Haringey Council reported to ICO for failing to release details of talks with developer

A computer-generated image of The View, on the site of the former Mary Feilding Guild care home in Highgate

A computer-generated image of The View, on the site of the former Mary Feilding Guild care home in Highgate - Credit: Highgate Care

Haringey Council has been reported to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) by a residents’ group for failing to disclose details of its talks with a developer.

Highgate Society referred the council to the ICO after the civic centre refused to release pre-application discussions linked to the redevelopment of the former Mary Feilding Guild care home in North Hill.

After plans to knock down the home and build a larger facility were approved in June, the society lodged a Freedom of Information (FOI) request asking the council to release the pre-application discussions it had held with developer Highgate Care.

Designs for The View, to replace Mary Feilding Guild

Designs for The View, which could replace Mary Feilding Guild - Credit: Highgate Care

It came amid concerns Highgate Society and local residents had been shut out of consultation over the plans for two years, during which much of the scheme was agreed between the developer and the council.

The council says there was pre-application engagement with residents and local groups, and an “internal review” found its decision to withhold information was “correct”.

But Highgate Society claims the council’s reasons for refusing are not valid under the FOI Act.

Francis Wilkinson, the society’s secretary, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that the council had claimed the law did not apply to planning applications but Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) do. However, he said court rulings had concluded that some applications do not fall under EIR.

"Even if the council is right," Francis said, "its case for refusing does not stack up."

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He said the council made use of an exemption to the EIR stating that authorities can refuse to release information if it would adversely affect the interests of the person who provided the information.

The civic centre had claimed that if the information were disclosed, an applicant would not be able to have confidential discussions with the local authority before making an application, which would discourage developers from applying.

But Francis said the council’s own rules about pre-application discussions state that applicants should be told at the time when they enter into discussions that they might be disclosed, so the developer could not say its interests were adversely affected.

He added: “There is no good reason, no adverse effect for them [the developer] of the information being disclosed. On the other hand, there are benefits to open governance and good decision-making, all the things the FOI Act is there for.

“It is impossible to think of a good reason why Haringey would not want to disclose this. The reason they do give – that other people would be less willing to get into pre-application discussions – is a thoroughly bad reason.”

Dana Carlin, cabinet member for housing services, private renters and planning, said: “This application was subject to pre-application engagement with local residents and groups, by the developer and through an online forum hosted by the council.

"Over 200 letters were sent to residents and the 44 responses received were considered by councillors at the planning subcommittee.

“The council has released its written note of pre-application discussions in line with our commitment to transparency on planning matters.

"The decision not to release further information was subject to an internal review, and it was found that the decision to withhold information was correct.

"The next step is to complain to the ICO, and the council will respond to any such complaint accordingly.”

Residents at the Mary Feilding Guild home in Highgate 29.03.21.

Residents at the Mary Feilding Guild home in Highgate 29.03.21. - Credit: Polly Hancock

Highgate Care, run by Mitesh Dhanak, bought the former Mary Feilding Guild site in March last year and immediately announced it was to close the historic care home, giving 16 residents aged between 85 and 104 less than three months to pack their bags.

High-profile former residents included novelist Diana Athill and socialist campaigner Hetty Bowe.

The three-to-four storey building, called The View, will provide 43 bedrooms for long-term care, including dementia and palliative care, and a 27-bedroom wellbeing and physiotherapy centre to help patients recover from surgery.