Legal bill for defending barbecue policy kept secret by Town Hall
Highbury Fields campaigners demand: ‘What’s the problem? It’s public money’
21 December, 2018 — By Emily Finch
THE Town Hall is determined to keep secret the amount of money it spent on defending its controversial policy of permitting barbecues at Highbury Fields. Islington Council is refusing to provide the figures despite Freedom of Information (FoI) requests from the Tribune going back months.
The costs date from the time when campaigners, known as Save Highbury Fields, wanted to restrict the use of barbecues in the park.
They had been scheduled to face the Town Hall at Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court, having brought a statutory nuisance claim based on smoke and fumes emitted by barbecues.
But the council, which had appeared ready to defend itself in court, backed down at the eleventh hour and agreed to restrict the use of barbecues to one section of Highbury Fields.
Speaking at the time, Michael Kuhn, of Save Highbury Fields, said it was “sad” that the group had to go to court “to have a conversation with the council”.
Green councillor Caroline Russell said this week: “It seems so odd they won’t reveal how much they spent defending their position at a time of government cuts. It ought to be public record how much they spent to defend their decision to keep people burning fires in the park.”
As revealed by campaigners at the time, opponents of the park barbecues signed a confidentiality clause with the council as part of an agreement not to reveal the “substantial contribution” the council had paid towards their legal costs.
The group’s online crowdfunding campaign raised just under £40,000 to cover some of the legal costs.
Mr Kuhn told the Tribune: “It beggars belief they cannot give you an indication of costs incurred by counsel. I can’t understand what’s the problem. It is public money.”
The Town Hall has always maintained that its barbecues-in-parks policy allows residents without gardens to enjoy eating outdoors.
But Cllr Russell argues that “barbecues are not correct in the context of climate change as they are polluting and because of their fire risk amid rising temperatures”.
The council’s Freedom of Information team argued that costs could not be revealed because its legal team had “objected to their disclosure”, claiming their personal data would be breached.
The Tribune argued that the identity of the council’s legal representatives was not publicly known and there was a “strong public interest” in finding out the costs in the name of transparency, but our requests were rejected.
It was claimed that because solicitors representing Save Highbury Fields knew the names of the council lawyers it was “in the public domain”. The FoI team apologised for the “unacceptable amount of time” it took for its response to reach us.
Environment chief Councillor Claudia Webbe said: “As we have said in the past, allowing barbecues in our parks and open spaces has been incredibly popular.
“Most people living in Islington don’t have a garden, and this gives everyone a chance to enjoy a barbecue with friends and family in our open spaces.
“To be clear, it was not our choice to take the matter to court. But we still believe our policy is right. We stand by it and are happy to explain and defend it as appropriate.”