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Journalists launch legal fight to end council’s £1bn secrecy

Gareth Davies newRegional publishers have backed a legal bid by journalists to force a council to release details of what has been done with one billion pounds.

Reach plc and Archant have lent their support to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which is taking Thurrock Council to a tribunal over its repeated refusal to release details of its borrowing and investments to the public.

It comes after an investigation by Gareth Davies, who works for TBIJ’s The Bureau Local project, revealed Thurrock Council, in Essex, had borrowed £1bn from other local authorities and then invested hundreds of millions of pounds in a “complex and potentially risky” series of bonds connected to solar farms.

The council refused to disclose under the Freedom of Information Act who it borrowed from and what it invested in, but last week an ongoing high court trial heard the authority had invested £145m in 19 solar farms owned by Liam Kavanagh.

Kavanagh, who denies any wrongdoing, was accused by lawyers for the opposing side of failing to disclose that £5m of the investment had been paid to one of his companies as commission for arranging the deal.

TBIJ says the council has “refused FoI requests, kept vital information from councillors and even put the phone down when asked for comment” on the investments.

However, the Information Commissioner’s Office has ruled the authority was right to withhold details of its borrowing and investments from the public, in part because disclosure could cause the council reputational and financial damage.

Gareth, pictured, an award-winning former Croydon Advertiser journalist, told HTFP: “This investigation highlights a chronic lack of transparency which I’m sure journalists working across local and regional news encounter every day in their attempts to report on and scrutinise public bodies.

“The barriers we’ve encountered aren’t exceptional – they’re a regular occurrence for any reporter who tries to inform readers about how their money is being spent.

“We think it’s really important that journalists fight back against this lack of transparency and accountability, and we’re grateful that our efforts have the support of publishers like Reach and Archant.”

TBIJ has instructed law firm Wiggin to help with its appeal, with the support of The Times, Reach and Archant.

It is also backed by specialist publications such as the Local Government Chronicle and the Municipal Journal, as well as freedom of speech campaigners such as Index on Censorship.

The matter is due to be heard by the First-tier Tribunal in early 2021.

HTFP has approached Reach plc, Archant and Thurrock Council for a comment.