Environmental campaigners are celebrating after a High Court judge ruled (1 October) that waste firm Veolia Environmental Services had to disclose commercial information about its £850 million PFI waste contract with Nottinghamshire County Council.
The case could set an important precedent to enable members of the public to ask local authorities to see every invoice issued for its waste services, including waste gate fees. It could also allow waste firms to show their sub-contractors and rival firms their profit margins and waste contracts.
The matter reached the High Court in London in August after Veolia obtained an interim injunction to stop Nottinghamshire County Councils decision to release details of the waste PFI contract following a request for the information by local resident and waste campaigner Shlomo Dowen.
Veolia argued that it had developed a sophisticated and competitive formula for contract and tender fees and charges, and that the companys financial interests would be damaged if its sub-contractors and rival firms obtained the figures.
But Mr Justice Cranston, the judge hearing the case, said that other interested persons may wish to consider questions such as whether sums purportedly paid under a contract are properly due under that contract. And he said that Section 15(1) of the Audit Commission 1998 Act enables an interested party to inspect and copy certain documents related to the accounts of the council.
Mr Justice Cranston ruled that Dowens status as a tax payer meant that he had a right to see that his money was well spent.
He stated: The obligation to pay taxation through the rates was matched by the right given to rate-payers to an involvement in the process of ensuring the money was well spent.
In my judgement it is entirely unsurprising that given its history the law should permit a local elector such as Mr Dowen sight of the disputed documents in this case.
Dowen was given legal support by the Friends of the Earth. He told MRW: Up until yesterday local authorities used to hide behind phrases like commercially sensitive, commercial or confidential. But members of the public can now ask for pieces of information that have been denied in the name of commercial sensitivity. Veolia and other waste companies can no longer hide behind a fig leaf of commercial sensitivity. Veolia has ruined the party for everybody and made it such a high profile case.
Everybody in the whole country can now go to their local authority and ask for every invoice issued for waste services and look and see what they are getting for their money.
There is a man at county hall who signs fresh cheques for another £2 million to Veolia each and every month we want to know what we are buying for our millions of pounds and we want to know whether or not we are getting good value for our millions of pounds.
Speaking about the judgement Nottinghamshire-based Veolia Environmental Services managing director Steve Mitchell said: We first requested a legal ruling on this issue because we wanted to give clarity to local authorities, the general public and the waste management industry. The company accepts the judgement of the court, the situation has now been clarified and we do not plan to appeal. We look forward to delivering the next phase of the Nottinghamshire PFI waste management and recycling contract and will continue to build on the achievements of the last three years.
Nottinghamshire County Council chief executive Mick Burrows said: Nottinghamshire County Council sought to defend the right of public access to our information relating to the authority's accounts. We are pleased that the Court's judgement supports our position. As a local authority we have to act in accordance with our statutory obligation; it is only right that we are accountable to Nottinghamshire residents.
Veolia is also embroiled in another controversy with Nottinghamshire County Council over its plans to build an energy-from-waste plant on a former colliery site in Sherwood Forest and a public inquiry is being held into that matter.
Dowen said: I know that there are people up and down this country who want to know about how their money is being spent by their local authority. This ruling gives us all the right to do just that - for 20 days a year under the Audit Commission Act people can access all of the accounts, invoices and contracts entered into by our local authorities. I hope that this judgement will mean more people will exercise this important right.