ECJ ruling allows councils to charge for property searches

6 Oct 15

The European Court of Justice has ruled that local authorities can charge for the costs of providing environmental information.

The judgement, which local government lawyers described as “landmark”, follows a series of disputes between local authorities and property search agencies over how much should be paid under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.

Courts in England and Wales had decided that public authorities could only recover disbursements such as photocopying and postage. However, the ECJ’s decision now means that staff time spent recovering the information requested and putting it in the required format can be charged for.

Virginia Cooper, partner at the law firm Bevan Brittan which represented 315 local authorities in the action, said: “This is a landmark decision which, for the first time, clarifies the costs that public authorities can recover for supplying environmental information regardless of whether it has been requested under the Environmental Information Regulations.

“It is a positive legal outcomes for local authorities that are under huge pressure to provide fast and accurate information on a wide range of environmental issues.

“Authorities receive many thousands of requests every year for property searches and other types of environmental information, and together they represent a significant call on valuable resources.”

Claire Kober, who leads on resources for the Local Government Association, said the ruling was good news for councils.

“Councils use significant amounts of staff time and resources providing the hundreds of thousands of requests they can receive each year from property search agencies. It is right that local government can continue to charge for this and that local taxpayers aren’t expected to foot the bill.”

Environmental information can encompass anything from land use and pollution levels to public health and waste management.

Cooper pointed out that the ruling was relevant not just to local authorities but also to water companies, the Highways Agency, the police and the NHS.

“All public authorities should now review and assess how they process and provide environmental information to ensure they are both complying with the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 and the specifics of this new ruling by the ECJ,” she said.

  • Vivienne Russell

    Vivienne Russell is managing editor of Public Finance magazine and publicfinance.co.uk

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