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UNSUCCESSFUL: Secret cost of legal challenge

UNSUCCESSFUL: Secret cost of legal challenge

Image: LDRS

Bristol City Council has side-stepped questions about how much taxpayer money was spent unsuccessfully fighting a legal challenge over a secret decision about zoo parking.

A statutory committee of city councillors and Merchant Venturers granted a 20-year licence for Bristol Zoo to use part of Clifton Down for extra visitor parking in January 2020, despite a legal duty to keep The Downs “open and unenclosed” in perpetuity.

The Downs Committee kept details of the decision secret until forced to reveal it by Downs for People, who subsequently launched High Court proceedings against committee members and the council.

As part of an out-of-court settlement reached in May of this year, the committee and the council agreed to pay the campaign group £72,000 and 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 council has told a member of the public that it is not obliged to – or cannot – answer his questions about the costs involved in defending the legal challenge.

Downs for People estimates £350,000 may have been spent on the case, including around £280,000 spent by the council and the committee, and other costs incurred by Bristol Zoo, the Society of Merchant Venturers, and the campaign group itself.

Spokesperson Susan Carter said the group was “dismayed” to learn of the council’s “extraordinary and depressing” responses to the request for the information, made under the Freedom of Information Act.

Geoff Collard submitted nine questions under the Act, which requires public bodies to provide information within 20 working days unless entitled to withhold it under certain circumstances.

Responding to his request from June 16, the council said the Downs Committee was not subject to the Act because it was a statutory committee created by The Clifton and Durdham Downs (Bristol) Act 1861, rather than a committee of council.

“Whilst the council has provided and currently continues to provide certain services to the committee, including legal support, the committee is at liberty to obtain these services from a third party should it so wish,” the local authority said.

“Therefore the council holds certain information in relation to this request but solely on behalf of the committee and therefore not for the purposes of the [Act].”

It said it could not say how much it cost the council to contest and resolve the case, as it did not hold any information about the cost of the time spent on it by council employees or consultants.

Legal staff spent “384 hours and 19 minutes” but the time was not charged to the committee so the cost was not recorded, the council said. Non-legal staff spent “little, if any” time on the case, and no private lawyers were hired by the council.

The local authority said it had not paid any money to Downs for People yet and none would be paid, and that it did not hold information about whether any other organisations, such as the Society of Merchant Venturers, had paid any money to the group.

All legal costs have been paid from the reserve funds of the Downs Committee, the council said.

Much of the reserve funding has accumulated from annual grants from the council of between £100,000 and £262,000.

And the council will have to make up for an expected shortfall in the committee’s finances at the end of this financial year of more than £173,000.

The committee aims to be self-funding, but the cost of the judicial review combined with lost income as a result of the pandemic left it with a hole of around £271,000 which was only partly filled by using the last £98,000 of its reserves, according to a budget forecast in May.

The council is obliged by the Downs Act to bail out the committee if it is in deficit at the end of any year.

Downs for People has written to the Lord Mayor of Bristol, as chair of the Downs Committee, setting out the cost and other issues that must be addressed in a report of the court case due to be produced later this month.

In the letter, the campaign group says: “The Downs Committee may not be a public authority as specified by the Freedom of Information Act 2000 but that does not absolve it from the need to account for its actions.

“The Freedom of Information Act sets out the minimum information that public authorities must provide under that Act: it does not prevent them or other bodies providing more information, either voluntarily or because of other regulatory measures.

“The Downs Committee is a statutory body answerable to the courts.

“Further, the councillors on the committee are acting in an official, not a personal, capacity. They must therefore adhere to the Nolan principles of public life [requiring accountability and openness] and the City Council’s constitution [reflecting ‘a presumption in favour of openness’].”

 

Words: Amanda Cameron, Local Democracy Reporter


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