Archived press release
Local resident wins landmark secrecy court battle with waste giant

The giant waste company Veolia Environmental Services today lost its High Court bid to keep details of its £850 million waste management contract with Nottinghamshire County Council secret from local residents [1]. This is the third time that information about the French-owned company’s activities has been forcibly made public [2].  The judgment sets an important precedent for local authorities with immediate impacts for other councils around the country [3].

Veolia asked for the High Court to judicially review Nottinghamshire County Council’s decision to release details of its multi-million pound waste management contract – including invoices paid by the local council – following a request by local resident and waste campaigner Shlomo Dowen, of People Against Incineration (PAIN), under local authority audit laws [4]. Veolia had previously obtained an interim injunction to prevent publication until the case could be heard.

Mr Dowen was represented by lawyers from Friends of the Earth’s Rights and Justice Centre at the Judicial Review, which was heard last month.

Information in the contract and the invoices will show how much money Veolia is charging the local council for each method of waste treatment, such as landfill, incineration, recycling and composting, and will help show whether or not the local authority is getting value for money. 

Shlomo Dowen said:

“This decision, which is clearly the right one, strengthens our right to see how public money is spent buying public services from large corporations. I am not convinced that Nottinghamshire Council is getting best value for our money – now I will be in a better position to investigate those suspicions."

Friends of the Earth’s Head of Legal and Mr Dowen’s lawyer, Phil Michaels, said:

“This is a tremendous victory for freedom of information and the residents of Nottingham. Veolia must come clean about its waste disposal contract and allow council tax payers to see how vast sums of their money is being spent, and how their rubbish is being disposed of.”

Mr Dowen has already accessed some information from the Council and has asked the District Auditor to investigate amount of money it is charging Nottinghamshire's County Council in respect of landfill tax.

Veolia is also embroiled in another controversy with Nottinghamshire County Council over its plans to build an incinerator on a former colliery site in Sherwood Forest. The company claims that local waste levels are expected to rise significantly in the coming years – a fact hotly disputed by PAIN, who point to evidence that Nottinghamshire's waste levels have actually fallen [5].

Veolia has said it will not be appealing today’s judgement.

Notes:

1.    The judge ruled: “The obligation to pay local taxation through the rates was matched by the right given to rate-payers to an involvement in the process of ensuring the money was well spent.  It was a mechanism of democratic accountability through involvement in the public process of audit.  Assisting the audit process included an opportunity for local government electors and other persons interested to inspect and copy the accounts and related documents.  In my judgment it is entirely unsurprising that given its history the law should permit a local elector such as Mr. Dowen sight of the disputed documents in this case. The historic role of interested persons such as local government electors in participating in the audit process would be severely diminished without such disclosure.”

2.    The Judicial Review was heard on 25-26 August 2009 http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/press_releases/secret_waste_contract_25082009.html.

3.    In the past two years information about Veolia’s waste contracts with local authorities has twice been ordered to be released following complaints to the Information Commissioner. In April last year, following a formal complaint by a Friends of the Earth local group, the Information Commissioner ordered South Down Waste Services, a subsidiary of Veolia, to release information about its Newhaven incinerator. He ruled that a private waste management company that has a contract with a local authority is required to make environmental information public because it is classed the same as a public authority under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/press_releases/waste_companies_must_open_02042008.html. In another case in November 2007, the Information Commissioner ordered East Sussex County Council to make public its £1 billion integrated waste management contract with Veolia despite protestations that the contract was commercially confidential. http://www.ico.gov.uk/upload/documents/decisionnotices/2007/fer_0099394.pdf

4.    Friends of the Earth is aware of a number of authorities that have received similar requests for information and are waiting for the outcome of this case before deciding whether to release the information requested by local electors.

5.    Mr Dowen asked for the information under the Audit Commission Act 1998.  That law provides members of the public with legal rights of access to all contracts, books, bills, and accounts of a public authority for a 20 working day period each year so that they can participate in the local audit process.  This is a unique right of access to information that goes considerably beyond rights of access under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 – in large part because it is not subject to any commercial confidentiality exemptions.

6.Hearings for the Public Inquiry into the proposed Sherwood Forest Incinerator will begin on 6th October 2009 in Rainworth, near Mansfield. These hearings are expected to last for three weeks. People against Incineration is joined at the Inquiry by Newark and Sherwood District Council and Notts Wildlife Trust who also oppose Veolia's incinerator plans.

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Published by Friends of the Earth Trust