Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Ron Aroskin

All my requests under FoI have been stonewalled in relation to a PPS7 planning application submitted in September 2004.

In 2004 an application was submitted to the local planning authority and to my delight the planning committee granted permission subject to ratification by Government Office before South East (GOSE).

At this point two neighbours with very deep pockets, who had objected to our planning application, went into overdrive employing a planning expert and made representations to GOSE. There followed a “call in” by the Secretary of State and eleven months later a planning enquiry began which to last for over 10 days.

In many ways that was the easy bit as at least all the proceedings that went on in the room were seen by all and recorded.

The intervening period was a camouflaged period of obfuscation and if there wasn’t so much riding on it would have been the makings of an episode of yes minister.

In January 2005 the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) came into effect and so keen to understand what had been going on at GOSE I applied under the FoI to see who had said what to whom.

The enquiry took its course and we had a team of experts on our side who were and are at the “top of their game”:

Our Planning Consultant who has an excellent record of successes.

The RIBA chair of the panel that award outstanding design awards.

The professor of historical architecture from Cambridge University.

A leading country house architect with an excellent practice and who lectured on country house design to architecture students.

Engineering and road consultants who worked for local authorities nationally.

Our landscape expert was very well known in his field and went on to head up the judges at the RHS Chelsea flower show.

Despite all of the above and the backing of the planning committee at the local authority we needn’t have bothered turning up.

The planning inspectors report was published a few months after the enquiry and was a clean sweep in favour of the objectors. Neither our planning consultant nor Legal council approached had ever seen such a one sided report.

No weight had been given to anything that any of our expert witnesses had to say. Much weight had been given to evidence put forward by the experts representing the objectors even where that evidence had been shown to be flawed under cross examination during the enquiry process in front of the planning inspector.

Photographs used by the objectors that had been cleverly edited and clearly misrepresented the reality on the ground were backed by the planning inspector even when he had seen the reality on the ground during a site visit.

The most troubling part of this process is that it has taken five years to try and get information out of GOSE and whilst some has been provided there is not enough to find the “smoking gun” and some of the information has in the intervening period been destroyed.

The commissioner of the Freedom of Information complaints procedure has overturned his own decision in our favour once GOSE objected to his findings.

All in all, if you believe you are living in a transparent democracy where all the government employees are playing by the rules, think again. They are playing by the rules but they decide which rules to pull out of the draw to use to get the outcome they want, hence my earlier reference to Yes Minster.

To this day despite the FoI and all the correspondence over five years I still am not allowed to know who said what to whom and what, if any, influence was brought to bear by the objectors and their representatives.

Sometimes laws are brought into place with the intension of giving us the feeling that we are getting our way in a democracy but don’t be fooled there are just as many rules behind these laws to make sure they are very rarely if ever allowed to be used.

I hope that this submission helps you in your deliberations as to whether or not the civil servants in this country have any regard for this law and the citizens of this country who are trying to follow the laws of the land but would appreciate a level playing field.

Should you wish to have more background relating to FoI requests made and responses received please let me know.

January 2012

Prepared 25th July 2012