St Aloysius

THE Town Hall’s top official was reprimanded this week by his political masters after giving a “limited” answer to a Freedom of Information request which sowed confusion about the controversial demolition of a school building.

Council chief executive John Foster was told “to be more forthcoming” when answering questions from the public under legislation promoting more openness in public life.

The demand came from Labour education chief Councillor Richard Watts after Mr Foster infuriated teachers, who claimed they were misled by his response.

The row erupted over a request for information about the demolition of block B at St Aloysius’ College, in Hornsey Lane, Archway, which went ahead in the face of angry opposition from teachers and parents.

Islington National Union of Teachers assistant secretary Ken Muller requested information about “penalty charges” which protesters were told would have to be borne by the school if  block B was retained.

The charges would have been paid to contractor Balfour Beatty for wasted preparatory work had demolition not gone ahead.

They were cited by Islington Council as a reason why block B could not be retained. Mr Muller wanted to know what the charges would have cost.

But Mr Foster told him in his official Freedom of Information response: “There are no penalty charges payable to Balfour Beatty.”

And he concluded: “So I am afraid that we are unable to respond to your inquiry further.”

Mr Muller accused the chief executive of “obfuscation”.

The answer also dissatisfied Cllr Watts, who said: “We did discuss penalty payments” as a reason why block B could not be retained.

He claimed that costs payable to Balfour Beatty were properly called “abortive costs”, rather than “penalty charges”, which explained Mr Foster’s answer.

But in a rare criticism of a top official, the councillor insisted: “The question was interpreted too literally and as a result of this I have asked officers to be more forthcoming with Freedom of Information requests.”

He said Mr Foster’s answer “certainly caused a misunderstanding because of its limited nature”.

Mr Muller said this week: “Whatever the response, it is yet another example of obfuscation, and a reluctance to tell the truth about the penalty payments, abortive fees or whatever else they are called. 

“Given the prominence of the St Aloysius’ issue – it was reported in the Tribune on several occasions – I can’t believe that whoever supplied the information that eventually reached me following my request didn’t know exactly what I was talking about and at the very least was being economical with the truth.”

He is still waiting for an answer about the scale of the “abortive costs”.

Cllr Watts said: “We don’t know what the abortive costs would have been. This is bizarre, I will concede. We wouldn’t have found out what the final costs were until we’d finished.”

He insisted that the “abortive costs” were a minor element of a £4million-plus bill to refurbish the 1960s-built block B, which he des­cribed as unaffordable.

St Aloysius’s headteacher Tom Mannion said he was “surprised” by Mr Foster’s answer, which would be referred to the governors for investigation.

He said the school wanted to retain block B to cope with extra pupils once the school leaving age was raised to 17.

Staff and parents staged angry demos earlier this year in favour of keeping block B. They complained that a new block was inadequate, citing in particular L-shaped classrooms which prevented staff seeing pupils.

Mr Foster was unavailable for comment but his colleague, Eleanor Schooling, director of children’s services, was defiant in his defence. She said: “The response to the specific question asked under FOI was correct. There were no ‘penalties’ as such.” 

She declined to comment on Cllr Watts’ point about the need to be “more forthcoming”.