Environment Agency Information Comissioner and Me – Jan 2014

Environment Agency and Me – Jan 2014 tells the story of my involvement with EA up to 5 October 2012 when David Jordan declined to answer 7 FOI requests.

Here’s a brief recap

FOI Requests

The response I got from EA, principally Charles Beardall, prompted me write to Paul Leinster, EA CEO, on 16 July 2012 discussing SMP2 generally and my letter included 7 FOI requests.  In summary these were

1 I make a FOI/EIR request for all sites listed for managed realignment in Essex and South Suffolk SMP for each site please either
a) confirm you have evidence that sites chosen were vulnerable to erosion/coastal processes
AND SUPPLY A COPY OF THE EVIDENCE YOU HOLD WHICH LEAD YOU TO MAKE THIS CLAIM
b) deny you hold  evidence that sites chosen were vulnerable to erosion/coastal processes
In which case will you explain why you made this claim
2 Where is the evidence to support the claim there will be greater loss of intertidal habitat in epoch 2 and 3, I make an FOI/EIR request that it is produced.
3 At Holland Haven (PDZ C2) the defences are under pressure and a landward realigment will create a more sustainable situation by reducing the pressure on defences and moving to a more natural coastal frontage.  Please supply under FOI/EIR all evidence that supports the above statement re PDZ C2.
4 It appears Anglian region did not have anyone capable of calculating the slope of a graph and had to hire an external consultant. I should ask for you money back as the answer they gave was not only wrong, it was glaringly obviously wrong. I make an FOI/EIR request as to how much money was spent on hiring this consultant
5 Given Pye finds sedimentation rate to saltmarsh (not just creation, but its continued health and existence) has EA or NE conducted any sedimentation studies at proposed managed realignment sites and existing saltmarsh locations. I make an FOI/EIR request for details of any such surveys and the results if any surveys have taken place.
6 How about surveys of sulphides or other pollutants, again I make an FOI/EIR request for details of any such surveys and the results if any surveys have taken place.
7 I make a FOI/EIR request for the information EA holds which caused it to state it wouldn’t be feasible to carry out detailed enough study to assess the sole affect of crabs.

According to legislation anyone receiving a FOI request must respond within 20 working days. So there should have been a response by 14 August.

On 3 September I got a reply from David Jordan COO of EA

I am sorry if your experience of our organisation has not met your expectations ….

There remains one further step that I will be asking my Area colleagues to take which is to examine a list of what I consider to be your Freedom of Information requests. They will be offering you a meeting to discuss and clarify requirements in order to bring anything they find to be current or outstanding to a conclusion during that meeting.

For the future, I do not believe it would be productive to engage in further discussions in connection with the SMP and therefore propose that this matter is concluded between you and the Environment Agency.

So more than 2 weeks after the FOI deadline EA are baldly stating they haven’t even got around to starting answering FOI requests.

Nothing happened so by 5 October, after advice from ICO, I  emailed  to David Jordan

Dear Environment Agency

below is a copy of my email of 16 September which I sent
having spoken to ICO regarding EA failure to respond to my FOI
requests within the time specified by legislation.

Also below is a reponse from Dianne Fogg where she states
David Jordan will respond by 1 October 2012/
It is now 5 October and I have received no response
let alone answers to my FOI/EIR requests.

I shall try one last time.  I give you 13 days (not working days)
to provide complete answers to the FOI requests made
a)    in my letter to Paul Leinster of 16 July 2012
b)    in my email to Bill Donovan of

For the avoidance of doubt if I have not received an adequate response
by 17:00 on 20 October I shall take the matter to ICO.

David Jordan replied the same day saying

…. We remain happy to meet with you, however if you do not wish to take this opportunity, as previously outlined, we will not continue to engage further in written correspondence with you on previously raised matters or related ones. We will be happy to assist the ICO with details of our actions in relation to your requests should they contact us formally as a result of you choosing to raise this matter with them.

So guess what I did.  I wrote to ICO (Information Commissioner).

In February 2013 I got a letter from EA and a letter from ICO asking me if I was satisified with response from EA.

As I had made 7 FOI requests and EA had not answered 6 (#2-#7) of them at all and the other (#1) they answered saying they weren’t going to reply as they estimated it would take 420 hours.

Really

Let’s assume 8 hours a day, 5 days a week then 420 hours equates to 10.5 weeks, nearly 3 months.

Flood defence is EA’s responsibility and they have filed away the information as to the status of sites which they think are vulnerable to erosion so well it takes about 3 months to retrieve it.

Have they no shame to admit this?

Could it be they don’t have the evidence they claim they have and just made up some larger to avoid having to reveal this?

 

EA have spent many years preparing their SMP2 (Shoreline Management Plan2) which outlines how they plan to maintain sea defences for next 100 years.

Mostly it seems they plan to do this by knocking down sea defences by knocking down sea walls which they call managed realignment, presumably because this sounds better than their first name managed retreat.

 

EA’s stated explanation for not answering my request to disclose evidence sites chosen for managed realignment in Essex and South Suffolk SMP2 was

We consider that your request in the terms stated is manifestly unreasonable due to the number of hours that would be involved in extracting relevant information and the subsequent explanation required. This is because the information we use to assess vulnerability of coastal sites is held in various places and across different systems. For example, we hold an Asset Condition database (which contains information about the state of flood defences maintained by the Agency), we hold raw data at our Peterborough office from coastal monitoring work, and there is LIDAR data held nationally by our Geomatics service, which we have previously told you about. All of these are relevant to our decision-making when determining appropriate plans for coastal management. In addition to interrogating these datasets for each of the many different sites, we would need to refer to information held in our Systems Asset Management Plans. Much of this data is not in a format which can be easily extracted or explained other than by staff who are familiar with the terminology.
When we are considering whether or not to refuse, our decisions are based on the time it would take us to comply with a request which would mean redeploying officers and preventing them from doing their usual work. The timescale relates to the “appropriate limit” set out in the Freedom of Information & Data Protection (Appropriate Limit & Fees) Regulations 2004, which prescribe a maximum cost to a public authority of £450, (or 18 hours’ work in the case of the Environment Agency). Although there is no equivalent limit in the EIR, we must take into account the effect on the Environment Agency of spending large amounts of time on particular requests which distract us from our work.

Really?

So although

  1. EA have (presumably) collated this information to produce SMP2 and they claim sites chosen were chosen on the basis of vulnerability to erosion
  2. the choice of sites was agreed with elected representatives

When asked for evidence to justify their claims they have to revert to original data sources, surely they would have some sort of report they showed to elected representatives.

Surely these sites are part of EA’s daily work, isn’t it some sort of hinderance the information is spread about different databases in different offices.

Or is this the appropriate level of incompetence for an organisation which is effectively part of civil service.

 

But there’s more.  EA say the evidence alone is not sufficient you have to be ‘familiar with the terminology’  in order to interpret what the evidence means.  This is rather close to saying only insiders know whats going on and only insiders can interpret the raw data to come to the ‘correct’ conclusion.

This is not very far from saying whatever the evidence our (EA’s) interpretation is the only valid one and outsiders will not be able to understand why.

 

I wrote to ICO explaining 6 of the questions had not been answered at all.

EA had not made any attempt to answer first FOI request, for example by offering to supply information for a selection of sites, or even just one site.

 

Nothing happened until July 2013 when I got a decision notice from ICO.

ICO had accepted EA’s claim to provide an answer to FOI request #1 would take 420 hours, which was manifestly unreasonable, so EA should not have to answer.

ICO were silent on the other 6 FOI requests.

At the end of the decision notice ICO said either party could appeal to Information Tribunal.

So guess what I did?

But that’s a story for another post.

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