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“It raises suspicion”: Council refuses request for information on councillor's conduct

Releasing information about why Cllr Mazher Iqbal cancelled a planned consultation on a conservation area for Castlegate “has the potential to affect and hinder the investigation” into him, the Council has argued.

Councillor Mazher Iqbal 2021

Councillor Mazher Iqbal, Executive Member for City Futures, Development, Culture and Regeneration.

Sheffield Council has refused to provide information about why Cllr Mazher Iqbal cancelled a planned public consultation on a ‘conservation area’ in Castlegate, on the grounds that doing so “has the potential to affect and hinder” an ongoing investigation into the councillor’s conduct.

A long-read article in Now Then earlier this month detailed the allegations made against Cllr Iqbal by former senior Council officer Simon Ogden, who accused Iqbal of “openly associating with and supporting the interests of” private commercial parties, including property developers. Cllr Iqbal "robustly denies" the allegations.

The request for information, made by Mark Smith, was sent to the Council on 14 October 2020. Public bodies are supposed to respond to such requests within 20 days. The Council took 240 days – or 40 weeks – to respond to Smith. If it had missed a final deadline of 20 July, the Council could have been in contempt of court.

In its response the Council confirmed that it holds the information requested, but claims that it is “exempt from disclosure”.

“The information you have requested falls within the scope of an ongoing investigation into Councillor Iqbal’s conduct,” the Council told Smith.

“We believe that the disclosure of this information has the potential to affect and hinder the investigation process. The Council needs to be able to investigate the complaint in the strictest confidence to ensure natural justice.”

The public consultation was cancelled by Cllr Iqbal the day before it was due to launch after years of work and at an estimated cost of £10,000, Ogden has claimed. Members of the Castlegate Partnership told Now Then they turned up to a planned exhibition at the Sheffield Institute of Arts building to see a note pinned to the door saying it had been cancelled.

If it had received support from the public during a consultation, a conservation area in Castlegate could have protected or helped restore historic buildings including the Old Coroner’s Court and the Old Town Hall, as well as opening up heritage funding opportunities.

Iqbal did not provide a public statement on the cancellation. Ogden claims that Iqbal objected to prospective plans for the Sheffield Castle site which included a public park – despite the fact these plans were taken directly from the already-approved 2018 City Centre Plan.

Mark Smith told Now Then that he is planning to seek an internal review of the decision within Council.

“When so many requests are treated in a similar way – many relating to the tree felling scandal but also Lucy Ashton's questions about Sheffield International Venues this week – it raises suspicion that the Council's default position is to delay, obfuscate and avoid releasing information that may show misconduct; then to heavily redact what they do release,” Smith said.

Simon Ogden said that the rejection "just adds to the damage being self-inflicted by the Council."

"The idea that the Head of Legal Services or other investigators would be unable to make a fair assessment of Councillor Iqbal’s conduct because they might have read about it in The Star or Now Then just doesn’t stand up. They are not like a jury in a court – this is their professional role!"

Update (23 July)

Gillian Duckworth, Director of Legal and Governance at the Council, told Now Then that information requests and complaints are handled by different departments and that the pandemic has caused a "significant backlog of requests."

"The delay in processing the initial information request submitted by Mr Smith unfortunately led to this coinciding with the same period that the complaint was being considered.

"No cross referencing took place between the information request and complaint until the information request was processed and any exemptions were considered in July 2021."

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