Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Labour & UKIPs Animal Welfare Betrayal

Although they  made a huge and  costly mistake by unlawfully  banning live animal exports from the Port of Ramsgate (see my previous post Thanet Labour Councillors cost your £5million?), that shouldn’t make it OK for  Thanet Labour Councillors  to abandon the struggle for animal welfare at the Port  of Ramsgate. Nor should Thanet’s ruling  UKIP councillors  use the High Court case, which has so far forced Thanet Council to pay out almost £5million in damages  to the animal exporters, as a convenient  excuse  for sitting back and doing nothing about the cruel and barbaric trade taking place from the council owned port.

But to their shame  that’s what they’ve done.  When faced with a public petition at the last meeting of Thanet Council on 25 February asking for TDC to support the following extremely modest proposals  

·       Reaffirm their opposition to the live export of animals for slaughter.

·       Lobby Parliament and Thanet MP’s to introduce an amendment to the 1847 Piers and Harbour Clauses Act so that Ports can legally refuse live export trade.

·       Designate a TDC Cabinet Member to be a permanent point of contact between the Council and Thanet Against Live Animal Exports.”

Labour and UKIP said no! Despite Labour’s General Election Manifesto boast that  “No other major political party has such a proven track record of decisive action for animal welfare” and UKIPs General Election Manifesto promise to “ban the export of live animals for slaughter”, both parties shamefully sat on their hands rather than supporting the petition. Why?

Because the massive damages payments which have recently  been made to the exporters have led Labour and UKIP to see this issue as being unpopular with some people. And instead of admitting that Labour councillors made some serious mistakes and instead of  trying to explain the truth about this awful trade and what the council could do to combat this blight on Ramsgate, Thanet’s political class took the easy way out and cynically disregard their election manifesto promises on animal welfare. Proving yet again that most politicians and political parties are lying fuckers who quite happily  cheat  deceive and mislead to get elected.

 To cover up their hypocritical ways, Labour and UKIP have tried to hide  behind the fictitious quack-legal pretence that to campaign or lobby  against EU and UK laws which permit the medievally cruel live exports  trade from Ramsgate would leave TDC open to  more legal action or greater compensation claims from the criminally convicted cruel exporters.   What utter bollox these pathetic excuses for politicians offer for their shameless lack of action and their deceitful jettisoning of their principles and promises.

As the 2013 High Court  judgment against Thanet Council clearly demonstrates, to be found of guilty of breaching EU  free trade laws and to be liable to pay damages  you must actually break the laws and stop the trade – as the fools  from the Labour Party did in 2012 when they choose to  ignore legal and Government advice and proceeded  to ban live  exports (see my previous post Thanet Labour Councillors cost your £5million?).  Simply saying you are opposed to a cruel trade or actively lobbying the UK of EU Parliament to change the laws to end the trade does not breach the law and does not leave TDC open to  legal action. This is precisely what Dover District Council did more than a year ago and I’m unaware of any impending legal  action being taken against the council  for its  admirable stance against live exports from Dover Port.

However, to cover up your cowardly retreat from your election promises and covering your arse by using unfounded  so-called legal advice, or by failing  to challenge such advice when its presented to you,  is the act of spineless wankers who have contempt for the public and who  are not fit to hold public office. And sadly  that’s my assessment of Labour and UKIP in Thanet who together have totally betrayed animal welfare at the port of Ramsgate.

You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the Tories. Simple because this is party which has no concept of animal welfare and which shortly after winning the 2015 General Election tried to re-introduce hunting with hounds. Clearly they have no concerns about cruelty to animals. But there again it looks as though Thanet Labour and UKIP don’t either.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Exclusive! Have Labour Councillors Cost You £5 Million??

Senior  Labour councillors are alleged to have  ignored the advice of  a specialist EU Law Barrister and an Under of Secretary of State and to have then  apparently subjected  a manager to “very considerable” political pressure resulting in  cash strapped Thanet Council (TDC)  breaking  EU laws and  having to  pay out, to date,  £4.6 million damages.

The massive damages bill, which has not been finally settled, results  from TDCs   decision to ban the export of live farm animals from the council owned Port of Ramsgate following the death of 47 sheep at the facility in September 2012.

The livestock exporters appealed TDCs decision to ban their trade from Ramsgate and in December 2013 the High Court ruled, in a 34 page long Judgment,  that the council had “committed an unjustifiable breach of Article 35 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union” (TEFU) and “breached a fundamental element of the rules governing free trade in the EU”   which, in the opinion of High Court judge  Mr Justice Birrs, made TDC “liable to pay damages to the claimant (1)”.

Following the judgment, TDC employed Barrister Philip Woolfe of Monkton Chambers, a specialist in EU law, to negotiate a damages settlement with the livestock exporters. As of March 2016 damages paid to date stood at an astronomic £4.6 million, but it is likely that the final bill will be much higher (2).

The 2013 High Court Judgment, recently obtained by former Green Party Councillor, Ian Driver, reveals that at the time the ban on live exports was imposed, TDC   already knew that this action was very likely to be unlawful and could result in damages being claimed.
According to Mr Justice Birrs “TDC obtained an opinion from counsel” (3) about the banning of live exports from Ramsgate more than one year before the decision was made. The opinion, dated 23 June 2011, stated that “If TDC refused to permit exporters from exporting livestock from the port on either of these grounds it would be at risk of judicial review and possibly at risk of a claim for damages for failure to comply with its statutory duties under the 1847 Act and under Articles 34-36 TFEU” (4).
Mr Justice Birrs also points out that in August 2011 TDC was provided with a copy of letter to former South Thanet MP, Laura Sandys from Mike Penning MP, the then Under Secretary of State for Transport,  which  “made clear that the Department of Transport’s view was that no local authority had  any specific power to prevent lives animal exports (5). The judge concludes that “It is quite clear that by the summer of 2011 TDC knew that …it had no right to ban the livestock trade” (6).
Said Driver “This is totally unbelievable! Despite having had clear advice from a  Barrister specialising  in EU law  and a Government Under Secretary of State that TDC  had no legal right to ban live exports,  senior council officers and Labour Cabinet memebers, nevertheless decided to stop the trade  knowing that it was highly likely that  TDC would face a claim for damages.  I’m sure that many people will share my view that this action was massively  reckless and placed the council and its taxpayers at great financial risk”.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Birrs, goes on to make a remarkable and extremely worrying inference  that the decision to ignore the advice received by TDC may have been because “very considerable pressure was placed on” Mark Seed the senior manager then responsible for Ramsgate Port and that this  pressure may have been  exerted by the then Labour Leader of TDC, Clive Hart  and the Labour Deputy Leader, Allan Poole ( 7 ) .

Mr Justice Birrs also notes that no records were kept by TDC about the decision making process which resulted in the closures of the port  to live animal exports and that “TDC did not take any legal advice specifically focused on this ban (8)”  which, considering that all previous legal advice received by TDC  indicated it did not have the power to ban the trade, would have been essential in the circumstances.

Despite Mr Justice Birrs’ extremely serious allegations about legal and Government  advice being ignored; political pressure being brought to bear on an officer by senior Labour Party politicians; the failure to secure legal advice in the immediate run up to banning of live exports, those Labour politicians involved seek to deny any culpability for the loss to Thanet  council taxpayers of £4.6 million resulting from a decision which they were responsible for taking.

Statements issued between 2012-15 (see graphic) by Allan Poole, Clive Hart and serving Labour Party councillors Michelle Fenner and Iris Johnston appear to suggest they and the council followed  EU law and sought legal advice at all times in relation to the banning of live exports. Mr Justice Birrs,  on the other hand, presents convincing evidence which suggests that they did not. More recently, in letters to the Isle of Thanet Gazette and in an article published on the  Kent Online website, Clive Hart, Allan Poole and Iris Johnston identify Mr Seed as being solely responsible for closing the port to live exports, making no mention of  Mr Justice Birrs' extremely serious  allegation  that Clive Hart and Allan Poole may have placed “considerable pressure” on  Mr Seed during the decision making process.
Said Driver “misrepresenting the facts, misleading the public and blaming others so as to avoid accountability for your actions is the way of a coward and  is morally and politically corrupt. It is my opinion that the Thanet Council Labour Group should now fess-up and publically admit that its decision to ban live animal exports from the Port of Ramsgate  was badly managed  and that an unreserved apology should be made to the residents  of Thanet for making a bad decision which has cost  every man, woman and child living the District £33 each.

I also call on Labour Councillor  Michelle Fenner who was directly involved in taking the decision to ban live  exports from the Port of Ramsgate and who acted as the Labour Party spokesperson on this issue to do the honourable thing and resign as a councillor for failing to present a full and truthful  explanation  to local people about how these events were managed.

  1. See Para 192 of Judgement
  2. See Isle of Thanet Gazette The phrase “to date” suggests that a final settlement has not yet been reached and that negotiations continue.
  3. See Para 93 of Judgment
  4. See Para 93 of Judgment
  5. See Para 95 of the Judgment
  6. See Para 97 of the Judgment
  7. See Paras 149 and 150 of the Judgment
  8. See paras 152 and 156 of the Judgement

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Charles Dickens School. Time For Some Honesty

Here's a letter I have sent to the Thanet Gazette and Thanet Extra. The lack of openness and honesty by the leadership of Charles Dickens School is appalling. Parents and students have a right to know exactly what  has happened.

Dear Editor, As a parent of a Charles Dickens School (CDS) student, I  was shocked to learn about the financial crisis  faced  by the school.  I am not alone in this. My website article about this terrible situation had over 600 hits within 48 hours of its publication (Google “Ian Driver Green Thanet”).
In their letter to parents of 11th March, Executive Head, Kim  Stoner,  and Chair of Governors, Bryan Mitchell, explained  that a high level KCC  investigation has been conducted into CDS finances; that CDS governors have now  handed control of the school budget back to KCC; that St George’s School, which had been supporting CDS following its poor OFSTED report, will be cutting its links with CDS in July.  That the school, without any parental or student consultation, will be transformed into a “sponsored academy” as quickly as possible. These are the signs of a school caught up in  financial and managerial meltdown. But rather than being open and transparent about the serious difficulties faced by CDS,  Stoner and Mitchell  downplayed the massive problems  by misleadingly  describing them  as merely  “challenging circumstances”.
Ms Stoner has previously stressed the importance of developing a strong community at CDS with better links between staff, students, parents and governors. I agree with her.  However a strong community requires a culture of openness, accountability, trust and consultation. Something sadly missing from her  letter to parents  of 11th March.
To restore confidence in the CDS leadership  I call on Ms Stoner and Mr Mitchell to make public the findings of the KCC review of  CDS finances. They must also explain why the CDS  leadership feel it necessary to  transform the school   into a sponsored academy, especially when  OFSTED has just produced a report which slates many sponsored academies for providing sub-standard education.
Finally to develop a strong community at CDS it might be a good idea for the leadership to consult with parents, carers and students about whether they agree with handing the management of CDS over to a profit making sponsored academy. Surely a strong school community should take account of the views of students and parents, rather than arrogantly imposing solutions from the top?
 Ian Driver

Monday, 14 March 2016

Charles Dickens School Bankruptcy Cover Up

If your son or daughter goes to Charles Dickens School in Broadstairs, then, like me,  you would have been texted on Friday warning you to expect important news. On Saturday you would have received a letter informing you that the  school, if it had been a commercial company, was  bankrupt; that the Governors of St Georges School have decided to sever leadership support for  Charles Dickens  in July; that the Charles Dickens School governors have decided , with immediate effect, to take no further responsibility for the school budget; and that the leadership of Charles Dickens School (and possibly the leadership  of  St George’s School)  will  evade any responsibility they might, or might not, have had  for  bringing about this disastrous situation, by handing the school over to an  Academy at the earliest opportunity.  A solution which, amongst other things, is  almost certain to cover up  the facts about any  mismanagement or  incompetence which has led to this terrible situation. A decision which is also very likely  to  unfairly protect the reputations of those who might have been  responsible for bringing Charles Dickens to its knees,  but who by evading being identified will no doubt be able to continue working in well paid senior jobs.

So how did this disaster happen? Easy, follow the money as they say. It must cost several £millions a year to run Charles Dickens. The wages bill for teachers and support staff will be equivalent to a medium sized company. The heating, electricity water, supplies and maintenance bills must be phenomenal. To plan and manage this budget the school almost certainly  has a finance team who authorise and record spending using budget management software. The headteacher and the school’s senior management team will regularly review the schools finances using the data provided by the finance team. They will check that spending is in line with targets agreed when the annual budget was originally approved. The school governors will also review and monitor the budget on a regular basis. Between them the finance team, the heateacher, the senior management team  and the governors should have been able to identify and act upon any financial problems before they became so large that they took the school down. But this  didn’t happen.  I can only assume therefore that the Charles Dickens School has been thrown into turmoil by serious  mismanagement which led to the  catastrophic failure of the schools financial management systems.

Yet the letter from Executive Head Kim Stoner and Chair Governors Bryan Mitchell seeks to play all this down. They describe what is clearly and an extremely serious situation as a “challenging financial situation”. They fail to quantify  how big a hole there is in the schools budget and what factors had caused the schools finances to be thrown into chaos. They also fail to explain why it has been decided to hand the school over to a  private-for-profit Academy organisation when this is not legally necessary. I have already mentioned the word cover-up in this post and it is my opinion that the letter sent out to parents is a cover-up by failing to provide answers to important questions.

I have submitted a Freedom Information request  to Charles Dickens School asking  that I be provided with a copy of the financial review report which identifies the problems faced by the school and how they happened,  and that I am provided with documents concerning the decision to transfer the school to an Academy. On the basis of the  letter sent to parents by Kim Stoner and Bryan Mitchell I doubt very much I will get the information.  

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

My In/Out Diary - Pimp My Refugees

My In/Out  Diaries  - over the next few weeks I will be publishing short articles about events in my life or the world of politics which influence  how I might vote in the EU referendum. Depending on what’s happening I might supplement the diaries with short videos too. I am beginning this journey with a strong sympathy for Brexit and a potty mouth too.

Entry 2 Pimp My Refugees
Because  EU member states can’t agree amongst themselves about what to do with the refugees arriving in Greece they have decided to pimp-out the problem to Turkey. According to reports Turkey will accept back returned refugees, who have made the hazardous  sea crossing to Greece,  but  who Greek authorities  judge to be illegitimate. The returned “illegitimate” refugees will then be replaced on a one for one basis with refugees housed in Turkish  camps who have been assessed as being “legitimate” refugees.

With a bribe reported to be £4.6 billion and other sweeteners including  the abolition of visa restrictions on Turks visiting the EU lifted by this summer,  and the brining forward of negotiations about Turkish accession to the EU, the deal looks almost sealed.

But not everyone is happy. Questions are being asked about why the EU seeks to admit into membership a country which has an appalling record on human rights abuse. A country which just last week raided and seized ownership of  the largest national daily newspaper in the country  because it was critical of the Government. Considering the EUs requirement that all of its member states uphold the democratic rights of their citizens, this promise fast-track Turkish membership talks is fucking hypocritical to say the least. And what about those men, women and children who, under the new arrangements, are returned from Greece to Turkey?  Well many charities working with refugees have already said that, bearing in in mind Turkey’s worrying  record on human rights,  they fear greatly for the welfare and safety of those unfortunate enough to be in this position.

Even the United Nations High Commission for Refugees is opposed to the  EU-Turkey deal. It has expressed concerns about  how the return of some refugees from Greece to Turkey might breach United Nations rules. It has also strongly criticised the EU for its “ collective failure to implement the measures agreed by Member States in the past” and believes that the current  refugee crisis could have been avoided had  the member states worked together more co-operatively.

Virtually everyone agrees that the refugee crisis is the biggest test ever of the EUs effectiveness and its ability to manage major continent-wide problems. Virtually everyone agrees that so-far the EU has failed abysmally in dealing with this issue. Instead of providing a strong collective leadership the EU has collapsed and fragmented into confusion and disarray, choosing instead to pimp out the management of the  refugee crisis to a state with highly questionable credentials, in exchange for a fucking massive bribe and a promise of fast-track EU membership. I don’t think I want to by to part of such an unprincipled organisation.

In my opinion these shameful hypocritical actions hardly generate confidence in the ability of the EU leadership to manage and resolve serious difficulties. With such fundamental weaknesses now exposed for all to see is these really any point in remaining within an organisation as flawed and unfit for purpose as the EU?

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

My In/Out Diary: Cruelly Dragged To Brexit Door

My In/Out  Diaries  - over the next few weeks I will be publishing short articles about events in my life or the world of politics which influence  how I might vote in the EU referendum. Depending on what’s happening I might supplement the diaries with short videos too. I am beginning this journey with a strong sympathy for Brexit and a potty mouth too.

Entry 1 - Help! Cruelly Dragged Towards The Brexit Door.

In 2011 I helped to set up Thanet Against Live Exports. A campaign group dedicated to stopping the export of live farm animals from Ramsgate for slaughter in Europe. The group arranges regular demonstrations at the port of Ramsgate whenever there is a shipment of animals leaving for Europe. We have organised   public meetings, marches and rallies and petitions. We have mobilised strong support and have a high profile in the local and regional media. We have also engaged with animal welfare charities and politicians.  The RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming both support our campaign and Green Party leader Natalie Bennet  and MEP Keith Taylor actively back us  visiting Ramsgate and meeting with campaigners.

slaughtered sheep Ramsgate Port 2012
This appallingly brutal trade has operated out of Ramsgate (and occasionally Dover) ports for almost 5 years.  In that time at least a hundred thousand sheep and claves have passed through Ramsgate on extremely long journeys in cramped, unhygienic conditions and with limited access to food and water, to meet a grisly end in Europe. So badly have these animals been treated by the exporters that in September 2012 47 sheep had to be destroyed at Ramsgate because they had been injured during travel or were otherwise too unfit to continue their journey across the channel to Calais.

Following investigations by DEFRA and Kent County Council Trading Standards the exporters were convicted of serious breaches of animal welfare rules at Dover Magistrates Court in March 2014.   The owner of Channel Livestock, Thomas Lomas was handed down a suspended gaol sentence of 6 months and he and his company had to pay fines and costs of £20,000. Justice seen to be done you might say. But no, not quite. Whilst UK law had rightly punished   the animal abusers, EU law rewarded the same abusers with wealth beyond their dreams and penalised severely those who sought to prevent the abuse. Here’s how it happened.

Following the horrific destruction of the 47 sheep in September 2012, Thanet Council suspended any further exports pending a review of animal welfare facilities at the port. In October 2012,  the exporters successfully  applied to  the  High Court  to overturn  the suspension and the trade resumed. In December 2013 the High Court ruled  that the suspension of animal exports was in breach of  EU free trade rules and that Thanet Council was liable to pay the exporters compensation. As of February 2016 Thanet Council had paid out an astonishing £4.2 million in legal fees and damages  to the exporters with more payments  yet to make. That’s  the equivalent to date of £30 for every man, woman and child in Thanet.

So we have the utterly perverse situation whereby people convicted of animal  welfare abuse under UK Law,  have been handsomely rewarded  under EU law for perpetrating that same barbaric  cruelty and suffering against  what the EU agrees are fellow sentient beings.  And the local authority which acted to stop  the cruelty occurring at  the port it owns, was forced by the EU to pay a reward to the abusers from taxpayers money. This is fucking well unbelievable. No matter how stoned or pissed you might be you couldn’t make this shit up. But it doesn’t end there. Not by  a long chalk.

The Kent Constabulary who deploy large forces of officers at Ramsgate Port  whenever there is  a live export  shipment, have probably spent £3million in policing the demos. This doesn’t include the cost of the secret spying on anti-live export campaigners which they also carry out. I discovered in 2015, following the submission of a Subject Access Request, that I had been under Police surveillance since 2011 and probably still am, and that my details are on the so-called domestic extremism database. Nor does it count the cost of the dozens of campaigners, such as myself, who have been arrested, charged and taken to court on the basis of the most tenuous of evidence for lawfully protesting against this vile trade. Furthermore, the poor old council must spend more on security whenever there is a live export shipment,  and the Government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency must pay the wages of its inspectors who are despatched to Ramsgate to  oversee every shipment. I reckon that over the past  5 years somewhere in the region of  £9million of public money has been spent by public bodies in facilitating a cruel  trade which most people despise.

I have sent many a happy hour speaking to the Green Party’s MEP,  Keith Taylor, about this. Optimistic and cheerful as  always, even Keith reckons it will take years to change the EU directives and treaties which support this medievally cruel trade. In fact it might never happen at all, he has said to me.  But looking through the Brexit door there is  one single Act of Parliament, the Ports and Harbours Clauses Act 1847, and one sentence in that Act,  which needs to be changed to ban the export of live farm animals for slaughter form our  quaysides. It could be done in months of Brexit, which compared  to  Keith’s Herculean task of changing EU rules, is  a piece of piss.

But above all else  what’s pushing me towards that Brexit door  is the imagine burned in my mind of £4million being handed over, on the orders of the EU,   to convicted animal abusers as a reward for inflicting that abuse. Needless to say that money  is dripping with  blood.



Monday, 7 March 2016

Harold Wilson Says No Manston CPO! No Thanet Parkway Station!

Former Prime Minister Harold Wilson is credited with having  coined the phrase “a week is a long time in politics”. And how right he was. Take the Thanet Council Labour Group as an example. On 25th February its position on Manston Airport  as expressed by its leader, Councillor Johnston, was to support UKIP and the Tories in seeking a new business partner  to help the Council secure a compulsory purchase order on the former airport site.

I blogged at the time that Councillor Johnston’s position, and the position of the Thanet Council Labour Group, was at odds with the members of the South Thanet Labour Party who had voted before Xmas 2015 to support a commercial, residential and leisure development on the airport site. I pointed out that there was a great deal of  anger amongst Labour Party members  about Councillor Johnston’s support for continuing with the  CPO charade and I published some Facebook screenshots of  comments made by Labour members (and a non-member) who were less than impressed with  Councillor  Johnston. I also speculated about whether Councillor Johnston’s political career was going to be brought to a premature end by her colleagues.

Well blow me down less than a week later and a post mysteriously appears on the  Thanet Labour Facebook page which says “the Labour Group supports the regeneration plans of the owners (of Manston Airport) as it offers a much needed employment opportunity for our residents ….. such a move eases pressure on our grade 1 agricultural land and protects greenfield sites”.  So the lady was for turning after all. In the space of less than  a week Iris Johnston and her 4 labour councillor colleagues had executed a 180 degree U-turn on Manston airport. I’m unsure whether Councillor Johnston remains at the helm of the TDC Labour Group, but most sudden changes in direction are usually brought about by a mutiny of the crew!

I know, and have never made a secret of the fact, that I also executed a U-turn on Manston, but that was over 2 years ago. If only the Labour Party, whilst it still had power in its hands, had done the same thing, then there would be no talk today of CPOs and Development Consent Orders to save Manston and the new owners plans for the re-development of the former airport would not be blighted and held back by uncertainty and doubts resulting from the making of poor political choices.

Although I warmly welcome its change of heart, the Labour Party should nevertheless take some responsibility for holding back the urgently needed economic development of Thanet by relentlessly pursuing a wrong-headed policy on the Manston CPO.  Some honesty, truth and contrition about this matter wouldn’t go amiss.

But there is lot to be positive about. I personally feel that Labour’s change of position on the airport removes a major obstacle which prevented the Greens and Labour from working  together on regeneration and environmental issues in Thanet. I also feel that the removal of certain old-skool figures from the Thanet Labour bureaucracy might also improve relations between left of centre political organisations in the district. I am sure  the new intake of Corbynistas know who these people are and will politically dispose of them soon!

In a practical sense this could lead to the Greens and Labour working together to ensure that Stone Hill Park’s plans  for the redevelopment of the former Manston Airport site are environmentally friendly and sustainable. Collaboration will be much more influential than ploughing our own furrows. I also think that the Greens and Labour should consider pooling our resources and working together on a response to the Local Plan consultation which takes place this summer. This will be massive task and will not be easy, but the Local Plan is a once in a generation policy making exercise which will determine the shape of Thanet for our children and grandchildren. Surely as people concerned about Thanet’s environment, its economy and social justice and fairness we can’t let an opportunity for collaboration like this pass us by?

More immediately is the question of Thanet Parkway station. Thanet Labour Party in their 2011 election manifesto opposed the station because it was environmentally damaging and totally unnecessary. The Greens share this position. Sadly, under the leadership of  Councillor Iris Johnston who was also the Leader of the Council, Thanet Labour councillors reversed their position to one of support, meaning that valuable agricultural land at the back of Cliffsend is going to be concreted over for a 700 space car park and station. The area around the  station will quickly  become a magnet to housing developers and Cliffsend will soon become absorbed into Ramsgate.

Now that  Thanet Council Labour group has reversed its position on Manston Airport, now that their leader has been overruled (and perhaps even removed  - I’m not sure and I don’t know) surely it’s time for Thanet Labour to rethink it’s  position on Thanet Parkway? As their Facebook statement makes clear they are now publically committed to “easing pressure on our grade 1 agricultural land and protecting  greenfield sites”. Surely this means the protection of Cliffsend against the Parkway  station. Its time to talk methinks.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Dreamland Legal Advice My FOI Appeal

My previous post explained that I have been trying to get hold of a document produced 18 months ago by Thanet Council's solicitors Towers and Hamlins about alleged irregularities in the selection of  the operator of the £18million Dreamland  Amusement Park at Margate. So concerned was Thanet Council about these allegations that it decided, on the basis of its legal advice, to take the quite extraordinary step of disallowing Sands Heritage Limited second application to become the Dreamland operator (there were 2 separate  selection processes) and only considering its initial application. I tried to secure a copy of the Towers and Hamlins report via a Freedom of Information request but my request was, unsurprisingly, rejected by the notoriously secretive and cover-up loving Thanet Council.

I publish below my letter to Thanet Council seeking an internal review of their decision. If you can think of any reasons I can to add to this letter please let my know - as Tesco's says every little helps!. Having said that I suspect that even if I was to write the most convincing letter in the world, Thanet Council would still reject it. Which means that I will eventually have to appeal to the Information Commissioner to have the document disclosed. However, I think the wait will be worth it as I believe that the publication of the Towers and Hamlins legal advice may well reveal some embarrassing facts about how our  then Labour council leaders and  senior officers managed this multi-£million flagship project which you paid for.
Dear Thanet Council
Further to your e-mail of 2 March 2016 concerning my FOI request (Ref 85485/3252604) I disagree with your decision, taken under section 42 of the Freedom of Information Act (legal professional privilege), to refuse my request for a copy of the Towers and Hamlin's legal advice related to the Sands Heritage application to become the operator of the Margate Dreamland Amusement Park.

I would like you to conduct an internal review of your decision. I set out my reasons why you should let me have the document I have requested below.

1.   Timing of Disclosure. The Towers and Hamlin's legal advice was procured by Thanet Council sometime during the summer/ autumn of 2014. In October 2014. Following receipt of this advice Thanet Council selected  Sands Heritage as its preferred candidate to operate the Dreamland Amusement Park.

In its published guidance on section 42 exemption the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) sates that  Where legal advice has served its purpose, litigation has ended or the possibility of litigation has ended the public authority may be more inclined to disclosure.”  The fact that Sands Heritage was selected by the Council as the Dreamland  park operator almost two years ago and the fact that the Trowers and Hamlins legal advice was an important factor in making that decision, demonstrates that the advice has served its purpose. This fact should have caused Thanet Council to be more “inclined to disclosure” of the  Trowers and Hamlins legal advice. This does not appear to have been the case.

2.   Public Interest.

A)    Transparency.  The ICO states that there  is a general public interest in the promotion of transparency so as to demonstrate good decision making by public bodies. I would argue that, in this case, the duty to be transparent is much more important than usual. The Dreamland project was (and remains)  one of the largest projects undertaken by Thanet Council and is key to the regeneration of the district. Over the past 3 years there has been massive coverage of Dreamland  in the local, regional and national media and social media also. This is a project which is well known, particularly to most people living in the Thanet area, most of whom will have an interest in knowing whether the Council made good and effective decisions in its management of the project.

B)   Wrongdoing.  The ICO states that the suspicion of wrongdoing (not specifically criminal wrongdoing), is an important reason why information, including privileged information, should be released, particularly if this information helps to shed light on the alleged wrongdoing.

My understanding is that the Trowers and Hamlins legal advice was procured by Thanet Council specifically because concerns had been expressed about  Sands Heritage Limited  application to become the Dreamland Park Operator and that these concerns may have included allegations of wrongdoing.  For the Council to have commissioned the production of expensive legal advice can only mean that it felt that the concerns about Sands Heritage were plausible, although not proven. The disclosure of the Trowers and Hamlins legal advice will shed light on any potential wrongdoing and will demonstrate how effectively, or otherwise, Thanet Council managed these concerns.

C)   Resources and Money The ICO allows for the use of resources and money to be taken into account when assessing the strength of a public interest disclosure argument. In the case of the Dreamland project at least £8 million (possibly more) of council tax payers money has already  been invested in this project. An equal amount from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Government Sea Change grant scheme which, to all intents and purposes,  is public money has also been invested in the project. Finally, compensation for the compulsory purchase of the Dreamland site has not yet been agreed with the former owners. It is speculated that this compensation could exceed £1 million which will have to be paid for by the council tax payers of Thanet.

Bearing in mind the massive amount of public money expended to date on developing and opening the Dreamland Amusement Park, the public have an extremely powerful interest in  knowing  if this money was spent wisely and effectively. This is particularly relevant to perhaps the most important decision of this project – the appointment of the Dreamland operator – Sands Heritage – and whether this decision was a wise decision. The disclosure of the Trowers and Hamlins legal advice would be absolutely critical in answering this question.

Furthermore, the fact that Sands Heritage narrowly avoided bankruptcy and was forced to enter into a £2.9 million Company Voluntary Arrangement with its creditors in December 2015, raises many questions about Thanet Council’s decision to appoint this company to be the Dreamland Operator and whether this decision represented best value for money. The disclosure of the Trowers and Hamlins legal advice would be absolutely critical in answering this question.

D)   Fair Treatment and Commercial Competition  I understand, although I do not know for a fact, that the concerns which led to Thanet Council securing legal advice  from Trowers and Hamlins  included allegations  that Sands Heritage may have enjoyed an unfair commercial advantage over its  competitors in its application to become  Dreamland Operator. The ICO specifically allows, as a reason for public interest disclosure, the publication of documents which demonstrate whether or not a public body has promoted and encouraged fairness and competition during a procurement process.  The disclosure of the Trowers and Hamlins legal advice would be absolutely critical in answering this question.

On the basis of the arguments I have set out above, I do not believe that Thanet Council has any lawful reasons to continue withholding the Trowers and Hamlins legal advice from me. I look forward to hearing from you.