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Councils and other public bodies can charge for property search costs in ‘landmark’ ECJ ruling

Councils will be able to bill property search agencies the “significant” costs of staff time spent producing information for property searches and other types of environmental information under a new European Court of Justice ruling.

They will not, however, be able to pass on the costs of maintaining databases.

The judgement has been described by local government lawyers as a “landmark” as it follows several disputes between local authorities and property search companies over costs of obtaining information under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. The regulations provide public access to environmental information held by public authorities by forcing them to make this available “proactively” and through requests.

The ECJ decision follows a test case brought by East Sussex County Council and Property Search Group, along with the LGA and the Information Commissioner.

Earlier rulings meant that public authorities could only recover small expenses when supplying information, such as photocopying and postage. Now, the ECJ’s decision will allow councils to charge for the staff time spent recovering the information requested, as well as putting it in the required format.

Virginia Cooper, partner at law firm Bevan Brittan which acted for the LGA, 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 outcome 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.”

And Cllr Claire Kober, lead resources portfolio holder for the LGA, welcomed the decision.

She said: “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 spans everything from land use, pollution levels, housing development, public health and energy production to water and waste management – meaning the ruling is relevant to water companies, the Highways Agency, the police and the NHS just as much as to councils.

Cooper added: “It provides much needed clarity about what public authorities can charge for supplying environmental information which will be welcome in these ongoing times of austerity.

“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.”


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