BRISTOL: Fight for ‘confidential’ report
Source: Amanda Cameron.
Campaigners are fighting for the release of a ‘confidential’ report into their successful legal challenge over zoo parking on The Downs, which they hope will reveal how much public money was spent fighting the case.
Downs for People won £72,000 in an out-of-court settlement in May after launching High Court proceedings against Bristol City Council and the Downs Committee, whose job it is to manage the public common.
The case followed a secret decision by the committee in January last year to grant a 20-year licence for Bristol Zoo to use part of Clifton Down for extra visitor parking, despite a legal duty to keep The Downs “open and unenclosed” in perpetuity.
As part of the settlement, the committee and the council gave a legally binding undertaking that they would never again set aside land on The Downs for parking for activities taking place elsewhere.
Now the campaign group has called on the committee of city councillors and Merchant Venturers to ignore legal advice and publish a report into the legal challenge, and have threatened further legal action if they do not do so willingly.
Council legal officers told members it is “not possible” to publish the report as it is “subject to legal privilege and is therefore confidential”, a meeting of the committee heard yesterday (September 20).
The committee’s finances are underwritten by the council. The committee is forecast to be in debt by £189,107 by the end of 2021/22, “mainly driven from final legal costs associated with the defence of a Judicial Review and some ongoing Covid-19 related expenditure”, the meeting heard.
In a written statement to the meeting, Downs for People estimate about £420,000 of public money was spent fighting the legal challenge.
“£420k is a shocking amount to have been squandered on a court case that would not have been necessary if the Downs Committee had heeded our warnings that zoo parking on the Downs was unlawful,” wrote Susan Carter on behalf of the campaign group.
“The committee needs to account publicly for what has happened and explain what steps it is taking to ensure that it does not make the same mistakes again.”
The committee received a legal briefing on the case earlier this month, the meeting heard.
Peter Weeks from Downs for People urged the committee to publish a report about the legal briefing and asked specifically that it answer numerous questions, including the total amount of council taxpayer money spent on the case.
“Under the Nolan principles of conduct in public life, councillors we believe have a duty to make this information public,” Mr Weeks said.
“This committee is also governed by the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. Under these regulations, we can make a formal request for information, we can ask for a review and we can appeal to the Information Commissioner to force disclosure.
“But what we are asking for, is that you respect the Nolan principles of objectivity, openness and accountability and publish this information which is of significant public interest.
“And if the question of legally privileged advice comes up, may I just point out that legal professional privilege attaches to the client, that is to you the committee, so you can choose to waive it. Legal privilege is not a reason to withhold information.
“Finally I am quite certain that no one here wants to go down a legal route again.”
Conservative councillor Steve Smith, who chairs the Downs Committee as part of his role as Lord Mayor of Bristol, confirmed members received a legal briefing on the recent High Court challenge during a closed session on September 8.
He said: “The outcome of the meeting by a majority vote was that we were satisfied with the way that had been conducted, and the advice that we received from legal officers is that it is not possible to publish the information that we were given in that meeting.
“The legal advice we got was that the report – the information we were given in that closed session – cannot be published because it is subject to legal privilege and is therefore confidential.”
Cllr Smith said he would respond to an email from the campaigners setting out the information they wish to be made public.
“But I’ll do that in accordance with the legal advice that I’m given,” he said. “I’m not going to go against what our legal advisers advise me to do.”
The Downs Committee was formed under the Clifton and Durdham Downs (Bristol) Act 1861, which decreed that the Downs should be created for the people of Bristol and free from being enclosed.
A review conducted over the coming year will consider the roles of the council and The Society of Merchant Venturers, and the operation of any sub-committees.
Words: Amanda Cameron, Local Democracy Reporter
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