Uproar as Maidenhead and Windsor releases empties details

In a major departure from accepted practice, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead has released details of empty properties following a Freedom of Information request. The main local newspaper, the Royal Borough Observer, reported a significant backlash against the council's move in a recent story.

The data had been requested by a property purchasing company and in response the council released not only the property addresses but also the owner details. This resulted in cold-calling of the property owners which generated the complaints reported in the local paper.

The original FOI request reported on www.whatdoytheyknow.com reads as follows:

28 December 2015

Dear Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead,

I am looking for data on Vacant\Empty properties in the area. Are
you able to provide details (addresses) or owners details?

We are also looking for details on out of town landlords (Can I
request the correspondence address for the landlord if you have
these?)

We buy houses and bring them back to life enabling more properties
back into the rental sector.
We want to offer the vendors a solution to this and offer our
services. I understand that many councils hold this sort of data?

I would like to understand if the local authority has an Empty
Property Strategy, the extent of empty property in the area,
how the local authority plans to deal with it and the names and
contact details of officers within the council who are responsible
for it.

The Council replied on 22nd January, providing an Excel spreadsheet that contained the requested data. The owner data was only provided in certain cases: it is not clear what the criteria were for inclusion, but certainly data for private individuals appear to be present. The FOI request did not stipulate any threshold for duration of vacancy so it may the case that this is the complete list of empties in the Borough, 509 in total. However, with over 62,000 dwellings in the authority, at under 1% of the stock this is more likely to be a figure for longer-term empties.

No further details were uploaded to the whatdotheyknow website, so we are unclear whether the council answered the other questions about the status of the local empty homes strategy.

The request came from a Prash Reddy, who made a similar request to six other councils around the same time and, as his FOI request indicates, appears to run a business buying homes (assuming this is the same Prash Reddy).

Questionable decision

It has been generally accepted, following the "Bexley" Freedom of Information case (2006/2007), that release of addresses of empty homes owned by private individuals would be a breach of the Data Protection Act. In this case, the Royal Borough FOI team appears to have known about the original 2006 decision that the data could be released but not about Bexley Council's successful appeal against that decision which has remained the benchmark for the majority of other councils ever since. By generally accepted standards, then, the release of the details of the property addresses of empty homes owned by individuals would be a breach of the Data Protection Act.

Even more surprising is the decision to release the correspondence addresses of the owners. This information would have been collected as part of the administration of council tax and, again, by the normal standards relating to data protection, releasing the data would be "unfair processing" unless the owner had given permission. Moreover, in this case the double-edged sword of the specific provisions relating to access to council tax data for empty homes strategies would apply: these stipulate specifically what information might be relased for empty homes strategy purposes (Local Government Act 2003, Section 85).

Further FOI developments

Since the Bexley case, there have been further Freedom of Information cases relevant to properties not owned by private individuals - primarily the Camden case. Camden successfully argued on a second appeal that releasing the details of its own empty properties (not covered by data protection considerations) could be avoided because of the risks of criminal activity related to the empty homes. The balance can be thought to have swung even further against such releases because the case was dealt with under the law as it stood before squatting of residential properties was made illegal. Nevertheless, it is still common practice for councils to release the addresses of homes not owned by individuals, as has happened with some of the responses to Mr. Reddy.

Previous form

Windsor and Maidenhead prides itself on transparency. It was apparently the first authority to publish details of all transactions over £500 and has featured in case studies about data transparency downloadable from the gov.uk website here [MS Word Document]. It is one of 16 Open Data Champions recognised by the government according to another gov.uk webpage from 2015. The FOI response in this case makes a considerable play around the authority's timely treatment of such requests.

This culture - which most citizens would applaud - may have contributed to the decision to release the empty homes data, although in this particular case at the expense of any regard for precedents and or for generally accepted standards of data protection. In fact this is not the first time that the council has released personal data relating to empty homes. An earlier FOI request in 2012 also elicited the release of a file containing not just property addresses but owner details.

Accepted practice

Most of our local authority practitioners are well aware of the issues surrounding FOI requests for empty homes data. The cases have been extensively reported by the Empty homes Network eg (most recent first):

The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead is not, however, a member of the Empty Homes Network and seems not to have kept abreast of these developments.

Regrettably, some of our Information Library entries are now out of date, following various website re-structuring at the relevant source organisations. Bearing this in mind, a full list of entries related to FOI on our website can be found here:

FOI links

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