On 12 August 2020, Morning Lane People’s Space submitted a Freedom of Information request to Hackney Council. We asked for all communication about 55 Morning Lane between our Council and private developers (“pre-application exchanges (January 2017-present) between Hackney Planning Department and the prospective developers of the 55 Morning Lane (Tesco) site”)
Public authorities have 20 working days to respond to such requests. Hackney Council took over 8 months. Such delays make it harder for residents to get involved and for grassroots campaigns like ours. On 22 April 2021, they replied, refusing to release any information. The Council asked their chosen developer Hackney Walk Ltd “to agree to the release of the information. They have responded saying that releasing the material into the public domain would be highly prejudicial to their client for commercial reasons”.
It is not surprising that a private developer does not want this information released. Hackney Walk Ltd have said nothing about their plans for the site in over a year and a half and their previous development in Hackney, the ‘Fashion Hub’ is a total disaster.
It is disappointing to see Hackney Council once again prioritising the interests of a private developer over those of Hackney citizens.
The Council’s response explained that they applied a Public Interest Test as follows:
“In favour of disclosure
“To inform interested members of the public of the content of discussion between the Council and potential developers of the site.
“Maintaining the Exemption
“The public interest of withholding information would be to prevent potentially jeopardising negotiations and putting at risk delivering development which achieves as many of Hackney’s planning objectives as possible.
“Issuing the material such as the pre-application discussion at this stage, shows only part of a picture and would prejudice the developer’s ability to freely continue those discussions.
“To release the viability information of Hackney Walk’s Limited internal appraisals would prejudice their commercial position and competitive advantage.
“Releasing the information about the consultation process whilst it is in its infancy would prejudice the ability to communicate the scheme effectively to local residents.”
This is biased in favour of the developer. Given this list of pros and cons, it’s not surprising that they concluded the “risks to the developer are considered to create legitimate threats to the delivery of a development which achieves as many of Hackney’s planning objectives as possible. These are considered to outweigh the public benefit of release of draft proposals which, if they were to be brought forward, would be subject to significant public consultation in any event”. The way the Council weighs up the benefits of openness and secrecy distorts the situation. Public interest is summed up in one sentence with no argument at all for why Hackney residents need this information. It makes it sound like a few people want to satisfy their curiosity. By contrast, the argument for secrecy is broken down into four apparently separate reasons. All four are versions of ‘it wouldn’t be to the developer’s benefit if the public knew’.
Hackney Council’s response does not engage with the huge interest in this development on a key site in the centre of Hackney. Nearly 1400 people responded to a survey that we did last autumn about the site and many more have signed our petition demanding an alternative plan including at least 50% council housing and that is informed by and useful for Hackney residents. Our experience talking with people outside Tesco shows that there are many more people who care about what happens to this site but who are unaware of the plans.
Hackney Council’s response represents secrecy rather than openness as necessary to deliver a development that meets Hackney’s planning objectives. We disagree. Public engagement is not an obstacle to good planning. As Luke Billingham and Alvin Owusu- Fordwuo point out, it was Hackney residents who predicted the abject failure of the ‘Fashion Hub’ and Hackney Council and Hackney Walk that got it wrong. We hope that our Council will partner with Morning Lane People’s Space and with other local residents in developing any plans for the site. Keeping people ignorant of the plans damages our ability to engage while they are still at an early stage and capable of being influenced.
Hackney Council’s response says that sharing information “about the consultation process whilst it is in its infancy would prejudice the ability to communicate the scheme effectively to local residents”. We disagree. Only through openness can Hackney Council and Hackney Walk Ltd rebuild trust with local residents. The five-year deal between them was signed four years ago. It has only one year remaining. So this is not a process in its infancy but one that is near its end. Hackney Council’s response raises suspicions not only about what’s being withheld, but also that any public consultation will be loaded in favour of the developer’s plan.
We haved asked Hackney Council to review their decision. They ignored us beyond the statutory 20 working days, so we complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). Hackney Council ignoted them too so the ICO have now taken up our case and will be looking into the Council’s refusal and whether it is in line with the law or not.
Morning Lane People’s Space submitted two further FOIs, both in September 2020. One asked how much Hackney Council expect to receive in fees from the developer. The other asked what due diligence had been carried out, in accordance with the Council’s policy on anti-money laundering, to ensure that no money laundering had taken place by Dukemister/Hackney Walk. In both cases the Council refused the requests on the grounds that this is “commercially sensitive information” and its disclosure “would not serve to benefit the public as a whole”. We also disagree with these decisions.