Why does Cardiff Council not trust its own citizens?
Cardiff Council will soon adopt its One Planet strategy to deliver a carbon neutral Council and City by 2030. As the capital of Wales – and the UK city must vulnerable to rising sea levels – Cardiff has a strong interest in leading efforts to tackle the climate and nature emergencies.
The One Planet Vision rightly notes that public engagement and behaviour change will be essential, including engagement in decision-making. But how can citizens participate when we are denied the information to do so?
Papers presented for Cabinet are routinely accompanied by many Confidential Appendices, hidden from public view. For its meeting on 23 September, 7 papers on the Indoor Arena were restricted and 8 on the International Sports Village.
The standard reason for this restriction is that they are said to contain “information relating to the financial or business affairs of any particular person”. There are of course good legal, contractual, or data protection reasons why some material cannot be made public. But Council is far too ready to use this provision to hide information from citizen scrutiny.
Restrictions can be extended to “the authority holding that information”, that is Council itself. In some cases, premature release could prejudice Council’s negotiating position. But as citizens we have a right to know how our elected representatives are spending our money as soon as that information can be provided.
In some cases, Council may be exceeding its legal powers. Under the Town and Country Planning Regulations, “Information is not exempt information if it relates to proposed development for which the local planning authority may grant itself planning permission”. This is the case for Council-sponsored projects such as the Arena or Sports Village.
Council also hides information beyond financial matters. The claimed economic, social and environmental benefits of the Arena have been placed in a Confidential Report to stop residents questioning these. It is doubtful if subsidising a private Consortium is the best use of tens of millions of public money. There are concerns over the environmental impact of demolishing and rebuilding Atlantic Wharf, and of delays to public transport improvements.
In a healthy democracy, such matters would be openly debated, with as much information as possible in the public domain, so that citizens could scrutinise and challenge proposals. Government of the people, by the people, for the people.
Becoming carbon neutral in just 9 years is perhaps the most ambitious challenge our city has every set itself. Achieving it will require cooperation between Council and Citizens towards that goal. Cooperation depends on trust. But how can we trust Council when Council will not trust us?
Lyn Eynon, 7 October 2021