The slow wheels of my Freedom of Information request with Southampton City Council

The slow wheels of my Freedom of Information request with Southampton City Council

By Ralph White.


How long do you think that it might take for a reasonable Freedom of Information request to be fulfilled?

Two weeks?

Two months?

A year? (Surely not)

Mine took……13 months.

I asked what I had thought was a straightforward question, which was how much it cost to Southampton residents to have a Lord or Lady Mayor. Until very recently I’ve never met any of the holders of this office. When I asked my FOI question I had a rough idea of what they did but no actual details. In truth I thought then, as I still do now, that the role is a ceremonial anachronism. Add in the fact that we – the people – don’t actually vote for the Lord or Lady Mayor. I approached this matter with a healthy dose of cynicism. Having briefly and informally met the new Lord Mayor, however, I’m now less negative in my opinion, although I still have concerns about the lack of democratic process and the poor transparency that seems to come with the office. That needs to change, please.

The answer to my FOI request, when it finally came, was that for the financial year 2022/3 the office of the Lady Mayor cost us £103,891.90. Perhaps you may think this isn’t a massive amount, especially when compared to Southampton City Council’s total budget. But it’s still a big chunk of cash when the city has been facing bankruptcy. I know of many local voluntary groups and charities that would be confident of surviving one more crucial year if they were granted even a small fraction of that amount. The breakdown on the costs was not made very clear; it was a single, inadequately detailed snapshot of part of a spreadsheet. It soon became apparent this was all I was going to get.

Undeterred and obstinate, I’ve now raised another FOI request asking what the single biggest item in these 2022/23 accounts, called “Project Expenses” – was for. The amount was £55,250.03. The total cost for mayoral support personnel was £25,911.95. I imagine, but don’t know for sure, that most of this might have been for the Lady Mayor’s chauffeur. The accounts didn’t show a specific cost for the leased mayoral limousine itself.

I hadn’t asked about the cost for 2023/24 because my request at the time was only one month into the new financial year. I had asked about the costs for each of the five preceding years. Answers on the other four years were not forthcoming.

My objective in writing this article is not the amount that this ceremonial role costs us as much as highlighting the inadequacy of the FOI process. The half-answers, fudging, pedantry and delays that I encountered in getting a final response have been terrible. SCC has judged its own behaviour in this as being poor; in fact, to quote, they themselves said “the Council has not provided sufficient assistance…”. They had previously apologised in late 2023 for the delays, blaming staff shortages, but then failed to come back with promised revised dates for any reply.

I had once read that local authorities are scared stiff about FOI requests because they’re legally bound to deal with them (except if the enquiry is vexatious or likely to be disproportionately expensive to handle) and they don’t like the responsibility much at all. My experience makes me feel that they sit on requests for a while, or maybe they pass them around a bit, and eventually they land in someone’s in-tray. It has felt to me that the process then isn’t so much about promptly finding answers, but more about coming up with hurdles and delaying tactics. It’s been an enormously disappointing and frustrating process for me. My offers to meet someone face to face to discuss and clarify my request were ignored. My request to the last Lady Mayor to intervene and help with my request received no reply. 

It is a real concern that local governments do not connect with their electorates in an efficient and effective way. Voter turnout for our local elections last month was less than 30%. The council should be actively looking at ways to improve this.

A good place to start would be through greater openness and transparency. And, SCC, next time you receive an FOI request please don’t take 13 months to answer it. 

  • Picture by Mike Daish.


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