Cheshire East Council is refusing to hand over details of its development agreement with Wilson Bowden despite an order by the Information Commissioner's Office to uphold a request for disclosure made by campaigners against the £90m town centre project.
The freedom of information request was made by Wake Up Macclesfield, a campaign group which argues that the retail development would cause serious harm to Macclesfield. The campaign group's website carries the slogan "Home town, not clone town".
Kim Ryley, interim chief executive of Cheshire East Council, said this week that a decision had been taken to challenge the view of the Information Commissioner's Office that certain confidential parts of the development agreement with Wilson Bowden should be released publicly, and denied allegations that the council was being secretive.
Ryley said in a statement: "As a council, over the past year, we have moved increasingly to be as open and transparent as possible, particularly on issues of public interest, like the planned development of Macclesfield town centre.
"We have already released much of the information requested. Only where there are sound legal or commercial reasons that stop us publishing some documents do we make exceptions to this important principle.
"We have decided to challenge the Information Commissioner's view in this case, that we should release the full text of the development agreement and some other documents, because we think he has got it wrong in determining where the main public interest lies.
"We are not hiding anything from our side, nor are we being unnecessarily secretive. We are now looking actively at what further information might be capable of being released.
"We intend to get back to the person who has requested additional information shortly on this, as soon as we have formed a view on what further disclosures could be made."
Earlier this year the ICO upheld a complaint forcing Cheshire East Council to release details of the planned Bewilderwood development at Tatton Park. The council also faced serious embarrassment and sacked several staff, writing off hundreds of thousands of pounds after a waste facility in Lyme Green was procured illegally and began on site without planning permission.
The ICO decision notice relating to Macclesfield stated: "There are strong arguments in favour of disclosure, not least the scale of the project, the extent to which council and hence publicly owned land is being used, the number of residents affected and the significant local opposition to the scheme.
"In the light of the Lyme Green report, the public interest in transparency, in facilitating scrutiny of the council's decision-making, and providing reassurance the council has improved its governance arrangements are very strong."
Beverley Moore from Wake Up Macc welcomed the ICO's decision to uphold the complaint: "We are extremely pleased the Information Commissioner has recognised that the interests of local people, in being able to scrutinise the arrangements made, come before any defence of commercial confidentiality."
The Information Commissioner's Office is the statutory body that oversees enforcement of parts of the Data Protection Act and Freedom of Information Act.
Wake Up Macc's Freedom of Information request asked for:
- A copy of the most recent contract between Wilson Bowden and Cheshire East.
- A copy of the section of the Cabinet Minutes which covers the decision to enter into a revised contract with Wilson Bowden.
- A copy of the Part Two section of the minutes of the 20th December 2010 Cabinet meeting covering point 13: Key decision 59 Wilson Bowden Development Agreement – if this is not the same document as referred to in point 2 above.
- A copy of the strategic, legal and financial risk assessment relating to the proposed Wilson Bowden development, if this is not included in points 2 or 3.
Wilson Bowden plans a 200,000 sq ft scheme containing 19 shops, a new public square and a car park.
A decision on Wilson Bowden's planning application is expected soon.
Wilson Bowden declined to comment.