We as citizens have rights and responsibilities (1). We can (and should) ask those who are elected to explain themselves. We should also ask those who run our governments on a day-to-day basis to explain themselves. Democracy is a muscle – if you use it, it can get stronger. If you don’t use it, it definitely gets weaker.
One way you can exercise your democratic muscles/rights is by requesting information. Now, you can write to politicians and civil servants and you MIGHT get a reply (or even an answer – if the person on the receiving end of your request is particularly principled, or reckons the risk of damage to their careers of not giving an answer is too high). But most of the time you would be ignored.
Fortunately, under the government of noted war criminal Tony Blair, the Freedom of Information Act was passed in 2000 and finally came into force in 2005. Blair said afterwards of himself in relation to it – “You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.” Apparently it was his biggest regret. A million dead Iraqis might quibble, but hey ho. #wedigress.
A Freedom of Information Act request is FREE to make. You simply send a letter (these days though, everyone uses email) to the relevant email address at any public body (local authority, department of state, police force, hospital, university etc) and ask your questions. You have to provide your name and address.
They have to acknowledge the request and reply in 20 working days. Crucially, they do NOT have to give you the information. There are a number (too many, in our opinion) of exemptions. It’s up to you to get good at asking specific questions, with no room for wriggle.
We as Climate Emergency Manchester want you to get better at submitting FOIAs. We believe that if local authorities (and yeah, we’re looking at YOU, Manchester City Council) know that the information is going to be prised out of them anyway, they will eventually learn to release it automatically before being asked (yeah, we’re delusional: so sue us.)
So, below is a request sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
You don’t have to do the flowery philosophical stuff at the outset, btw. For me (Marc Hudson) it’s partly for shits and giggles/lulz, partly to cope with the frustration of engaging with a fantastically opaque and secretive council.
btw, we will be releasing a novice’s guide to Freedom of Information Act requests very soon. Watch this space.
1. Has any assessment been done, at any time in the last five years, of the integrity of the drainage structures under Alexandra Park. I ask because that patch of ground in the park, opposite St Bede’s College, seems, well, swampy. Two trees down, two more brought down – there must be some underlying cause. Please provide copies of any assessments, and correspondence in the last 12 months about drainage under the park among relevant officers
Over the summer and winter of 2019/2020 Alexandra Park and many other parks in the South Manchester Area suffered flooding problems because of the adverse weather conditions at the time.
A full survey of the main culverts within Alexandra Park was completed towards the end of April beginning of May 2020. There were areas of the culverts that had roots blocking the flow. An order is with the contractor to do further root cutting on the main drainage within the site.
The area of park which is called Lime walk that runs alongside Alexandra Road has no drainage system but we did find a blocked culvert to the North side of the park towards Claremont Road. Now that it has been cleared we would hope that it will stop the water running down hill and settling along Lime walk.
2. Who made the decision to chop down the two additional trees? When? On what basis? Please provide any paperwork they had to fill in – I am particularly interested in what alternatives to chopping down the two trees were considered, by who, and who deemed that the only choice was to fire up a (diesel?) chainsaw. Were elected representatives for the ward (I believe one of the three has some sort of involvement with matters environmental) consulted the teeth bit, or informed afterwards?
The decision to cut down the two leaning trees was taken by the arborists who attended as an emergency call-out on Friday 22 May 2020. On that day a large number of trees around the city had unfortunately been affected by high winds.
The team who attended were not intimately familiar with the park and they could not have known that the two trees they cut down had been leaning for some time.
The arborists assessed the trees and made the decision that sadly given the condition of the trees, the weather conditions, that other trees in the vicinity had fallen and the presence of a large group of pedestrians very close by the danger area, (despite the area being taped off) there was imminent risk to the public and the trees had to be felled on safety grounds.
The arborists who attended are highly qualified and work for a well-respected and reputable contractor, and the decision that the tree was dangerous and had to be dismantled was the only appropriate course of action.
However, the Arborist should have confirmed the felling to the council. This did not occur due to confusion as to the trees they were initially attending to.
Were elected representatives for the ward (I believe one of the three has some sort of involvement with matters environmental) consulted the teeth bit, or informed afterwards?
Given the emergency nature of the removal there was no opportunity to inform Councillors in advance. When trees have to be felled in emergency situations Councillors are not normally informed retrospectively and were not in this case.
For your information in a non-emergency planned removal, the three ward councillors are notified in advance before a tree is felled. Unfortunately, this cannot happen in the circumstances of an emergency call-out.
3. We hear a lot – and I mean a LOT – about all the trees the Council is planting/having planted. We hear a lot less about what protocol/criteria/ algorithm does the City Council use for assessing whether a given tree should be supported/braced or needs to be cut down? This is distinct from the whole business of Tree Preservation Orders.
The Council does not have any written guidelines regarding bracing or propping. Trees may be removed for a variety of reasons. The Council’s Arboricultural Section only removes a Highway tree or a park tree if there is no chance that the tree can safely remain in situ. There are many reasons why a highway or park tree may be removed but they invariably revolve around safety issues that cannot be mitigated by pruning. Removal is always the last choice. Other Council Departments may occasionally remove trees for road improvement schemes or for new housing developments. Below is a link to the Council’s Tree Management Principles.
4. But while we are on the subject
a) which trees (if any) in Alexandra Park are subject to TPOs.
Local Authorities very rarely protect their own trees with a TPO as it is assumed that they will look after them adequately.
b) the Council’s website says “We are working to make the details of tree protected by a TPO available online. “
The Council team working on digitising and making TPOs mapping available online have made a data set available online via the Council’s Open Data Portal. However, the team are planning a better online map resource giving more detailed information and with the ability to download a copy of the TPOs directly.
The information supplied to you may be subject to copyright. You are free to use it for your own purposes, including any non-commercial research you are doing, and for the purposes of news reporting. Any other re-use (for example, commercial publication) would require the permission of the copyright holder.
If you wish to re-use the information provided other than for reasons already outlined above, you must submit the request to us in writing, with your name and address for correspondence, and you must specify the information you want to re-use and the purpose you intend to use it for. We will then consider your request under the Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations 2015.
If you are not satisfied with the response to your request, you may ask the Council for an internal review. This will be undertaken by an officer not involved in handling your request. If you wish an internal review to be undertaken you should contact the Democratic Services Legal Team who can be contacted by post or email: Democratic Services Legal Team, PO Box 532, Town Hall, Manchester M60 2LA Email: informationcompliance@
When requesting an internal review, please explain which parts of the request handling and/or response you are unhappy with so that we can address your concerns in the internal review process.
A copy of the Council’s access to information complaints procedure can be accessed here: http://www.manchester.gov.uk/
If you are not happy with the outcome of the internal review process once it is completed, you have the right to apply directly to the Information Commissioner for a decision. The Information Commissioner can be contacted at:
Information Commissioner’s Office
The Information Commissioner will generally expect that you have exhausted the Council’s Information Complaints Procedure before he will consider a complaint.
If you have any queries about this letter, please contact me. Please remember to quote the reference number above in any future communications.
(1) There are many MANY people who live in the UK who are either not citizens/subjects, or are too poor/busy/oppressed to be able to make use of their legal rights. But for those of us who don’t have these reasons, well…