MEMBERS of the public who requested to know what happened in key council climate crisis meetings have been denied this information. 

These meetings are discussing how West Berkshire should respond to the climate crisis, and were set up after the council declared a climate emergency on July 2. 

At least 15 people sent freedom of information (FoI) requests to West Berkshire Council between July 25 and August 2, asking for details of these meetings.

Specifically, they asked for the agenda papers and minutes of the environment advisory and transport advisory groups.

Both groups include councillors from each of the political parties represented at the council: the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Greens. 

The environment advisory group was set up to discuss how the council should respond to the climate crisis. 

One topic which the transport advisory group discussed was how the council should respond to the recent public consultation on expanding Heathrow airport.

Read more: Frustration as climate groups 'kept behind close doors' 

The reason given for refusing the FoI requests was the controversial Section 36 exemption to the FoI Act, which experts say is like a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card.

Section 36 states: “Disclosure would be likely to inhibit the free and frank provision of advice and exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation and prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.”

Reading Chronicle: Section 36 is an exemption to the Freedom of Information ActSection 36 is an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act

Those refused FoI requests have the right to ask the council for an internal review, to look again at the decision. 

If an internal review is refused, they can appeal to the Information Commissioner, who could rule that the council must publish the requested information. 

Following a recent ruling by the Information Commissioner, Reading Borough Council was forced to publish details of the controversial sale of a swimming pool. The council had initially refused FoI requests to release the details. 

Read more: Council leader defends lack of transparency

The public will, however, have a chance to scrutinise the council’s climate crisis plans when the environment strategy goes to public consultation, and also at a public conference on October 28.

Peta Stoddart-Crompton, West Berkshire Council spokeswoman, said the advisory groups facilitate a dialogue betwen councillors.

She said: “They have no decision-making powers delegated to them, and therefore no decisions are taken by the advisory group on behalf of the council.

“Any matters discussed at the advisory group requiring a formal decision will be taken in an open and transparent manner through one of th existing decision making routes of the council.”

Councillor Carolyne Culver (Green, Ridgeway) said: “Councillors are accountable to local residents so we must be open and honest. We acknowledge that some issues — for example safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults — must be confidential.

“But the council should not throw a blanket of confidentiality across a wide range of discussions that do not need to be hidden from public scrutiny.”