Northern Ireland

Bonfire costs 'commercially sensitive', say public bodies

Bloomfield Walkway bonfire, Belfast
Image caption The Bloomfield Walkway bonfire was set ablaze as police and contractors moved in to dismantle it

A government department and a local council have refused to release the cost of dismantling two controversial bonfires in east Belfast.

Workers removed the bonfire material on 11 July from Bloomfield Walkway and Cluan Place and a road was closed.

Armed police also stood guard while the workers, who wore masks to protect their identities, removed the material.

Belfast City Council and the Department for Infrastructure said they could not disclose how much this cost.

They said this was because of "commercial sensitivity".

The public bodies were responding to BBC News NI Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

In response to a separate FOI request about the cost of policing the bonfire removal, the PSNI said it was not in a position to respond.

The PSNI's FOI department said it was dealing with "a high volume of requests" and reduced staffing levels were limiting its ability to respond "within the legislative time-frame".

The normal time limit for public bodies to respond to FOI requests is 20 working days.

Commenting on the delay in responding to BBC News NI's FOI request, Chief Superintendent David Moore said: "We apologise for the inconvenience this has caused.

"We can confirm your request has been allocated and is being processed by our corporate information team. You will receive a response from them shortly and we will be aiming to provide you with as much information as possible."

Image caption It took three hours to clear the bonfire at Cluan Place

Felicity Huston, a former commissioner for public appointments, said FOI requests seemed to be "feared by recipients rather than accepted as part of grown-up governance and accountability".

"Without the public and their money there would be no public bodies," she told BBC News NI.

"This is often lost sight of in the bunkers where FOI requests are thwarted in any way possible.

Large amounts of time, effort and the public's money was being spent thinking up ways of avoiding answering legitimate public questions, said Ms Huston.

"We are not talking about vexatious enquiries or ones which would take an inordinate amount of time to answer," she said.

"We would just like to know how much of our money was spent on this activity; I don't think it is a unreasonable request."

In response to a separate FOI request sent by BBC News NI the Department for Infrastructure confirmed it spent £97,839 on the removal of Eleventh Night and anti-internment bonfire materials across Northern Ireland between 2015 and 2018.

However, the department confirmed these figures did not include the cost of removing bonfire material from Belfast's Cluan Place and Bloomfield Walkway.

The department said this information constituted "confidential commercial information" between it and Belfast City Council.

Eleventh Night

Bonfires are traditionally lit in many loyalist areas of Northern Ireland on the Eleventh Night - the eve of the Twelfth of July.

The fires mark William of Orange's victory over King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and supporters say they are an important part of loyalist culture.

The decision to remove material from the Bloomfield bonfire was taken on 10 July after a High Court ruling.

A judge directed the Department for Infrastructure to take immediate action, amid claims the 80-pallet-high construction at Bloomfield Walkway posed a serious threat to surrounding homes.

The bonfire was lit as contractors moved in to try to dismantle it.

Image caption Former Commissioner for Public Appointments Felicity Huston said that without the public and their money there would be no public bodies

The Cluan Place bonfire was dismantled after the Fire Service raised concerns about nearby buildings.

The Department for Infrastructure said afterwards it was in discussion with the council about how to apportion the contractor's costs for the material removal.

As it owned the land at Bloomfield Walkway, the department said it was likely to cover a significant proportion of the cost.

'Confidential commercial information'

Responding to a BBC News NI FOI request to break down bonfire removal costs, the department said it was dealing with the request under regulations covering environmental information held by public authorities.

It only held some of this information and was not in a position to determine the full costs as they were still being agreed with Belfast City Council, said the department.

It added: "The information that the department does currently hold relates to information within the contract between Belfast City Council and its contractor specifying rates for payment.

"Such information will normally constitute confidential commercial information."

The department concluded it needed to protect both the council's and its own "legitimate economic interests".

Accountability and transparency

In response to a further FOI request, the council confirmed it held information about bonfire removal costs, but could not release this "for reasons of commercial sensitivity... as it would prejudice the commercial interests of the contractor".

"The withheld information is commercially sensitive to the contractor as it is live, still has currency, relates to ongoing work that is still being carried out and may impact on the ability of the contractor to carry out future work."

The council's response conceded that releasing the information could "promote accountability and transparency" about its spending of public money.

But it concluded that there was an "overarching need for the council to maintain its credibility with this and any future contractors who may carry out this work".

BBC News NI has asked both the department and the council to review their decisions, and referred the PSNI to the Information Commissioner for failing to respond within the statutory time limit.

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