s hope that by divulging such information to the general public, he hasn’t disclosed any “legitimate economic interests of the public authority”

Councillor Quarterman:

“HDC have engaged the services of a team to conduct an appraisal for the development of the Civic Quarter containing the Hart District Council offices in Fleet. Led by surveyors Montagu Evans and including architects HLM, cost consultants Gleeds and community engagement specialists ‘Create Streets’, the team will enable the cross party working group to assess the viability of potential solutions and will make recommendations for future development. we expect a full report to be available early in 2021.”

In the meantime, Fleet Town Council have made an announcement in their local ‘TownTalk’ brochure, that even more more upgrades to the Harlington (the building they intend to knock down), have been carried out, including some nice new LED lighting and changes to the electrical controls (on top of the roof repairs and livestream equipment). Remember though, Fleet Town Council have stated that they don’t feel they can support the costs of repairing a building they have no intention of keeping…no don’t worry, it’s not just you who doesn’t get it.

Below: The October edition of TownTalk with Cllr Bob Schofield happily announcing more upgrades to the Harlington.

So once again, Fleet has been fobbed off. If this all sounds horribly familiar it’s because it is…in fact this time last year, we were told to expected the results of the latest Harlington survey early next year. The development of the Civic Quarter is becoming a macabre dance that guzzles money without reason and is stuck on a loop, hidden behind a wall of lies and misinformation.

If Fleet Town Council and Hart District Council are withholding information from the local electorate and refusing to share details about a development which will reshape the town you live in, what else don’t you know?

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