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Landmark ruling on planning document copy costs

Local authorities will be forced to justify photocopying charges of more than 10p a sheet following a landmark ruling which campaigners claim should stop councils overcharging for copies of planning documents.

The case, brought under the provisions of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, was conducted by Friends of the Earth (FoE) on behalf of David Markinson, a member of the public, who complained about difficulties in obtaining documents from Kings Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council and its schedule of charges.

Copes of most documents were charged at 50p a sheet, whilst copies of planning decision notices were charged at £6.50.

According to FoE, such charges are not unusual. In the past, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which acts as the watchdog over questions of access to information, has said it was reasonable for planning authorities to charge £16 for decision notices and £6 for copies of letters on a planning file.

When Markinson took his case to the Information Commissioner’s Office, the watchdog ruled that the council was entitled to charge whatever amount it considered reasonable.

However, the Information Tribunal has now overturned the decision of the Information Commissioner after stating that councils are free to exceed the guide price figure of 10p per sheet but “only if it can demonstrate that there is a good reason for it to do so”

Councillor John Dobson, leader of the council, said the planning authority would make a full statement “shortly”, but confirmed that the tribunal’s ruling would be respected.

The council’s schedule of charges has been changed accordingly.

Councillor Dobson pointed out that the council’s stance had been supported by the ICO and environment secretary Margaret Beckett.

A spokesperson for the ICO “welcomed” the clarification over charging for copies of information.

The spokesperson added: “The ICO is now formulating new guidance for public authorities on request fees for access to environmental information, to take full account of the tribunal’s decision.”

Phil Michaels, FoE’s head of legal, also welcomed the tribunal’s ruling. He said: “This is a very important decision by the Information Tribunal.

“For years, members of the public have been prevented from using their rights of access to important environmental information because of the prohibitive copying costs imposed by local authorities.

“This decision will mean that information will now become genuinely accessible to members of the public.”

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