Plymouth City Council has refused to reveal where its pest control teams have been working.
The council says giving out the postcodes will give competitors an unfair advantage and harm its commercial interests.
It argued that the potential damage to the money-making operation outweighed the public interest in scrutiny of its work.
The decision to keep the information private has now been upheld by the Information Commissioner’s Office – an independent public body which rules on decisions made under the Freedom of Information Act.
The council’s decision was challenged in an appeal. After an investigation, the Commissioner agreed that keeping the information private outweighed the public interest in disclosure.
The council was asked for the details in a Freedom of Information request from the Local Democracy Reporting Service.
The request was for the postcode, date and type of pest for all visits in 2019.
The council used an exemption under the Freedom of Information to refuse to give the details.
That allows information to be kept private if it would prejudice the commercial interest of anyone, including the council, as long as it is not outweighed by the public interest in disclosing it.
The council said revealing the pest control details requested “would or be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of the authority” and was not in the public interest.
The council told the Commissioner that it already published prices for domestic pest control. It said revealing the pests and locations would allow competitors to target its customers and undercut its service.
The council argued that a reduction in its market share would affect its viability to cover costs and generate income for other public protection services, which could result in it being closed.
The Commissioner’s report said: “The Council reiterated that its service is already frequently undercut by its competitors who are able to ascertain its prices for domestic services.
“Therefore, the Council considers that with additional information about the areas in which it operates, competing businesses would be able to advertise key services in those areas.
“The Council said that if customers were able to receive a similar standard of service at a lower price than the Council can afford to charge, they are likely to take that opportunity which would result in a reduced share of the market for the service and consequently, less income to support Public Protection services, e.g. noise or waste investigations.
“The Council considers that disclosure would likely detract from its viability as a completely cost recovery service.
“It explained that a significant reduction in market share would mean that the service would be less able, or be unable to serve its purpose as an income generating enterprise.
“If the service is unable to fulfil this function in supporting itself and providing any funding for other services in the wider Public Protection Service, it would be closed.”
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The council also argued that releasing information about repeat visits meant people would think it provided a sub-standard service and was not a reliable operator, although multiple visits was standard procedure.
The Commissioner decided that disclosing the information would more likely than not harm the council’s commercial interests.
The report said: “In light of the Council’s submissions, it is clear that disclosing the withheld information could result in competitors undermining the Council by accessing the prices the Council charge for domestic services, and details of the pests treated and also the locations of the work conducted.”
The Commissioner also decided the public interest in withholding the information was stronger than in disclosing it.
The council accepted that there was public interest in transparency and understanding of its activities and discretionary services. Although no public funds were used in the pest control operation, there was a general public interest in understanding how local government brings in money to supplement council tax and government funding.
But it argued that was outweighed by the damage likely to be caused to its commercial operation, and there was public interest in maintaining the viability of the service and ensuring fair competition in the pest control market.
The report said: “The Commissioner accepts that there is a strong and legitimate public interest in the openness and transparency of public authorities with regard to their decision-making processes.
“This is because it promotes the aims of transparency and accountability, which in turn promotes greater public engagement and understanding of the decisions taken by public authorities.
“In this case, the information relates to pest control visits, and the Commissioner recognises that the complainant has concerns about the expenditure of public money and the Council’s pest control operation.
“Disclosure of the withheld information would provide an insight into the Council’s business, including the prices charged for domestic services, pests that have been treated and the locations in which this work was carried out.
“The Commissioner accepts that disclosing the information would enable competing businesses to target the particular areas, and consequently undercutting the Council.
“The Commissioner considers that there is a strong and inherent public interest in ensuring fairness of competition, and in her view it would be firmly against the public interest if the commercial interests are harmed.
“She also considers that protecting the Council’s ability to operate effectively within a competitive market, by not disclosing information that competitors could use to its commercial disadvantage, outweighs any public interest arguments for the information’s disclosure.
“”Given the level of likelihood that commercial harm would occur should the information be disclosed, the Commissioner has decided that the balance of public interests currently favours maintaining the exemption.”