This request was effectively made because the NTA has refused to release higher-resolution versions of BusConnects drawings which were requested under Access to Information on the Environment regulations. The request was made mainly with the goal of confirming the extent of sub-standard cycle tracks shown in the last round of BusConnect public consultation drawings.
This draft of the AIE appeal is being published here to keep readers in the loop on this on-going issue.
Details about cycle tracks and their standards is ‘environmental information’ under the regulations because of the impact of human health and safety, the impact on emissions, and how they relate to environmental policy. Cycling infrastructure is confirmed in a number of Government polices as a method of acting on climate change.
As noted in IrishCycle.com’s reporting on BusConnects, while a more detailed version of drawings was not made available as requested, the general BusConnects drawings (in PDF) are available to view on the project’s website. These show main sections not only fail to meet the NTA’s Greater Dublin Area Cycle Network Plan target width but also fail to meet the BusConnects target width of 2 metres.
If the limited number of cross-sections shown in the BusConnects PDF drawings show cycle track widths are too often narrow, the question has to be asked: How bad is it? Why won’t the NTA release the higher resolution drawings which might show the extend of the issue?
I would urge the Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information to please view the request for CAD drawings files over the already publicly available PDF drawings files to be viewed as the digital of, for example, a low-resolution map printed on A4 when the details needed can only be viewed on a map printed on A0 format.
I’ll admit that this is a crude example analogy of digital vs paper formats. But my point here is that the NTA cannot just say it’s not an environmental request because they already released a lower-resolution version of the drawings.
I try to address the points made by the NTA as below:
Material in the course of completion, or unfinished documents etc
The NTA said:
“The NTA said that its decision to refuse the request was done so under Article 9(2)(c) of the AIE Regulations. Article 9(2)(c) states: ‘a public authority may refuse to make environmental information available where the request concerns material in the course of completion, or unfinished documents or data’…”
“Equally significantly, while the drawings were abstracted as pdfs at a point in time for the purpose of producing the public consultation documents, those AutoCAD drawings continued to be worked on in terms of revising and amending the design of the schemes.”
Directly after the original refusal, on April 19, 2021, I asked the NTA: “Can the NTA please confirm that NTA has set aside / archived a version of CAD files which is subject to this requests? Ie a version which corresponds to the last public consultation.”
The NTA’s reply was simply: “The files are part of the deliberative process and therefore cannot be released.”
If it is the case that the files as requested cannot be released — ie a backup / saved version of the AutoCAD files showing a more detailed version of the drawing released at the time of the last public consultation — then why did the NTA not just state such at any point in this process?
It seems that such a version of the CAD files is available or can be extracted otherwise it would have left its reasoning at that point rather than continued with a number of other reasons.
Detail of drawings and different formats
The NTA said:
“I am further satisfied that the release of this information has the potential to lead to mis-information being provided on aspects of the proposals, given the inaccuracies in the Ordnance Survey background maps at the level of detail that might be interrogated using the AutoCAD files, which is contrary to the objective of the AIERegulations…”
“The details at the public consultation stage are meant to be indicative – the index map in the public consultation document contains the statement ‘NOTE: The Preferred Route shown on the following drawings is indicative only and is subject to change following consultation and as part of the design development process.’ Abstracting information at a level of detail beyond what was intended at the level of development for the public consultation stage, would be mis-leading, give rise to misunderstandings and would not be in the public interest. The level of detail clearly desired as the basis of this request will be available at a later stage in the development process.”
Going back to the analogy of digital vs paper formats, the NTA is effectively saying you cannot look at the printed drawing with more details in case you find something the NTA does not want anybody to find.
I would contend that the issue that the NTA does not want to be found is already apparent from the PDF version of the drawings, but that the CAD versions are required to confirm the extent of the problem.
This section of the reply is key: “Abstracting information at a level of detail beyond what was intended at the level of development for the public consultation stage, would be mis-leading, give rise to misunderstandings and would not be in the public interest. The level of detail clearly desired as the basis of this request will be available at a later stage in the development process.”
The NTA’s wish to manage information flow until after the NTA has gone into the planning process should not influence the Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information. Saying the information will be available at a later stage shows the NTA is trying to stage manage information on a highly-contentious project.
It should be stressed that this request is for the information as outlined at the public consultation stage, just a more detailed version of that to confirm details. The NTA is labeling this as being open to “mis-leading, give rise to misunderstandings and would not be in the public interest” but allowing to to be the bar could stop any information other than what the NTA wants to release as being beyond the public.
Digital formats and environmental information
The NTA said:
“In addition, I am also refusing the request on the basis that it does not constitute a proper request for environmental information. The information requested is ‘CAD files’, and I am satisfied that ‘CAD files’ do not fall within the definition of ‘environmental information’. While the CAD files may contain environmental information, they represent a format of the information and the files themselves are not environmental information. If the work-in-progress design layouts of the road constitutes environmental information, and I have not yet determined if they do, I would then note Article 7(3)(a) of the AIE Regulations, which states: ‘Where a request has been made to a public authority for access to environmental information in a particular form or manner, access shall be given in that form or manner unless—(i) the information is already available to the public in another form or manner that is easily accessible, or(ii) access in another form or manner would be reasonable.’…”
“In the event that work-in-progress design layouts of the road constitutes environmental information, then in accordance with the above article, I would consider that the material is already available to the public in another form that is easily accessible, namely the information provided as part of the third round of public consultation.”
Saying that “‘CAD files’ do not fall within the definition of ‘environmental information’” is like saying a high-res paper drawing does not fall under the definition because a low-resolution drawing is already available.
It is striking that the NTA even uses the word ‘if’ in the sentence: “If the work-in-progress design layouts of the road constitutes environmental information..” — as this is in the contect of the internal review and my internal review request included the following: “In case the authority tries to claim it is not environmental information: the likes of lane widths and allocations and layout of effects speed, emissions, and the built environment and how it effects human health and safety. Furthermore the NTA deviating from its own guidance on making roads safer for active travel is linked to environmental policy and how it is being followed or not. The AIE regulations are designed to be wide-ranging.”
What exactly will be made available in the future is unclear and seems to be an attempt by the NTA to manage information when that information may be embarrassing to the NTA.
To finish off, as I also outlined at the internal review stage: NTA should do the right thing and proactively release the CAD file as requested. In response to a separate information request the NTA has claimed on the record to be extremely busy with different projects etc and thus unable to meet that request, fighting the release of environmental information is thus a waste of the NTA’s time and resources and public money.