Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Beeston crime and how I may be party to 'enabling or encouraging the commission of offences' according to Broxtowe Borough Council.

For some time now I have been waiting for information from Broxtowe Borough Council which would enable me to create and publish in BeestonWeek an updated version of my map showing council tax exempt properties by street in Beeston and across the borough. Last week I reminded them of my information request and what I received from Broxtowe Borough Council on Monday 6 February 2017 was an email telling me that:

The information requested in relation to Council tax exempt properties has been withheld under section 31(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act on the basis that it is considered that the disclosure of this information would be likely to prejudice the prevention of crime by enabling or encouraging the commission of offences.  The public interest test has been applied in reaching this decision but it is considered that the public interest in withholding the information outweighs the interest in disclosure.

Additionally, this information has been withheld under section 40(2), specifically section 40(3)(a)(i) of the Freedom of Information Act which states, that information is exempt from disclosure if it constitutes the personal data of a third party and its disclosure under the Act would breach any of the data protection principles or section 10 of the Data Protection Act 1998. Personal data, as defined by the DPA in section 1 constitutes as:

"Personal data" means data which relates to a living individual who can be identified-

(a)       From those data, or

(b)       From those data and other information which is in the possession of, or is likely to come into the possession of, the data controller, and includes any expression of opinion about the individual and any indication of the intentions of the data controller or any other person in respect of the individual.

I have lodged an appeal against this decision and have been told I can expect to receive 'a response within fifteen working days'.

What I find puzzling is the fact that the information I requested is exactly the same as I requested two years ago and which Broxtowe Borough Council happily provided. In fact last time I also asked for information about houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) but this time I did not. So what has changed since 2015 to prompt this refusal?

The second reason for refusal can be easily dismissed as I have never requested 'the personal data of a third party' or any information which would make it possible to identify them. In addition much of this information, in one form or another, is already in the public domain. Landlords and letting agents advertise properties as student only lets and even put up 'to let' signs sharing this information with anyone who cares to notice (see my 29 November 2016 blog post, from which the picture below is taken).

So, I can only conclude that Broxtowe Borough Council have changed their mind about sharing the the information I requested (and, to repeat, they have already given in February 2015) because they believe this information being in the public domain in 2017 will 'prejudice the prevention of crime by enabling or encouraging the commission of offences'. 

After reading the email from Broxtowe Borough Council refusing me information about the total number of council tax exempt properties in the borough by street I thought, for a moment, 'What did I do when I published that blog post on 25 February 2015 about council tax exempt properties in Broxtowe (click her to see that blog post)?'  The post included this map:

Then I thought had my innocent post been responsible for a crime wave in Beeston (or anywhere else in Broxtowe) either Nottinghamshire Police or Broxtowe Borough Council would have contacted me to point out the problem I was causing and I would have deleted the information about council tax exempt properties immediately, but no one has!

Whilst I assume, I hope rightly, that Broxtowe Borough Council would, in 2017, deny the information I have requested to anyone else, I do be understand their decision to use The Freedom of Information Act has to be reasonable and based on evidence, and given I know of no one else who has published this information in the public domain, I have been in search of that evidence myself — which happens to be in the public domain and easy enough to find!

Nottinghamshire Police Authority diligently publish 'Crime Maps' for the whole of the county on the Police UK website. It took me a minute at most to find a Beeston (all) Crime Map for November 2016, which is the latest one available as at yesterday's date. I then decided to look at the month of November for the years 2012–2016 (a five year period). I have captured those maps and reproduce them below in year order.

What jumps out from the maps is the fact that more crime takes place in Beeston Town Centre than anywhere else (during the month of November at least, but I know enough about numbers and statistics to believe that this 'fact' will also be true for every other month of the year).

You can search the Beeston map by crime types and individual months going back as far as December 2010. At the end of the five Beeston Crime Maps below you will find two tables I have compiled: one showing all crimes for every November from 2012 until 2016 and one showing burglaries by month for years 2014–2016.

The table below shows crime in Beeston by type for the month of November during the years 2012–2016. The top three criminal offences are, on average, anti-social behaviour (35), shoplifting (20) and violence & sexual offences (15). Burglaries and Criminal damage/arson are in tied 4th position (13).

Now what of these crimes will be encouraged by Broxtowe Borough Council giving me (or anyone else) information about council tax exempt properties by street?  The only one, at a stretch, might be burglary, so I took my searching a stage further, as the table below shows:

Now, if the reasoning of Broxtowe Borough Council is to be believed I am being denied information because I have been responsible for a crime wave of sorts in the Borough and the only one that could be, by any stretch of the imagination is burglaries, although I would argue letting agents and 'to let' signs advertise student properties far better to would-be criminals than my my humble blog, but I can hear someone saying 'He's only shown us Novembers, what about the other months?' Well, here they are for the years 2014–2016.

Given I did not post my map (or tables) about council tax exempt properties to this blog before 25 February 2015 they clearly had nothing to do with crime, especially burglary, before 25 February 2015, so can discount all those months. Perhaps burglars who saw my map at the end of February 2015 got to work immediately, but what the evidence shows is that only the months of May (12) and October (24) are higher than the same month in 2014. In other words just two out of nine months! If there was any reasonableness in the thinking of Broxtowe Borough Council I think they need better evidence than this.

2016 might suit the council's reasoning a little better insomuch as there were 15 more burglaries in the first eleven months of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015, but the increase only averages 1 burglary a month (bearing in mind I have rounded all my averages to the nearest whole number which is not unreasonable). So, is there a case to argue that my map and tables 'prejudice the prevention of crime by enabling or encouraging the commission of offences'? I don't think so!

Much more telling are the months with the highest numbers of burglaries and how these might, just might be linked to student housing. In 2014 and 2015 October is the highest month for burglaries — the month after the new academic year begins and student house are awash with new kit and freshers yet to become street-wise. In 2016 it is February which stands out, a month after students return from the Christmas vacation, often with new goodies.

Living in Lenton for thirty-five years and being actively involved in the community, I knew far too many student homes which were stolen from, and in a good few cases the burglar just walked in because the occupiers had not locked their front door. The other attraction is the fact that in a student house there will be multiples of everything to steal. I could go on, but it's all so obvious that no would-be burglar finds out about the location of student properties by reading an old-fashioned blog like mine (and the one that I did in Lenton).

All I can do now is wait for Broxtowe Borough Council to let me know whether my appeal has been successful.

Council Tax exempt properties are too important to be hidden from public scrutiny. They impact of neighbourhoods, council income, local council services and, yes, crime.

If I have to continue my fight I will, but I will end by asking the same question of every Broxtowe Borough councillor, 'Do you support Broxtowe Borough Council's decision to deny me the information I have requested?' 

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