FOI consultation: why saving Freedom of Information is important

From Wikimedia Commons member Sailko. Reproduced under Creative Commons

From Wikimedia Commons member Sailko. Reproduced under Creative Commons

Back in October, the Government started a consultation on the future of the Freedom of Information Act, which closes on Friday 20 November.  Before the deadline, I wanted to share why I think it’s important for those who may not know too much about it. Continue reading

Data journalism project – abandoned vehicles

abandoned vehicle

Copyright Alan Stanton, reproduced under Creative Commons. Link here

 

For our data journalism course on the Interactive MA, we had to do a story using a non-public dataset. I chose to use the Freedom of Information Act to see how many vehicles have been abandoned on London’s streets in 2012 and 2013.

Here is my story and the data behind it:

 

Over eight hundred vehicles were removed from London’s roads and scrapped in 2012.

London’s councils identified at least 3735 cars, motorcycles and vans that had been left to rust in 2012. Over one thousand were removed and at least 861 were crushed.

Croydon had 3348 reports of abandoned vehicles and identified 1395 as possibly abandoned last year, the highest in the capital. Newham removed 221 vehicles from its streets last year and sent 169 for scrapping, more than any other borough.

“Changes in the value of scrap, high motoring and maintenance costs, fines for unlicensed and untaxed vehicles are often greater than the value of the vehicle itself, which leads some drivers to abandon them,” said Helen Bingham from Keep Britain Tidy, an environmental charity.

“Abandoned vehicles are a visible blight on neighbourhoods and have a hugely negative impact on a community. They contribute to a fear of crime and, alongside litter, fly-tipping and graffiti, they are signs of community decline,” she said.

Expensive and unwanted?

A Maserati and a Bentley were among the 175 abandoned vehicles reported in Hackney last year. However they almost certainly did not end up on the scrapheap because only two of those 175 vehicles were removed and destroyed.

Among the other expensive makes reported abandoned were at least eight Jaguars. Sixteen different boroughs reported at least one Mercedes Benz left neglected.

Other unusual vehicles reported abandoned were two burger vans in Newham and a boat on Whitchurch Lane, Harrow. One Triumph was reported in Haringey. Triumph model cars stopped being made in 1984. Triumph motorcycles are still made.

Many of the vehicles to be disposed of are crushed at Redcorn, which is a contractor based in Tottenham and Rainham for 28 local authorities.

Thirteen boroughs gave detailed enough data plot where vehicles were abandoned in 2013 on an interactive map.

By Council

Croydon Council said in a statement: “The fact that the number of vehicles removed from Croydon is greater than most other boroughs largely reflects the fact that more people live here than anywhere else in the capital.”

However, Croydon had one report for every 109 residents and one abandoned vehicle for every 262 people, the lowest ratio in the capital out of the boroughs that supplied usable data.

Bromley Council identified 959 abandoned vehicles in 2012, the second highest of the responses.

When asked to explain the figure, Councillor Colin Smith, Bromley’s Executive Councillor for Environment said: “There is no definitive answer to hand, but it probably has something to do with the fact that Bromley has one of the highest car ownerships per capita in London and that Bromley Council is extremely proactive in removing such vehicles.”

It also appears that the public reported far more abandoned vehicles to local authorities in 2012 this year than in 2008, the latest year for which we have comparable data.

Twenty-eight London boroughs received 15,023 reports of discarded vehicles in 2008. In 2012, there were 13,971 reports from just 17 boroughs. It seems very likely that the real total therefore far exceeds the 2008 figure.

A spokesman for Newham Council said: “The number of vehicles is no different to other London boroughs, we have simply prioritised their removal higher than other boroughs.”

“We have an effective enforcement team who are pro-actively working to make our borough a place where people want to live, work and stay,” he added.

Data limitations

We cannot be more specific about which cars were left around London because there is a difference between vehicles that are reported abandoned and those that are identified as abandoned.

When a vehicle is reported, the council will investigate whether it has genuinely been left to rust. Usually the owner is found and nothing more happens.

Newham Council, for example, told us in a response to a Freedom of Information request that 966 abandoned vehicles had been reported between January and August 2012. It gave details for each of these cars. It also told us that it identified 232 vehicles as abandoned in 2012.

It did not tell us which of the reports turned out to be genuine and which were false or duplicates. It is unlikely, for instance, that the ten Jaguars reported abandoned in Newham were genuinely discarded.

For this report I sent Freedom of Information requests to all 32 London boroughs and the City of London. 29 boroughs and the City of London sent some kind of response.

Bristol PFI: my FOI request

clifton suspension bridge

Copyright Joe Dunckley. Available here, reproduced under Creative Commons

I followed the steps of the Fusion tables process in my last post with Bristol City Council. I put all the .csv files together into a single Fusion table, downloaded it as a spreadsheet and had a look at it.

What caught my eye was the large sums of money being paid out for Private Finance Initiative (PFI) projects. There seem to have been three main recipients of private finance money from Bristol in 2012 – “Bristol PFI Ltd”, “Bristol PFI c/o CorLa Ltd” and “Bristol Schools Limited”.

There is also “Bristol LEP c/o CorLa Ltd” that received just shy of £12m for projects such as the amalgamation of Sea Mills Infant and Junior Schools, for which it was paid nearly £3.9m. Continue reading