Public Interest in Empty Buildings

Does the public interest favour publishing lists of vacant properties? No, says the First-tier tribunal. Yes, suggests the launch of the government website “Find Me Some Government Space”.

On 22 January the First-tier tribunal (FTT) handed down judgment in the remitted case of Voyias v IC and Camden Council. Those looking for intelligent insights into the case, and the reasons why it was originally appealed to the Upper Tribunal, and then sent back to the FTT should read the excellent series of posts on the Panopticon blog. I’m here to make a much blunter observation: at the same time a local authority is strongly resisting publishing details of vacant properties, the government appears to be actively promoting similar publication.

At issue  in the FTT was whether the Council should disclose, under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA), addresses of vacant properties in its area. The information had been withheld on the basis of the FOIA exemption at section 31(1)(a)

disclosure…would, or would be likely to, prejudice…the prevention or detection of crime

The FTT had little difficulty (having been bound by the Upper Tribunal to consider indirect consequences of disclosure on the prevention of crime) in finding the exemption was engaged, holding that

releasing the requested information would increase squatting and that there would be an increase in the instances of various types of criminal activity directly connected to it*

When it came to the balance of public interest factors (section 31 being a qualified FOIA exemption) the only real factor pleaded in favour of disclosure was

The need to ensure that the Council takes appropriate measures to bring empty property back into use

And the FTT, at paragraph 55, afforded it “relatively small weight”.

Against disclosure were the following (not all of them accepted by the FTT, it should be said)

The inherent public interest in the prevention of all crimes…; The cost of securing properties vulnerable to squatting and repairing damage resulting from it, whether that cost falls on the private or public purse; The cost of evicting squatters; The potential detrimental impact on those directly affected by criminal damage; The impact on the community in the vicinity of a squatted property; The problems faced by Council staff having to deal with squatting and its consequences; The impact on police resources; The direct financial cost caused by property stripping.

Fine. FTT found the exemption engaged and that the public interest favoured non-disclosure of empty, unused properties. As John Murray has pointed out to me, this is somewhat surprising given that it also appears that many other local authorities have had little concern about disclosing similar information.

And one wonders why, if such prejudice would or would clearly be likely to arise, the government two days later launched  a website called Find Me Some Government Space. Launching it Chloe Smith, Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, (what a grand title) said

…we will have a number of properties both owned and rented that we need to do more with. Not only will this website help to save government money but we will see new opportunities, jobs and growth in local economies as new life is brought into empty, unused properties. [emphasis added, naturally]

These sentiments were, oddly, not reflected by the then Housing Minister Grant Shapps, when the initial FTT ruling was made.He said it was a “bizarre decision that flies in the face of common sense” and that publishing details of empty properties “in other areas has led to the numbers of squats doubling”.

Now – and I concede they are not residential – within seconds, using “Find Me Some Government Space”, I’d found a list of 30 properties for sale within a 20km radius of Camden Council’s offices. It’s not clear if they’re currently empty and unused, but the words of the Minister imply that those are the sort of buildings which will be on “Find Me Some Government Space”. Moreover, as the government clearly thinks bringing new life into empty, unused properties is connected to the creation of jobs and economic growth, will they be encouraging councils to disclose the very type of information this Council sought so hard to avoid disclosing?

*At the time of the request, squatting in residential properties was not a criminal offence, something that has now changed with the enactment of section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act.

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Filed under Freedom of Information, Information Tribunal

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