The Information Commissioner’s Office has today issued guidance that will potentially have significant financial implications for local authorities who deal with property search enquiries, particularly at a time of increasing financial pressures. The guidance covers the relationship between the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) and the Local Authorities (England) (Charges for Property Searches) Regulations 2008 (CPSR), and in particular whether the information provided by authorities in response to requests for local property search information constitutes environmental information as defined in the EIR.
The guidance outlines the ICO’s view that the majority of property search data is environmental information and that local authorities are required to allow inspection of this data at no charge.
In summary, the ICO guidance states that:
- the majority of the information provided by local authorities in response to property search enquiries is likely to be environmental information as defined by the EIR;
- the charging provisions in the CPSR do not apply to environmental information;
- under the EIR a public authority should accept an applicant’s request to inspect the information;
- environmental information that is inspected by the applicant cannot be charged for;
- public authorities cannot use the publication scheme provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) to charge for environmental information contained in property search records; and
- information that is not environmental should be considered under the FOIA.
The Local Government Association (LGA) has serious concerns about the accuracy of the guidance in a number of key areas, such as charging. It is working hard on the issue and is today circulating a letter and initial guidance to all local authorities. It is also commissioning counsel’s opinion.
The LGA will be issuing further information as soon as possible. In the meantime, local authorities will need to consider how they respond to the requests that may be made as a result of the ICO guidance.
We recommend that affected authorities take heed of the LGA’s letter as a matter of urgency, and we endorse its advice. We are happy to advise individual authorities in more detail, particularly where they are holding requests for disclosure of information awaiting this guidance, or where they now start to receive such requests as the guidance becomes public knowledge.