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Shining a spotlight on access to environmental information

Shining a spotlight on access to environmental information

12 October 2021

At the end of this month, the 2021 United Nations climate change conference (COP26) gets underway in Glasgow, bringing together leaders from across the globe for what has been described as the 'best last chance' for action.

The conference comes at a time when interest in environmental issues, and scrutiny of how governments and other public bodies are tackling them, is greater than ever.

Access to information is crucial to ensuring transparency and accountability, and there are specific regulations known as the EIRs that require public bodies and others in Scotland (like elsewhere) to be open about how decisions are made, policies are implemented and problems addressed when it comes to the environment.

Who and what is covered

Those regulations cover a much wider range of information than you might think, with subjects including:

  • Landscapes, land use, air quality, water quality and wildlife
  • Vehicle emissions, waste disposal, noise pollution and radiation
  • Recycling policies, energy efficiency standards and planning decisions
  • Building maintenance, food contamination and hospital infections

Even communications about the arrival of giant pandas in Scotland were found to be covered.

There is also an extremely broad range of organisations that environmental information can be requested from. As well as all those who are subject to FOI, the EIRs also cover many other bodies which provide public services, fulfil public functions or have public responsibilities relating to the environment.

For example, just this year, the Commissioner found that Abellio ScotRail - the private company that runs most of the trains and owns most of the stations in Scotland - is subject to the EIRs, despite not being covered by FOI. Salmon fishery boards are also included, and housing associations were already covered by the EIRs before becoming subject to FOI in November 2019.

If you want to find information and you're not sure whether an organisation is covered, just ask - there's a good chance you'll get a reply anyway.

Using the right to access environmental information

Our statistics show that people are interested in environmental information more than ever - about 1 in every 8 requests for information made to Scottish public bodies since 2019 has been covered by the environmental regulations, compared to 1 in 10 a few years ago.

Recent examples of environmental information provided following requests, and the groups that used their rights to access that information, include:

  • Statistics showing increased use of electric vehicles by the NHS (Local Democracy Reporting Service)
  • Regional variations in the numbers of air quality monitors to be used in schools (Long Covid Kids)
  • Agreements regarding the creation of a new luxury holiday resort (Save Loch Lomond)
  • Reports on the presence of asbestos in schools in Scotland (Action on Asbestos)
  • Details of fossil fuel-related investments by public pension funds (Friends of the Earth Scotland)
  • Assessments of the safety of public buildings reopening after lockdown (Save Whiteinch Library)
  • Information about plans for the future of a local football club (Dumbarton FC Supporters' Trust)

If you have used your rights to access information about the environment, we want to hear from you!

Decisions by the Commissioner

Similarly, we have received an increasing proportion of appeals about requests for environmental information. About 14% of our cases are now classified in this way, and they also relate to a variety of subjects and involve a range of authorities - from councils and government agencies, to universities, hospitals and cultural trusts.

Further examples of environmental information can be seen from the following overview of some of the Commissioner's recent decisions:

  • Decision 017/2020 (Glasgow Life) - transport assessment for plans to increase capacity at Scotstoun Stadium
  • Decision 030/2020 (Transport Scotland) - reports and meeting minutes about a new ferry terminal at Ardrossan
  • Decision 031/2020 (Fife Council) - draft lease agreed with Crossgates Village Group for use of a public park
  • Decision 061/2020 (NHS Lothian) - fire protection surveys for the Royal Hospital for Children and Young People
  • Decision 064/2020 (NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde) - minutes of meetings about a Cryptococcus outbreak
  • Decision 075/2020 (North Lanarkshire Council) - contamination reports relating to a proposed new school
  • Decision 106/2020 (City of Edinburgh Council) - communications with Miller Homes about Water of Leith Walkway
  • Decision 134/2020 (University of Aberdeen) - information held by Estates about a property in Old Aberdeen
  • Decision 155/2020 (Fife Council) - complaints received and actions taken regarding Graham's Dairy
  • Decision 164/2020 (Angus Alive) - data recorded in relation to wildfowling and warden duties at Montrose Basin
  • Decision 044/2021 (Abellio ScotRail Ltd) - passenger numbers and carriages used on the Borders Railway
    Note: This decision found that Abellio ScotRail is subject to the EIRs (despite not being subject to FOI).
  • Decision 104/2021 (Aberdeen City Council) - correspondence and other documents about Spaces for People
  • Decision 105/2021 (City of Edinburgh Council) - discussions on proposed purchase of Granton Harbour Estate
  • Decision 118/2021 (East Dunbartonshire Council) - evidence given to the council about a planning application

The examples highlighted here demonstrate that almost every public body in Scotland may hold information that's covered by the EIRs, and with COP26 on the horizon it's likely that the trend of increasing frequency of requests for environmental information is likely to continue.
More information

For more information, see our guidance on the EIRs or find out about how you can access information from public bodies, including about the environment.