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Freeports row deepens as daily slams authority over FoI refusal

Leigh JonesAn under-fire local authority is facing fresh criticism after it refused to give “straight answers to simple questions” following a regional daily’s Freedom of Information request.

The Yorkshire Post has hit out at Tees Valley Combined Authority for turning down an FoI by Leigh Jones, pictured, who asked for details about business interests in the Teesside Freeport.

TVCA rejected the request for information on how many firms had signed tenancy agreements with the site on the grounds that it would “likely cause harm” to developer Teesworks Limited’s commercial interests.

However, the authority accepted in its rejection letter that there is a “clear public interest in whether or not the Teesworks site is generating commercial interest at competitive prices”.

The Post has lodged an appeal against the decision with the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The FoI battle follows the Leeds-based Post’s decision to appoint Leigh earlier this month to investigate environmental and political issues relating to the Teesside Freeport and surrounding areas, including North Yorkshire and its coastline.

In an editorial about the FoI rejection, the Post said: “You would think that given the grave concerns of local residents, a Freedom of Information request by the Yorkshire Post requesting details about business interest in the Government’s flagship levelling up project – Teesside Freeport – that its leadership would jump at the chance to shout about its success.

“In essence, the query offers Tees Valley Combined Authority the opportunity to win kudos – particularly amongst local people – for the progress being made, offering hope at least to people that better times could be up ahead once occupancy rates begin to hit intended target levels.

“Yet this seemingly straightforward question met with same sort of paranoid obfuscation as some of the more probing questions detailing the nature of some of the deals done on Teesside in relation to this site and, in particular, in relation to the vast amounts of public money being pumped into the project.

“By refusing to give straight answers to simple questions, it only serves to make people more suspicious about the nature of the deals being done and the progress being made.

“Central to the rationale given for refusing to reveal how many businesses had signed tenancy agreements with the site, TVCA said that ‘it would likely cause harm to Teesworks Limited’s commercial interests should the number of confirmed or prospective tenants be disclosed,’ going on to suggest that by telling this newspaper how many agreements were currently in place it would ‘prejudice the bidding process and affect private sector confidence’.

“To all and sundry it is clear that the only thing impacting the confidence of prospective investors is the conduct of those at the heart of running this project and until they offer answers, the crucible of scrutiny will only become hotter and hotter.”

The Post’s decision to recruit Leigh came after local Tory leaders attacked the Post for questioning why dead sea creatures began washing up on North Sea beaches, amid concern it may be linked to works on the proposed freeport development.

Last week, a number of editors in Yorkshire and the North-East of England warned their journalists were facing “toxic social media pile-ons” over their coverage of the issue.

HTFP has approached TVCA for a response to the Post’s editorial.