The great Section 106 and CIL scandal

Category: Best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: United Kingdom

Organisation: Property Week

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 27/09/2019

Credit: Graham Lanktree

Project description:

Ask any developer about their latest big scheme and at some point, they will mutter darkly about the Section 106 or Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) payments they have had to make.

The payments are meant to finance infrastructure, but there is scant evidence that’s what they are going toward. The suspicion is councils are only spending a fraction of what they take in and the rest has disappeared into a sizeable black hole.

Quite how big, no one knows. There has been no requirement for local authorities to disclose the figures and dozens haven’t. Until now.

Impact reached:

Our investigation found that more than £2.5bn—or 63%—of the money local authorities took in through the taxes remains unspent.

Several local councillors got in touch to ask us for the data we collected on their borough and the mismatch between what was collected in s106 and CIL development tax and what has been spent. They said they would raise the discrepancies with council leadership to argue for the money to be released for its intended purpose to build new infrastructure.

One councillor said she would use the data and discrepancy in infrastructure spending as a campaign issue as she sought to become an MP in the Dec 12 UK general election.

A developer financier spoke with Property Week and said that he is creating a new business to work to claw back some of the unspent money (and by law owed back to developers) based on our investigation.

Techniques/technologies used:

The starting point for this investigation was crafting and sending Freedom of Information requests to more than 300 local authorities to get annual financial information between 2013 and the end of 2018 showing how much money had been taken in and spent through the s106 and CIL development taxes. At the time this investigation began in early 2019, councils were not required by law to post this information publicly.

As these financial disclosures were received through FOI over months, the data were entered by hand into an Excel spreadsheet to create a unique data set.

Once we had examined and entered data from the financials of 61% of the largest councils throughout the UK—including all London boroughs and the Big Six cities—the data was analysed to find approximate total figures for what local authorities had collected and spent through both tax mechanisms.

To present the final figures we used a combination of Adobe Illustrator and Infogram online and in the magazine to create infographics visualising the collection and spending of these taxes over time.

What was the hardest part of this project?

The most painstaking part of this project was organising and conducting the submission of more than 300 Freedom of Information requests and then collating the financial disclosures into a bespoke data set.

The data was entered by hand from disclosures that were given in a variety of formats. Many annual totals of s106 and CIL tax collected and spent by individual councils needed to be calculated by Property Week from voluminous data disclosures. Some financial documents came in the form of non-machine readable PDFs, Word documents, or several Excel files that were not dated correctly. Each disclosure needed to be scrutinized so that we ensured our data set was accurate.

This process took one reporter around six months to complete with some contributions and help from colleagues.

Of the more than 300 councils that were sent FOI request, 43 failed to respond, some refused to disclose their figures, and many others only provided partial data. Sometimes councils pointed to where the data was available publicly. But in many of those instances, a full data set from 2013 to the end of 2018 was spread over multiple PDF documents and needed to be collated or some data was missing.

What can others learn from this project?

This project will inspire other journalists and draw their attention to the power of the Freedom of Information Act and how it can be leveraged to collect data from disparate local authorities to show a larger picture of what is happening in the UK.

It will show others how collating financial information from multiple local authorities can give the public a better picture, not only of how public money is being spent locally, but how it is being spent across the country and whether there are larger trends beyond those unique to a few localities.

This project could potentially inspire others that it is possible to conduct a large FOI project in the public interest.

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