Call for an extension to the FOI legislation

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A call for greater transparency has been made in the way that elected land-owning community bodies operate and how they inform their memberships about management processes, business opportunities and disputes.

Local land-owning bodies have been involved in various debates over the last few years, especially in regards to creating development opportunities to benefit the wider community. But concerns about how well information and its dissemination is handled by these organisations has been causing concern within communities.

This week journalist Peter Urpeth has written an article on how this could be better managed in the future (see story below).

He sets out the situation: “Community land owning trusts, whether they be the oldest or of more recent formation, can and do have a significant impact on the lives of the local community, and on individuals in those communities.

“Such power, held at local level with at least the promise of local people having a democratic say in the issues closest to home, can be a significant advantage in rolling back years of private landlord neglect.

“But without openness and a legally enshrined right to information, such power can also destroy trust in one’s neighbour.

“A fix, if not a silver bullet for the problem of access to information, and the correct partner to the democratic process of voting for Scotland’s community land trusts, should be that all such organisations become subject to statutory Freedom of Information regulations, brining a legal right to information, but also a framework of regulation that provides protection, balance and due-process should privacy be required.”

Peter continues the argument for this change in his article, (see above).

However, in response to the call to further extend the reach of the Freedom of Information legislation, Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan, said: “Mr Urpeth’s enquiry raises some important questions about who people should complain to about any concerns they have around the running of community-owned estates.

“Although estates are not ‘public bodies’ in terms of the Freedom of Information legislation, it is important that all community-owned estates operate in an open way.

“Community ownership has been a real success, but it will only continue to be so if the whole community is involved.”

OPINION - MAKING THE CASE FOR BETTER AND EASIER ACCESS TO INFORMATION

By Peter Urpeth

Over the last few months, the use of power and the transparency of a number of community land owning trusts and development agencies in the Outer Hebrides has been called into question.

Some of the concerns raised, go back many years, others are newer in their origin.

In March, the Stornoway Trust came under local scrutiny during its election process, with stories of late or non-arrival of mailed ballot forms and confusion over voting rights.

Stòras Uibhist, the community land owning trust in South Uist has also become the centre of attention with claims of secrecy and a lack of public access to the management process.

Community land owning trusts, whether they be the oldest or of more recent formation, can and do have a significant impact on the lives of the local community, and on individuals in those communities.

Such power, held at local level with at least the promise of local people having a democratic say in the issues closest to home, can be a significant advantage in rolling back years of private landlord neglect. But without openness and a legally enshrined right to information, such power can also destroy trust in one’s neighbour.

A fix, if not a silver bullet for the problem of access to information, and the correct partner to the democratic process of voting for Scotland’s community land trusts, should be that all such organisations become subject to statutory Freedom of Information regulations, bringing a legal right to information, but also a framework of regulation that provides protection, balance and due-process should privacy be required.

Such rights to information may also shed light on the processes behind business deals being considered.

And this change most certainly can be done.

Section five of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA) gives the Scottish Government the power to designate any organisation as a ‘Scottish public authority’ which ‘appears to the Scottish Ministers to exercise functions of a public nature’ or which operates under contract made with a Scottish public authority, ‘any service whose provision is a function of the authority.’

Most recently, FOISA’s reach has been extended to include contractors who run privately-managed prisons; providers of secure accommodation for children; grant-aided schools and independent special schools.

A formal response to more recent consultations to extend FOISA to Registered Social Landlords, is eagerly awaited - and by any measure, the community land trusts have some striking features in common with social housing landlords - enough surely to merit an examination of the potential benefits, indeed necessity, of extending FOISA to include the community land trusts.

The Crofting Commission is covered by the act, as is Crown Estate Scotland and The Scottish Land Commission. So why not the community land trusts?

Consultations with public bodies who have become subject to FOISA, also reveals that fears about being swamped with new administrative burdens, have not materialised.

With the Information Commissioner’s guidance, organisations can also head-off a deluge of information requests by introducing routine publication of key information. The impact of this culture change can only be imagined at present, but change is clearly needed at the heart of community land owning process, not just at its gates.

It is not enough for such bodies to promise local communities that they will operate with greater transparency, that openness should be seen as a key resource in attaining their greater goals and purposes.

The secrecy, whimsy and unquestionable power of the private landlords that many trusts have replaced was a driving force in the entire movement toward greater community ownership - so why are such trusts empowered by secrecy?

A new sense of transparency is fundamental in gaining public trust and will also push forward the professionalisation of these bodies and their work.

What do you think about Peter’s suggestion?

Tell us your views via the Gazette Letters Page, or by getting in touch at: news@stornowaygazette.co.uk