A GROUP set up to discuss how West Berkshire should respond to the climate crisis has been kept secret, causing frustration for councillors and campaigners. 

The environment advisory group was set up following West Berkshire Council (WBC) declaring a climate emergency, and includes Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green councillors. 

However, the public is not allowed to attend the group’s meetings, nor know what is discussed. The whole meetings are kept in what is called ‘part two’, usually reserved for confidential matters like specific individuals or financial transactions. 

All meetings of council committees and sub-committees must legally be open to the public unless dealing with confidential information. But the position about advisory groups is unclear in the law.

Several people have used the Freedom of Information Act to ask the council for agendas and minutes of the advisory group. Some have been told their requests will be delayed beyond the statutory 20 working days because of ‘the complexity and/or volume’ of the information. 

Sarah Clarke, head of legal for WBC, told one councillor that what is discussed in the advisory group is exempt from freedom of information requests.

Councillor Steve Ardagh-Walter (Con, Thatcham Colthrop & Crookham), the lead member for the environment, said: “People can be freer than they would if anything would be available publicly. It’s not secret. To get a proper strategy takes quite a bit of discussion and care.”

He also said the public will be able to give their views at a conference on October 28, and when the council’s environment strategy goes to public consultation. 

He said: “People are already welcome to send suggestions, which are extremely helpful. It’s good to share views.” 

But opposition councillors have called for more transparency. Councillor Steve Masters (Green, Newbury Speen) said: “The public and council taxpayers are entitled to know what their councillors are discussing. 

“Part two is to protect commercial sensibilities and safeguarding, not as a blanket under which debate is stifled. This goes to the very heart of public confidence in our democratic process.”

Cllr Adrian Abbs (Lib Dem, Newbury Wash Common) said he was ‘very frustrated’ by the way the group is being kept behind closed doors. He said “A lack of transparency stops us involving the public.”