Property search companies have triumphed in their fight to be given free access to environmental information by local authorities. The First-Tier Tribunal ruled that allowing councils to levy even modest administrative charges to cover the cost of providing such information would defeat the objectives of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.
Leeds City Council had attempted to charge property search companies £22.50 in respect of each request for environmental information. This was said by the local authority to reflect the true cost, inter alia in terms of man hours, incurred in retrieving such information and making it available.
However, in dismissing an appeal by the council against a decision of the Information Commissioner to like effect, the tribunal accepted the property search companies’ plea that such charges were unreasonable in that they would thwart or restrict access to information and act as a disincentive to public authorities making improvements to their systems enabling free inspection of information.
Having regard to the underlying objectives of the legislation, the tribunal ruled that the regulations should be narrowly interpreted so as to preclude the council from levying charges in respect of the administrative tasks of locating and retrieving information and putting it into an inspectable form. “Any other interpretation would have significant adverse consequences to those wishing to access environmental information”, the tribunal concluded.