Freedom of Information and Transparency performance improvement tools: Case Study: Camden squatters and empty properties

In the press there has been some concern that the move towards transparency either in £500 spend lists or specific requests for disclosure of information, has led to increased fraud.   However, I would argue that neither FOI nor the transparency agenda are at fault, although they are often held up as the culprit.

The reasons for disclosing the £500 despite the recent concerns about fraud, , is related to the same principles used to uphold the Camden decision about squatters and void property information.

In that decision, the Information Tribunal was saying that if Camden had the systems and procedures in place to cut the number of voids or empty properties, then the risk of squatters would be reduced.  The information and its disclosure was not the issue. The issue was the system and procedures in place to deal with the empty properties.

In this sense, one can see FOIA and the transparency agenda as a service improvement tools. Because of the FOI disclosure, Camden will have to do more to cut empty properties or voids.  [None of this is intended as a criticism of Camden Council. It is only that their appeal to the tribunal provides the context within which to consider the Information Tribunal decision as well as the context for understanding the Transparency Agenda as exemplifying a service improvement tool.]

The Council may not want to do this because it conflicts with their spending priorities. They may have other pressing priorities on other issues. However, that decision is not related to the information. Indirectly, the Council is being held to account for its spending and service priorities in relation to the issue of empty properties.  This is not to say that Camden does not take the issue seriously.  Rather it is to say that the disclosed information only reveals a gap within the Camden system.  See for example, this report on void in 2007, which recognized it as an issue.$Report-Item%2016%20%20%20Housing%20Management%20Improvement%20Project%20Proposals%20for%20Change.doc.pdf

More recently, a report shows the concern about the empty property rates in 2011.   All of which may explain why there is now a job advert for voids manager for a housing association in Camden.  The question to ask is whether an authority should refuse to disclose information that shows gaps in service provision.  Imagine if the request and the information were about sub-standard kitchens for nursery and infant schools, would the response be the same?

In other words, if voids were reduced to 1% and all empty homes were attended to within 10 working days, then the opportunity for squatting or other activity would be reduced. In that case, disclosure of the information would have no tangible effect on the situation.  The information is only problematic because empty properties or voids need to be addressed.

In the end, the effect of the squatters only appears because of the volume of empty homes. To put it differently but directly, the squatters were already an issue *before* the request was made. The disclosure of the information now makes the issue tangible it did not create the issue.

From a political judo perspective, the council could then use this disclosure to enhance its work on voids and empty properties. For example, it could say, “If you do not re let quickly it could be ripe for a squatter.” It could also be used to let the public know to report squatting or an empty property to the council more quickly.

The transparency agenda offers Council a way to leverage certain activities or explain to the public why they have

The international squatters' symbol

Image via Wikipedia

prioritized topics. I would suggest that the benefit from the transparency outweighs the costs or problems that are associated with it.  In the case of the fraud claims, fraud existed before the transparency agenda.  Moreover, the transparency agenda can be used as an incentive to make the anti-fraud systems and procedures more robust.  The transparency agenda is only making the issue tangible; it is not creating it.  Then again, the best fraud is the one that never gets detected.


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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5 Responses to Freedom of Information and Transparency performance improvement tools: Case Study: Camden squatters and empty properties

  1. Yanis says:

    Hi I just saw your case study. I made the FOI request, and wanted to clarify a few things. The request was made to embarass and pressure camden to use its properties. The list is rubbish for squatting, as you’d have to wade through thousands of properties to find a couple of suitable places, and anyway I know where their empty properties are. It’s not a big secret. Organised squatters make their own lists.

    Also, I disagree that squatting is the problem here. The problem is that people are sleeping on the street while perfectly liveable properties sit empty.


    • lawrence serewicz says:

      Thanks for the comment. I hope the other posts are of interest as well.
      I appreciate the clarification. I think public opinion is a powerful tool to get government, especially local government, to act. It may take time but to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, it is like a lever with the right fulcrum can move the world.
      I was not aware of the homelessness problem as much as the issue about squatters. In a sense homelessness is seen as an for which people will have sympathy while squatting has strong negative opinions associated with it.
      Did you efforts succeed in reducing homelessness and make more houses available?

      I think the episode shows how FOIA helps local democracy by raising awareness encouraging change and making decisions transparent.
      Thanks again for your comment. I hope you can update me on the homelessness issue.


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