SO it turns out, the Scottish Saltire flag just magically appeared at the top of Camden’s Town Hall in the run up to the independence referendum. The flag managed to be hoisted without a single breath from a council officer or councillor, and with no discussion as to whether it was what the public wanted.
Sure thing: no councillors discussed the option of flying it with the chief executive, the mayor’s office or anybody else. No chief executive was offered a flag from Whitehall, which is strange given Sir Bob Kerslake offered to send one to all local authorities. No press officer took any calls beforehand about whether Camden was thinking about flying a Saltire, or how it came to be flying there once it was. No council officer or councillor made any remark at all. It just happened.
We are asked to believe all of this from the council’s freedom of information unit, who in reply to a request from me said that the council does not have any information or correspondence – not a single email – about Camden’s flying of the flag in the days before the vote.
You will notice in the reply there is a hint of a get-out. ‘Please note that unless the information held by councillors relates to council business (say as opposed to party or constituency business), it is not held by the council in its own right and there is no right of access under FOIA’.
Yada, yada – get real. Flying a flag on Camden’s number one public building is clearly not party or constituency business. There would be serious questions about how the Town Hall operates if it was considered otherwise.
Councillors can debate the pros and cons of Scottish independence all they like outside of the Town Hall, but when flags are pinned to the roof – effectively, a roof we all own – then it becomes council business. And in that respect, there is no provision for councillor correspondence to be withheld on this issue.
Any casual reader of these pages may not be surprised. Camden Council can come up with some pretty embarrassing responses to FoI requests; embarrassing because councillors at other times talk positively about being as open as possible with us. Finance chief Theo Blackwell led the way by making sure Camden was one of the first local authorities to publicly list every spend over £500 on the council’s website each month. It is welcome too that the wages and bonuses of senior staff are also posted.
Yet in response to many FoI requests, the council clams up. A great example is how they came up with the idea that if anybody at the council comes up with an ‘ill-considered’ idea – i.e. says something silly – it should be hidden from public view. Deary me.
And now flags are magically appearing on the top of the Town Hall, without anybody in the council uttering a word. What is that they have to hide?