A ruling from the highest court in the EU today means that local authorities will be able to charge and offset the significant costs of staff time spent searching and producing information for property searches and other types of environmental information.
The ruling has wide ranging implications for public authorities supplying environmental information such as local authorities, water companies, the NHS and police.
It follows a series of disputes between local authorities and property search agencies over how much they have to pay to obtain property search information under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.
The decision by the European Court of Justice (‘ECJ’) follows a test case brought by East Sussex County Council and 314 other local authorities and the Local Government Association (as intervener). Other parties in the action included the Property Search Group (‘PSG’) and the Information Commissioner (‘ICO’).
Previous decisions by courts in England and Wales meant that public authorities could only recover disbursements such as photocopying and postage costs when supplying environmental information. The ECJ’s decision means that authorities can recover the costs of staff time spent supplying environmental information, and producing information in the format requested – by recovering costs including paper and photocopying.
Authorities will not be able to charge for costs such as maintaining databases.
The law firm Bevan Brittan acted on behalf of all 315 LGA local authorities.
Lead partner Virginia Cooper said:
“This is a landmark decision which, for the first time, clarifies the costs that public authorities can recover for supplying environmental information regardless of whether it has been requested under the Environmental Information Regulations. It is a positive legal outcome for local authorities that are under huge pressure to provide fast and accurate information on a wide range of environmental issues. Authorities receive many thousands of requests every year for property searches and other types of environmental information, and together they represent a significant call on valuable resources.”
Cllr Claire Kober, Lead Resources Portfolio Holder for the Local Government Association, said:
“This decision is good news for councils who will now have clarity over the costs that they can recoup for providing, finding and sending environmental information.
“Councils use significant amounts of staff time and resources providing the hundreds of thousands of requests they can receive each year from property search agencies. It is right that local government can continue to charge for this and that local taxpayers aren’t expected to foot the bill.”
The Environmental Information Regulations 2004 provide public access to recorded environmental information held by public authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Public authorities must make environmental information available proactively, and members of the public are entitled to request environmental information.
Virginia Cooper added:
“The scope of environmental information held by public authorities is vast – encompassing land use, housing development, pollution levels, public health, energy production, water and waste management. The ECJ ruling affects not only local authorities but other public authorities and agencies such as water companies, the Highways Agency, the police and the NHS. It provides much needed clarity about what public authorities can charge for supplying environmental information which will be welcome in these ongoing times of austerity.
“All public authorities should now review and assess how they process and provide environmental information to ensure they are both complying with the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 regulations and the specifics of this new ruling by the ECJ.”
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