Our FOI request has been appealed by DfT: here’s why that matters

by Greg Marsden

In March 2022 I submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Department for Transport, asking to see the assumptions about traffic upon which the UK’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan has been built. This question is not answered by the UK’s new national traffic projections. The Department has appealed my request – they do not want to release the figures. Why?

As you may have followed, in the past six months I have been asking the Department for Transport to publish some basic assumptions which underpin one of the key charts in the Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP). The information relates to distances travelled, proportions of distance travelled assumed to be by electric vehicles, and the assumptions which were made at the time of the Plan about the impacts of Covid-19 on future emissions.

In November I finally thought that we might get to see the data, when the Information Commissioner instructed the Department to publish what I had asked for in full. Regrettably, I was informed last week that the Department has now issued an appeal against the Information Commissioner’s decision, and this will now go to a tribunal.

Why data transparency matters

The grounds for appeal are based around the need for a safe space for policy discussions outweighing the public interest in sharing the information. Before I set out what happens next, I want to clearly set out the case for why the information should be made public.

1. An appeal like this sets a dangerous precedent

First, we can look at the Nolan Principles of public governance (selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership). Of those, accountability, openness and honesty are all central to the case. If the Department decides to publish a plan (remember I am not asking for details about a secret chart), then it should be prepared to explain what the basis is for charts within that plan. As W. E. Deming said, “In God we trust, all others must bring data.” 

The importance of transparency in data assumptions cannot be understated. If the Department wins this case, then it is setting a precedent that it, and other Government departments, will use in future cases which will mean that projections can be made without sharing the underpinning evidence, preventing scrutiny. This is really dangerous stuff.

2. Underlying assumptions matter

Second, everyone working in the transport industry knows, and perhaps tolerates (I’ll come back to this), the fact that we are currently working to national guidance which tells us one set of ‘truths’ about traffic growth and electrification (see WebTAG updates for details) and another (the TDP) which implies no growth or reductions in certain areas and an unspecified (but low growth future) elsewhere. Releasing the information that I am requesting would mean exposing, accepting, and then resolving the contradictions we face today and really planning for a Net Zero compliant future.

Before anyone mounts a horse and rides to the rescue of appraisal guidance, I simply ask “if the different assumptions were not a problem, why would the DfT not just release the data requested?” Yesterday saw the publication of the latest National Road Traffic Forecasts. Whilst this represents an important step in sharing current thinking about transport futures within the Department, it does not answer the questions I am asking. It does pose one further question to me though. “Why is it OK to publish data for scenarios which are not policy, but not to publish data for the scenarios which are in the TDP?” You have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide, or so the saying goes.

Of course, I am not privy to the internal discussions as to what the real reason for not releasing the data is, but I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the approach being adopted in Scotland, where a 2030 goal has been set to reduce road traffic by 20%. The climate maths is no different in Scotland to England, but perhaps the political climate is less favourable to such a declaration in England (“here come the anti-growth coalition” etc.).

3. These decisions affect everyone

Third, the Department’s appeal is based on the fact that the need to protect internal discussions and to keep a safe space for policy discussions outweighs the public interest test in releasing the information. One test here would be whether I am asking for any information about the policies which would achieve the goals (I am not) or about any discussions about options, policy sets and achievability (I am not).

Even though I would argue that I am not seeking to violate any policy ‘safe space’ I find it amazing that the Department could suggest that the public interest does not outweigh their own preferences to keep things in house. Every infrastructure decision, every pound of public subsidy spent (or not) on public transport, every charge point installed, every penny of fuel duty waived or increased, now relates directly to the goals we are committed to in the Sixth Carbon Budget, the Net Zero Strategy and the Transport Decarbonisation Plan.

Does transport policy really bother people though? Well, 1.7 million people signed a petition on the back of just a feasibility study into road pricing in 2007. Something as simple as closing off a road with some planter boxes can incite rage and vandalism. There is huge public interest in the consequences of all sorts of transport policy change. If policies are required to change people’s mobility patterns to meet our climate obligations, then we need more democracy and not less. We need to talk about the hard choices ahead of us and not hide them. I simply cannot see how the public interest fails to outweigh the benefits of keeping this all in-house.

How you can help

So, what next? I’ve never submitted an FOI before. I’ve never been to a tribunal before. However, my aim is to work with the Information Commissioner to set out the full case as to why this information should be released in the public interest. As for the profession, following WebTAG isn’t enough. We have to proactively challenge this fuzziness and business as usual mindset. If you want to reach out and support my case, please email G.R.Marsden@its.leeds.ac.uk