Investments in renewable energy

Gareth Davies made this Freedom of Information request to Thurrock Borough Council

This request has been closed to new correspondence from the public body. Contact us if you think it ought be re-opened.

Response to this request is long overdue. By law, under all circumstances, Thurrock Borough Council should have responded by now (details). You can complain by requesting an internal review.

Dear Thurrock Borough Council,

I am emailing to request the following information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

The authority's 2018/19 accounts state:

"The Council holds long term debtors of £740m as at 31 March 2019. £702m of the balance relates to long term capital investment in the renewable energy sector secured by the associated assets."

1) Can you provide a breakdown of the individual investments that make up that £702 million figure, including for each:
A) The amount of money invested by the council
B) The date on which the investment took place
C) The recipient of the money
D) The type of investment (bond, stock, mutual fund, etc)
E) The length of the investment
F) The name and location of the associated asset
G) Forecast gross and net returns across the investment period
H) The name of the broker (or any equivalent entity) which notified the authority about the investment opportunity
I) How the investment was financed (short-term borrowing from local authorities, PWLB, reserves, etc)

2) As of 02/12/2019, what is the total of:
A) The council's long term debtors
B) The long term capital investment in renewable energy sector

3) For all investments not included in the answer to question one (i.e. all made since 31 March 2019 to 02/12/2019) please provide the following information:
A) The amount of money invested by the council
B) The date on which the investment took place
C) The recipient of the money
D) The type of investment (bond, stock, mutual fund, etc)
E) The length of the investment
F) The name and location of the associated asset
G) Forecast gross and net returns across the investment period
H) The name of the broker (or any equivalent entity) which notified the authority about the investment opportunity
I) How the investment was financed (short-term borrowing from local authorities, PWLB, reserves, etc)

I would like the responses in Excel format with the questions and sub questions as column headings.

I believe there is a strong public interest in this information being released given the sums of money involved and the lack of publicly available information about the council's investments. The council has publicised the benefits of its investment policy but the public is currently unable to properly scrutinise how this money has been spent.

If you need clarification please contact me at this email address. Under your section 16 duty to provide advice and assistance I would expect you to contact me if you find this request unmanageable in any way before the 20th working day.

I would be grateful if you could confirm in writing that you have received this request, and I look forward to hearing from you in the near future.

Yours faithfully,

Gareth Davies

Information.Matters@thurrock.gov.uk, Thurrock Borough Council

Thank you for your email. 

 

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Regards,

 

Michael Tighe 
Statutory & Corporate Complaints Manager

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The information in this e-mail and any attachment(s) are intended to be
confidential and may be legally privileged. Access to and use of its
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have received this message by mistake, please notify the sender
immediately, delete it and do not copy it to anyone else. Thurrock Council
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Information.Matters@thurrock.gov.uk, Thurrock Borough Council

1 Attachment

Dear Mr Davies,

 

I am writing with reference to your Freedom of Information Request
received on the 2^nd December 2019. I am writing to advise that there will
be a delay in providing a response to you as it is still awaiting
approval.  Please accept my apologies for the delay.  You will be provided
with a response as soon as it is available.

 

Thank you for your patience in this matter. 

 

Many thanks

 

Tina Barrell

 

Tina Barrell l Complaints & Information Governance Assistant I HR, OD &
Transformation

[1]thurrock.gov.uk l ext: 64882

Thurrock Council, Civic Offices, New Road, Grays, Essex RM17 6SL

 

Please note my working hours are 8.30am-2.00pm Monday-Thursday, please
copy in [2][Thurrock Borough Council request email] in relation to all FOI
matters.

 

Thurrock: an ambitious and collaborative community which is proud of its
heritage and excited by its diverse opportunities and future

[3]cid:image002.png@01D542FF.BD4CAC30

Save time, do it online

[4]facebook.com/thurrockcouncil | [5]twitter.com/thurrockcouncil |
[6]https://www.thurrock.gov.uk/access-to-in...

 

Disclaimer

The information in this e-mail and any attachment(s) are intended to be
confidential and may be legally privileged. Access to and use of its
content by anyone else other than the addressee(s) may be unlawful and
will not be recognised by Thurrock Council for business purposes. If you
have received this message by mistake, please notify the sender
immediately, delete it and do not copy it to anyone else. Thurrock Council
cannot accept any responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of this
message as it has been transmitted over a public network.

Any opinions expressed in this document are those of the author and do not
necessarily reflect the opinions of Thurrock Council.

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Council's corporate e-mail system and may be subject to scrutiny by
someone other than the addressee.

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References

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Dear FOI Team,

Thank you for your email relating to my request, Investments in renewable energy.

Could you provide a rough estimate of when I will receive a response?

Yours sincerely,

Gareth Davies

Information.Matters@thurrock.gov.uk, Thurrock Borough Council

1 Attachment

Dear Mr Davies,

Thank you for your recent communication which is being managed in line
with the Freedom of Information Act under the above reference number.  The
details of your request are outlined below together with the council’s
response.

Your Request

 

1) Can you provide a breakdown of the individual investments that make up
that £702 million figure, including for each:
a) The amount of money invested by the council
b) The date on which the investment took place
c) The recipient of the money
d) The type of investment (bond, stock, mutual fund, etc)
e) The length of the investment
f) The name and location of the associated asset
g) Forecast gross and net returns across the investment period
h) The name of the broker (or any equivalent entity) which notified the
authority about the investment opportunity
i) How the investment was financed (short-term borrowing from local
authorities, PWLB, reserves, etc)

2) As of 02/12/2019, what is the total of:
a) The council's long term debtors
b) The long term capital investment in renewable energy sector

3) For all investments not included in the answer to question one (i.e.
all made since 31 March 2019 to 02/12/2019) please provide the following
information:
a) The amount of money invested by the council
b) The date on which the investment took place
c) The recipient of the money
d) The type of investment (bond, stock, mutual fund, etc)
e) The length of the investment
f) The name and location of the associated asset
g) Forecast gross and net returns across the investment period
h) The name of the broker (or any equivalent entity) which notified the
authority about the investment opportunity
i) How the investment was financed (short-term borrowing from local
authorities, PWLB, reserves, etc)

Our Response

 

For transparency reasons we can provide the following information:

 

·         £604m Solar energy

·         £44m Wind Farm energy

·         £44m Other renewable energy

·         £10m Housing Regeneration

 

The following exemption applies for all other information requested:

 

Section 43 (2):

 

The council are of the view that the release of the information in scope
of you request would prejudice its own commercial interests and the
commercial interests of the other parties involved. The reasons for this
have been captured below under the public interest test section.

 

Public Interest Test:

 

The council have considered the public interest test in relation to
section 43 (2) in releasing the information in scope of your request. The
outcome of this is below.

 

·         Public interest in disclosure:

o   It would inform the public of the activities carried out on their
behalf and to scrutinise public monies spent

 

·         Public interest to maintain the exemption:

o   Disclosure of information would result in other companies that offer
similar investments not wanting to work with the council due to
commercially sensitive information being released by the Council with
regards to prior investments. This will have a negative impact on the
councils ability to seek suitable investment deals going forward

o   Disclosure of information would have a detrimental impact on the
commercial interests of the other parties involved, as this would
publically detail commercially sensitive information. This would damage
the Investor’s competitive position

o   Disclosure of information would negatively impact the councils working
relationships with its lenders. This will reduce the spend the council has
(commercial interests), which would directly impact the services we are
able to provide to our residents

o   Disclosure of information would negatively impact the councils
reputation due to loss of investor confidence in the council

 

Based on the above, it is the council’s view that there is a stronger
public interest to engage the exemption for section 43 (2). The key
reasons for this is as follows:

·         The public would only be interested in this information if their
service provision were to reduce and/or stop completely

·         All the time the council are able to maximise its funds in this
way and maintain its service provision, there is no strong public interest
in favour of disclosure of this level of detail

 

You are free to use any information supplied to you for your own use,
including non-commercial research purposes.  However, any other type of
re-use, for example, by publishing the information or issuing copies to
the public will require the permission of the copyright owner.

Where the copyright is owned by Thurrock Council, you must apply to the
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If you are dissatisfied with the way in which the council have managed
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the review. 

If you remain unhappy following the outcome of your Internal Review you
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(ICO), details of this organisation can be found at [2]www.ico.org.uk .
Please be advised that the ICO will not consider your case until they have
confirmation that you have already been through the Internal Review stage
with the council.

 

Many thanks

 

Tina Barrell

 

Tina Barrell l Complaints & Information Governance Assistant I HR, OD &
Transformation

[3]thurrock.gov.uk l ext: 64882

Thurrock Council, Civic Offices, New Road, Grays, Essex RM17 6SL

 

Please note my working hours are 8.30am-2.00pm Monday-Thursday, please
copy in [4][Thurrock Borough Council request email] in relation to all FOI
matters.

 

Thurrock: an ambitious and collaborative community which is proud of its
heritage and excited by its diverse opportunities and future

[5]cid:image002.png@01D542FF.BD4CAC30

Save time, do it online

[6]facebook.com/thurrockcouncil | [7]twitter.com/thurrockcouncil |
[8]https://www.thurrock.gov.uk/access-to-in...

 

Disclaimer

The information in this e-mail and any attachment(s) are intended to be
confidential and may be legally privileged. Access to and use of its
content by anyone else other than the addressee(s) may be unlawful and
will not be recognised by Thurrock Council for business purposes. If you
have received this message by mistake, please notify the sender
immediately, delete it and do not copy it to anyone else. Thurrock Council
cannot accept any responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of this
message as it has been transmitted over a public network.

Any opinions expressed in this document are those of the author and do not
necessarily reflect the opinions of Thurrock Council.

Any attachment(s) to this message has been checked for viruses, but please
rely on your own virus checker and procedures.

Senders and recipients of e-mail should be aware that under the UK Data
Protection and Freedom of Information legislation these contents may have
to be disclosed in response to a request.

All e-mail sent to or from this address will be processed by Thurrock
Council's corporate e-mail system and may be subject to scrutiny by
someone other than the addressee.

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automatically archived by Mimecast Ltd, an innovator in Software as a
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Dear Thurrock Borough Council,

Please pass this on to the person who conducts Freedom of Information reviews.

I am writing to request an internal review of Thurrock Borough Council's handling of my FOI request 'Investments in renewable energy'.

I asked for details of the individual investments which combine to make the '£702 million of long term capital investment in the renewable in the renewable energy sector' stated in the council's 2018-19 accounts. The council has used Section 43 (2) 'Prejudice to commercial interests' to withhold all of these details. I strongly believe it is incorrect to do so for the following reasons:

1) The council claims disclosure of the information (it doesn't specify which part so I can only assume it means everything I asked for) would "result in other companies that offer similar investments not wanting to work with the council due to commercially sensitive information being released by the Council with regards to prior investments". This risk is purely hypothetical. The council makes no attempt to explain why it believes that companies knowing which other businesses the council has invested in, on what dates, the amount of money involved, etc, would result in them not wanting to invest. Unless, of course, there was something questionable about the investments the council has made. If so, that would only increase the public interest in knowing the information I have requested.

2) The council's claim that knowing these details would put off potential investors and negatively impact the commercial interests involved in past deals is contradicted by its own actions. Since September 2016 the council has been happy to publicise, both through press releases and council reports, that it has invested in a solar park in Swindon. For example:
- A press release (since removed from the council's website) on or around 15/09/16 mentioned the company involved, Rockfire Capital, by name.
- A report before full council on 28/09/16 includes details of the investment including the amount invested £15m and the potential returns
- Minutes from a scrutiny committee meeting on 22/11/2016 show the investment and Rockfire were discussed in a public meeting
- The Treasury Management 2016/17 Mid Year Report discussed by Cabinet on 14/12/2016 mentions the company - 'Rockfire Ltd' - by name and suggests how the investment was financed ("before financing costs...")
- The Treasury Management 2017/18 Mid Year Report discussed by Cabinet on 2017/18 again mentions the Rockfire investment by name, this time with an increased cost of £24m
- The Treasury Management Strategy 2018/19 report, published in 28/02/2018, states: "As previously reported, the council has entered into bonds with Rockfire Capital..."
As is clear from these reports, the council clearly had no concerns that publicising details of one of its renewable energy investments would negatively impact on the company it had invested in or put off others from doing business with it. Yet the council now withholds the same or similar details of its investments with Rockfire Capital Ltd (and its subsidiaries), as well as all others included in the £702 million, arguing that publicising the information would be damaging. This is not only hypocritical but its demonstrably incorrect. On numerous occasions since September 2016 the council publicised details of its investment in Rockfire Capital Ltd for an initial £15m. Given the council's investments in solar amount to £604 million, these details being public knowledge clearly did not deter future investments nor harm anyone's commercial interests.

3) Furthermore, press releases and council reports are not the only way the council has already published - without harm - the sort of information I requested. For example, the council's payments to suppliers data - published as per the Local Government Transparency Code - details five payments to Rockfire Capital Bonds Ltd between June 2016 and May 2017. These payments total £74 million - far in excess of any investment mentioned in council press releases or reports (an indication of the lack of clarity provided to the public about the investment policy). If the council believed that releasing this information could prejudice the commercial interests of either itself or the company, it would have redacted the name or other details. It did not. I submit that it is because the risk is now being cited as a way of refusing my request, rather than a result of genuine concern on part of the council.

The ICO's guidance on Section 43 makes reference to this very point, stating that "For example, if information can be accessed by the general public under other legislation, then this may affect the likelihood of any prejudice arising from a disclosure under FOIA". It then goes on toe reference The Local government transparency code and the requirement on all local authorities to publish the details of the purchase of any item of expenditure that exceeds £500.

4) While I contend that the council should release all the information I have requested, it is also clear that refusing my FOI in full makes little sense in light of the council's use of Section 43. For example, the council has made no attempt to explain how publicising details such as the dates on which individual investments were made, the type of investment, the length of the investments or even the amount of money involved could possibly discourage other investments or harm the prejudice the commercial interests of anyone involved. If the council was serious about this exemption it could have, for example, withheld the recipients of the money instead of issuing a blanket refusal. While I believe all the information should be disclosed, refusing all of it is even more unjustified.

5) I also contend that the public interest in disclosing the information (given a cursory mention in the council's response) outweighs the supposed risks cited by the council.

Disclosure of this information would make Thurrock Borough Council far more accountable for how it spends public money. This would benefit not just taxpayers in Thurrock but also across the country. This is because the council finances these investments by borrowing from dozens, if not hundreds, of other local authorities. Taxpayers in these areas, and in Thurrock, have next to no knowledge that this is how councils are using their money. Thurrock has gone, in a relatively short space of time, from having little to no debt to having borrowed more than £1 billion from other local authorities. In this period it has invested at least £702 million in the renewable energy sector. Apart from a few specific examples listed above, the council has explained very little about this to the public. There is an overriding public interest in this being rectified, particularly at a time when local government budgets in general are under huge financial strain.

6) There is also the question of protecting the public, as detailed by the ICO guidance on Section 42 (par 48). There is good reason to question the practices of at least one of the companies the council has invested tens of millions of pounds in. There is a strong public interest argument in allowing access to the information I have requested in order to protect the public (both in Thurrock and those areas where the council has borrowed) from unsafe or dubious practices.

If you could acknowledge this request has been received that would be appreciated.

I look forward to your reply.

Yours faithfully,

Gareth Davies

Information.Matters@thurrock.gov.uk, Thurrock Borough Council

1 Attachment

Dear Mr Davies,

 

Thank you for your email below, I can confirm that your Internal Review
request has been received and you will be provided with a response within
the next 20 working days.

 

Many thanks

 

Tina Barrell

 

Tina Barrell l Complaints & Information Governance Assistant I HR, OD &
Transformation

[1]thurrock.gov.uk l ext: 64882

Thurrock Council, Civic Offices, New Road, Grays, Essex RM17 6SL

 

Please note my working hours are 8.30am-2.00pm Monday-Thursday, please
copy in [2][Thurrock Borough Council request email] in relation to all FOI
matters.

 

Thurrock: an ambitious and collaborative community which is proud of its
heritage and excited by its diverse opportunities and future

[3]cid:image002.png@01D542FF.BD4CAC30

Save time, do it online

[4]facebook.com/thurrockcouncil | [5]twitter.com/thurrockcouncil |
[6]https://www.thurrock.gov.uk/access-to-in...

 

From: Gareth Davies <[7][FOI #624730 email]>
Sent: 08 January 2020 13:03
To: [8][email address]
Subject: Internal review of Freedom of Information request - Investments
in renewable energy

 

Dear Thurrock Borough Council,

Please pass this on to the person who conducts Freedom of Information
reviews.

I am writing to request an internal review of Thurrock Borough Council's
handling of my FOI request 'Investments in renewable energy'.

I asked for details of the individual investments which combine to make
the '£702 million of long term capital investment in the renewable in the
renewable energy sector' stated in the council's 2018-19 accounts. The
council has used Section 43 (2) 'Prejudice to commercial interests' to
withhold all of these details. I strongly believe it is incorrect to do so
for the following reasons:

1) The council claims disclosure of the information (it doesn't specify
which part so I can only assume it means everything I asked for) would
"result in other companies that offer similar investments not wanting to
work with the council due to commercially sensitive information being
released by the Council with regards to prior investments". This risk is
purely hypothetical. The council makes no attempt to explain why it
believes that companies knowing which other businesses the council has
invested in, on what dates, the amount of money involved, etc, would
result in them not wanting to invest. Unless, of course, there was
something questionable about the investments the council has made. If so,
that would only increase the public interest in knowing the information I
have requested.

2) The council's claim that knowing these details would put off potential
investors and negatively impact the commercial interests involved in past
deals is contradicted by its own actions. Since September 2016 the council
has been happy to publicise, both through press releases and council
reports, that it has invested in a solar park in Swindon. For example:
- A press release (since removed from the council's website) on or around
15/09/16 mentioned the company involved, Rockfire Capital, by name.
- A report before full council on 28/09/16 includes details of the
investment including the amount invested £15m and the potential returns
- Minutes from a scrutiny committee meeting on 22/11/2016 show the
investment and Rockfire were discussed in a public meeting
- The Treasury Management 2016/17 Mid Year Report discussed by Cabinet on
14/12/2016 mentions the company - 'Rockfire Ltd' - by name and suggests
how the investment was financed ("before financing costs...")
- The Treasury Management 2017/18 Mid Year Report discussed by Cabinet on
2017/18 again mentions the Rockfire investment by name, this time with an
increased cost of £24m
- The Treasury Management Strategy 2018/19 report, published in
28/02/2018, states: "As previously reported, the council has entered into
bonds with Rockfire Capital..."
As is clear from these reports, the council clearly had no concerns that
publicising details of one of its renewable energy investments would
negatively impact on the company it had invested in or put off others from
doing business with it. Yet the council now withholds the same or similar
details of its investments with Rockfire Capital Ltd (and its
subsidiaries), as well as all others included in the £702 million, arguing
that publicising the information would be damaging. This is not only
hypocritical but its demonstrably incorrect. On numerous occasions since
September 2016 the council publicised details of its investment in
Rockfire Capital Ltd for an initial £15m. Given the council's investments
in solar amount to £604 million, these details being public knowledge
clearly did not deter future investments nor harm anyone's commercial
interests.

3) Furthermore, press releases and council reports are not the only way
the council has already published - without harm - the sort of information
I requested. For example, the council's payments to suppliers data -
published as per the Local Government Transparency Code - details five
payments to Rockfire Capital Bonds Ltd between June 2016 and May 2017.
These payments total £74 million - far in excess of any investment
mentioned in council press releases or reports (an indication of the lack
of clarity provided to the public about the investment policy). If the
council believed that releasing this information could prejudice the
commercial interests of either itself or the company, it would have
redacted the name or other details. It did not. I submit that it is
because the risk is now being cited as a way of refusing my request,
rather than a result of genuine concern on part of the council.

The ICO's guidance on Section 43 makes reference to this very point,
stating that "For example, if information can be accessed by the general
public under other legislation, then this may affect the likelihood of any
prejudice arising from a disclosure under FOIA". It then goes on toe
reference The Local government transparency code and the requirement on
all local authorities to publish the details of the purchase of any item
of expenditure that exceeds £500.

4) While I contend that the council should release all the information I
have requested, it is also clear that refusing my FOI in full makes little
sense in light of the council's use of Section 43. For example, the
council has made no attempt to explain how publicising details such as the
dates on which individual investments were made, the type of investment,
the length of the investments or even the amount of money involved could
possibly discourage other investments or harm the prejudice the commercial
interests of anyone involved. If the council was serious about this
exemption it could have, for example, withheld the recipients of the money
instead of issuing a blanket refusal. While I believe all the information
should be disclosed, refusing all of it is even more unjustified.

5) I also contend that the public interest in disclosing the information
(given a cursory mention in the council's response) outweighs the supposed
risks cited by the council.

Disclosure of this information would make Thurrock Borough Council far
more accountable for how it spends public money. This would benefit not
just taxpayers in Thurrock but also across the country. This is because
the council finances these investments by borrowing from dozens, if not
hundreds, of other local authorities. Taxpayers in these areas, and in
Thurrock, have next to no knowledge that this is how councils are using
their money. Thurrock has gone, in a relatively short space of time, from
having little to no debt to having borrowed more than £1 billion from
other local authorities. In this period it has invested at least £702
million in the renewable energy sector. Apart from a few specific examples
listed above, the council has explained very little about this to the
public. There is an overriding public interest in this being rectified,
particularly at a time when local government budgets in general are under
huge financial strain.

6) There is also the question of protecting the public, as detailed by the
ICO guidance on Section 42 (par 48). There is good reason to question the
practices of at least one of the companies the council has invested tens
of millions of pounds in. There is a strong public interest argument in
allowing access to the information I have requested in order to protect
the public (both in Thurrock and those areas where the council has
borrowed) from unsafe or dubious practices.

If you could acknowledge this request has been received that would be
appreciated.

I look forward to your reply.

Yours faithfully,

Gareth Davies

-------------------------------------------------------------------
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Information.Matters@thurrock.gov.uk, Thurrock Borough Council

1 Attachment

Dear Mr Davies,

 

I am writing to advise that the investigation of your Internal Review
received on 8^th January has now been concluded. 

 

Your Request

 

1) Can you provide a breakdown of the individual investments that make up
that £702 million figure, including for each:
a) The amount of money invested by the council
b) The date on which the investment took place
c) The recipient of the money
d) The type of investment (bond, stock, mutual fund, etc.)
e) The length of the investment
f) The name and location of the associated asset
g) Forecast gross and net returns across the investment period
h) The name of the broker (or any equivalent entity) which notified the
authority about the investment opportunity
i) How the investment was financed (short-term borrowing from local
authorities, PWLB, reserves, etc)

2) As of 02/12/2019, what is the total of:
a) The council's long term debtors
b) The long term capital investment in renewable energy sector

3) For all investments not included in the answer to question one (i.e.
all made since 31 March 2019 to 02/12/2019) please provide the following
information:
a) The amount of money invested by the council
b) The date on which the investment took place
c) The recipient of the money
d) The type of investment (bond, stock, mutual fund, etc)
e) The length of the investment
f) The name and location of the associated asset
g) Forecast gross and net returns across the investment period
h) The name of the broker (or any equivalent entity) which notified the
authority about the investment opportunity
i) How the investment was financed (short-term borrowing from local
authorities, PWLB, reserves, etc)

 

Our Response

 

For transparency reasons we can provide the following information:

 

·         £604m Solar energy

·         £44m Wind Farm energy

·         £44m Other renewable energy

·         £10m Housing Regeneration

 

The following exemption applies for all other information requested:

 

Section 43 (2):

 

The Council are of the view that the release of the information in scope
of your request would prejudice its own commercial interests and the
commercial interests of the other parties involved. The reasons for this
have been captured below under the public interest test section.

 

Public Interest Test:

 

The Council have considered the public interest test in relation to
section 43 (2) in releasing the information in scope of your request. The
outcome of this is below.

 

·         Public interest in disclosure:

o   It would inform the public of the activities carried out on their
behalf and to scrutinise public monies spent

 

·         Public interest to maintain the exemption:

o   Disclosure of information would result in other companies that offer
similar investments not wanting to work with the Council due to
commercially sensitive information being released by the Council with
regards to prior investments. This will have a negative impact on the
Councils ability to seek suitable investment deals going forward.

o   Disclosure of information would have a detrimental impact on the
commercial interests of the other parties involved, as this would
publically detail commercially sensitive information. This would damage
the Investor’s competitive position.

o   Disclosure of information would negatively impact the Councils working
relationships with its lenders. This will reduce the spend the Council has
(commercial interests), which would directly impact the services we are
able to provide to our residents.

o   Disclosure of information would negatively impact the Councils
reputation due to loss of investor confidence in the council.

 

Based on the above, it is the Council’s view that there is a stronger
public interest to engage the exemption for section 43 (2). The key
reasons for this is as follows:

·         The public would only be interested in this information if their
service provision were to reduce and/or stop completely.

·         All the time the Council are able to maximise its funds in this
way and maintain its service provision, there is no strong public interest
in favour of disclosure of this level of detail.

 

 

Your request for Internal review

 

I am writing to request an internal review of Thurrock Borough Council's
handling of my FOI request 'Investments in renewable energy'.

I asked for details of the individual investments which combine to make
the '£702 million of long term capital investment in the renewable in the
renewable energy sector' stated in the council's 2018-19 accounts. The
council has used Section 43 (2) 'Prejudice to commercial interests' to
withhold all of these details. I strongly believe it is incorrect to do so
for the following reasons:

1) The council claims disclosure of the information (it doesn't specify
which part so I can only assume it means everything I asked for) would
"result in other companies that offer similar investments not wanting to
work with the council due to commercially sensitive information being
released by the Council with regards to prior investments". This risk is
purely hypothetical. The council makes no attempt to explain why it
believes that companies knowing which other businesses the council has
invested in, on what dates, the amount of money involved, etc, would
result in them not wanting to invest. Unless, of course, there was
something questionable about the investments the council has made. If so,
that would only increase the public interest in knowing the information I
have requested.

2) The council's claim that knowing these details would put off potential
investors and negatively impact the commercial interests involved in past
deals is contradicted by its own actions. Since September 2016 the council
has been happy to publicise, both through press releases and council
reports, that it has invested in a solar park in Swindon. For example:
- A press release (since removed from the council's website) on or around
15/09/16 mentioned the company involved, Rockfire Capital, by name.
- A report before full council on 28/09/16 includes details of the
investment including the amount invested £15m and the potential returns
- Minutes from a scrutiny committee meeting on 22/11/2016 show the
investment and Rockfire were discussed in a public meeting
- The Treasury Management 2016/17 Mid Year Report discussed by Cabinet on
14/12/2016 mentions the company - 'Rockfire Ltd' - by name and suggests
how the investment was financed ("before financing costs...")
- The Treasury Management 2017/18 Mid Year Report discussed by Cabinet on
2017/18 again mentions the Rockfire investment by name, this time with an
increased cost of £24m
- The Treasury Management Strategy 2018/19 report, published in
28/02/2018, states: "As previously reported, the council has entered into
bonds with Rockfire Capital..."
As is clear from these reports, the council clearly had no concerns that
publicising details of one of its renewable energy investments would
negatively impact on the company it had invested in or put off others from
doing business with it. Yet the council now withholds the same or similar
details of its investments with Rockfire Capital Ltd (and its
subsidiaries), as well as all others included in the £702 million, arguing
that publicising the information would be damaging. This is not only
hypocritical but its demonstrably incorrect. On numerous occasions since
September 2016 the council publicised details of its investment in
Rockfire Capital Ltd for an initial £15m. Given the council's investments
in solar amount to £604 million, these details being public knowledge
clearly did not deter future investments nor harm anyone's commercial
interests.

3) Furthermore, press releases and council reports are not the only way
the council has already published - without harm - the sort of information
I requested. For example, the council's payments to suppliers data -
published as per the Local Government Transparency Code - details five
payments to Rockfire Capital Bonds Ltd between June 2016 and May 2017.
These payments total £74 million - far in excess of any investment
mentioned in council press releases or reports (an indication of the lack
of clarity provided to the public about the investment policy). If the
council believed that releasing this information could prejudice the
commercial interests of either itself or the company, it would have
redacted the name or other details. It did not. I submit that it is
because the risk is now being cited as a way of refusing my request,
rather than a result of genuine concern on part of the council.

The ICO's guidance on Section 43 makes reference to this very point,
stating that "For example, if information can be accessed by the general
public under other legislation, then this may affect the likelihood of any
prejudice arising from a disclosure under FOIA". It then goes on toe
reference The Local government transparency code and the requirement on
all local authorities to publish the details of the purchase of any item
of expenditure that exceeds £500.

4) While I contend that the council should release all the information I
have requested, it is also clear that refusing my FOI in full makes little
sense in light of the council's use of Section 43. For example, the
council has made no attempt to explain how publicising details such as the
dates on which individual investments were made, the type of investment,
the length of the investments or even the amount of money involved could
possibly discourage other investments or harm the prejudice the commercial
interests of anyone involved. If the council was serious about this
exemption it could have, for example, withheld the recipients of the money
instead of issuing a blanket refusal. While I believe all the information
should be disclosed, refusing all of it is even more unjustified.

5) I also contend that the public interest in disclosing the information
(given a cursory mention in the council's response) outweighs the supposed
risks cited by the council.

Disclosure of this information would make Thurrock Borough Council far
more accountable for how it spends public money. This would benefit not
just taxpayers in Thurrock but also across the country. This is because
the council finances these investments by borrowing from dozens, if not
hundreds, of other local authorities. Taxpayers in these areas, and in
Thurrock, have next to no knowledge that this is how councils are using
their money. Thurrock has gone, in a relatively short space of time, from
having little to no debt to having borrowed more than £1 billion from
other local authorities. In this period it has invested at least £702
million in the renewable energy sector. Apart from a few specific examples
listed above, the council has explained very little about this to the
public. There is an overriding public interest in this being rectified,
particularly at a time when local government budgets in general are under
huge financial strain.

6) There is also the question of protecting the public, as detailed by the
ICO guidance on Section 42 (par 48). There is good reason to question the
practices of at least one of the companies the council has invested tens
of millions of pounds in. There is a strong public interest argument in
allowing access to the information I have requested in order to protect
the public (both in Thurrock and those areas where the council has
borrowed) from unsafe or dubious practices.

Outcome of Internal Review:

 

Section 43 (2):

 

The Council are of the view that the release of the information in scope
of your request would prejudice its own commercial interests and the
commercial interests of the other parties involved. The reasons for this
have been captured above under the public interest test section. The
Council are of the view that these reasons are still applicable and we
have not changed our view on this.  The Council have however sought
confirmation from another party involved and they have confirmed they are
in agreement with its view on this matter.

 

Based on the public interest test detailed above, the Council’s view
remains that there is a stronger public interest to maintain the use of
the exemption for section 43 (2). The key reasons for this is as follows:

·         The public would only be interested in this information if their
service provision were to reduce and/or stop completely

·         All the time the Council are able to maximise its funds in this
way and maintain its service provision, there is no strong public interest
in favour of disclosure of this level of detail

 

Section 36:

 

On reflection and in addition the Council will also now be relying on the
exemption contained within section 36.

This exemption is qualified and therefore subject to the Public Interest
Test. This means we have balanced the legitimate interests of the public
in having access to the information (under FOI a disclosure is a
publication to the world at large) against the current interests of the
authority in withholding it. The public interest test favours
non-disclosure at this particular time in order to ensure the Council is
able to maintain its current financial position which is of direct benefit
to our residents.

In summary, the section 36 exemption (Prejudice to the effective conduct
of public affairs) applies where complying with the request would inhibit,
or would be likely to inhibit, the free and frank exchange of advice or
views or would otherwise prejudice, or would be likely to prejudice, the
effective conduct of public affairs.

In order to apply this exemption we have sought the opinion of the
Council’s Qualified Person, who’s views are as follows:

o This exemption is being applied specifically to the information you
have requested.

 

o So far as the exemption under s.36(2)(b)) is concerned, whilst this
request relates to information concerning financial investment
decisions that have already been made, so any advice/views have
already been given/exchanged on those, its disclosure would be likely
to set a precedent for the disclosure of other similar information, if
requested, which would be likely to have those inhibiting effects in
future.  

o Disclosing the information requested would also be likely to prejudice
the effective conduct of public affairs. 
o Against a backdrop of cuts the Council has been able to improve its
financial position, including through investments, which has had a
direct benefit for our residents and their service provision.
o Disclosing details of its investments would hinder the Councils
working relationships with other parties in relation to its
investments. This would reduce the financial resources the Council has
to spend, which would directly and negatively impact the services the
Council is able to provide to our residents. This would be likely to
prejudice the effective conduct of the Council’s public affairs.
o The Council already adheres to the Transparency Agenda and routinely
publishes data sets with regards to its spending which are open to
public scrutiny. Thurrock Councillors, as the elected representatives
of the public in its area, have oversight of all treasury matters. 
All treasury transactions follow the routes approved by Councillors,
under the relevant Rules and strategy, either via decisions made by
them and/or under delegations.

 

 

As your complaint has been dealt with as an Internal Review, should you
remain dissatisfied you can escalate your concerns to the Information
Commissioners Office and I have included their contact details below:

 

Address - Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow. Cheshire, SK9 5AF.

T: 0303 123 1113 (Local rate) 01625 545745 (National rate).

E: [1][email address]

 

 

Lee Henley | Strategic Lead Information Management | HR, OD &
Transformation

Thurrock Council, Civic Offices, New Road, Grays, RM17 6SL

[2]www.thurrock.gov.uk

Thurrock: an ambitious and collaborative community which is proud of its
heritage and excited by its diverse opportunities and future

[3]cid:image001.jpg@01D5DBF8.97E30E70

 

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Dear [email address],

Thank you for response to my request for an internal review into my FOI "Investments in renewable energy".

You said:

"The Council have however sought confirmation from another party involved and they have confirmed they are
in agreement with its view on this matter"

So I am better able to prepare my appeal to the ICO, can you confirm what is meant by "another party involved". Is this a company the council has invested in?

Yours sincerely,

Gareth Davies