A fulsome FOI response — from a body not subject to FOI

When you submit a Freedom of Information request, of course, you’re asking for a defined piece of information; a successful request is one where that information is provided.

Sometimes, though, a response will provide more than has been asked for.

We always appreciate it when a public servant goes above and beyond the call of duty, so when one of our volunteers happened across this response, it was passed around the team for everyone to enjoy. It’s helpful, factual, and fulsome, with far more background detail than was asked for.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this response, though, is that it’s from a body that is not actually obliged to respond to FOI requests at all.

Neighbourhood planning forums

Neighbourhood Planning Forums are defined on the Gov.uk website as bodies which “[give] communities direct power to develop a shared vision for their neighbourhood and shape the development and growth of their local area”.

They came into being in 2012 as a result of the Localism Act, and you can check whether there are any near you on this map.

Neighbourhood planning forums can help set the policies against which applications for planning permission are assessed, so they have a significant potential impact on local areas. It’s even possible for planning permission for a development to be granted proactively if this is proposed by a forum and approved in a referendum.

We’re not aware of any law which would make Neighbourhood Planning Forums subject to the Freedom of Information Act. But so far we’ve included eight of them on WhatDoTheyKnow.

Listing bodies not subject to FOI

Wait — so if they’re not obliged to respond to FOI requests, why are they included on WhatDoTheyKnow?

Well, we often add bodies with a substantial public role when we believe that people ought to be able to make transparent and visible requests for information to them.

For example, we listed Network Rail and the Association of Chief Police Officers on our site before they became subject to the Freedom of Information Act (though we’re disappointed that ACPO’s successor body the National Police Chiefs’ Council is not yet formally subject to FOI).

You can see more than 450 bodies which fall into this category (ie, they are not subject to FOI but we believe that they should be) on the site.

In the case of Neighbourhood Planning Forums, in addition to their clear, significant and public role, there are a couple more relevant factors:

First, the Environmental Information Regulations, which allow you to ask for information around environmental issues, cover a wider set of public bodies than FOI and we think it’s likely Neighbourhood Planning Forums are subject to those.

Additionally, many of them are parish or town councils which have been designated as the local planning forum. Parishes and town councils are certainly subject to FOI.

Adding more Neighbourhood Planning Forums

If you looked at the map we linked to earlier, you’ll have noticed that there are many more Neighbourhood Planning Forums than the eight we’ve listed on WhatDoTheyKnow — hundreds, in fact.

Unfortunately, an FOI request that one of our volunteers, Richard, made in 2016 to request details and email addresses of every Neighbourhood Planning Forum was turned down; otherwise we’d have used this information to add them all to the site.

If you’re keen to see these bodies made accessible for requests through WhatDoTheyKnow, there are a couple of ways you can help:

  • We’re happy to add any more that are proposed to us — just fill in this form and give us any contact details as you can find.  If you want to help us add more than a handful then get in touch and we’ll arrange a more effective way of working.
  • If you can’t find any public contact details, you could try making an FOI request to your local planning authority  — this is your local council responsible for planning, who are also the ones to designate neighbourhood planning forums in your area — to ask them for any forums’ contact details. If you obtain the contact details we will of course add them to WhatDoTheyKnow.

Image: Martin Deutsch (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

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