Why Do You Seek Access to Environmental Information?: Motives and the Right of Access to Environmental Information

The primary aim of the right of access to environmental information is to enhance how the public participates in environmental decision-making procedures in order to improve the decisions taken by public authorities on the environment. However, evidence gathered by the project suggests that users predominantly use the right to further their own individual interests. This is significant because public authorities may feel that such requests are an abuse of the right. In practice however, it is possible for these users to have a positive impact on the environment. This post will discuss how the majority of users of the right utilise the right for their own individual interests, and how this impacts on the environmental aims of the right.

In guaranteeing the right of access to environmental information, Scottish public authorities tend to compare users of the right with the “ideal” user: a user who holds altruistic motives and is using the information accessed in order to help the authority protect the environment. This ideal is sourced from the justifications given in the founding documents as the right was established (e.g. the Aarhus Convention), but there are doubts about whether users actually use the right for altruistic reasons. This is significant, as some Scottish public authorities may regard non-altruistic uses of the right as an abuse of the right and hence an unjustified burden on their resources.

An interesting finding from the project’s survey on the right of access to environmental information is that, in practice, users with altruistic motives make up a minority of users of the right. Out of the 46 respondents so far to the project’s survey, 36 respondents indicated that they sought to access the information for either personal[1] or professional reasons.[2] This is in stark contrast to “altruistic” environmental motives, which were held by only 10 respondents. These findings suggest that the idealised view of how users engage with the right is unrealistic. This is significant because it reflects a mismatch between the views of the authorities and actual practice and the majority of the right’s users.

The mismatch between the authorities’ expectations and actual practice is important, because it highlights further expectations on how users use the environmental information they accessed. There is a general expectation that users that have altruistic motives will use the accessed information to help the authority to improve how it takes environmental decisions. In contrast, users with personal (potentially even characterised as “selfish”) motivations (such as seeking information for litigation purposes) are unlikely to assist the authority, or the wider public interest, in the same way, undermining the environmental aims of the right.

Nevertheless, while it is true that users with altruistic motives are more likely to use the accessed environmental information to improve the environmental decisions of public authorities this does not preclude personally-motivated users from doing the same. Users with personal motives can use the accessed information in ways that have an incidental positive impact on the environment. An example of this is a user who is seeking information on environmental policies that are impacting the economic growth of their business. While the user is seeking information for personal reasons, the fact that the authority is forced to become transparent can have a broader positive impact on how they decide environmental policies.

This is significant, as it suggests that users do not necessarily need to hold altruistic motives to have a positive impact on the environment and meet the aims of the right. Further, it suggests that it is incorrect to assume that users who do not match this “ideal” undermine the right’s environmental aims. This is not to imply that every user with a personal motive is suddenly going to have a positive impact on environmental decision-making processes and the wider environment. Rather, it is to warn Scottish public authorities from pre-judging users of the right merely because they do not match the “ideal” user as envisioned by the right.

To conclude, while the “ideal” user of the right seeks to access environmental information for altruistic motives the reality is that the majority of users do not fit this ideal. However, this does not act to undermine the right’s environmental aims: users with personal (or even selfish) motives can act to help improve the environment even if that is not the user’s primary intent. This is not to suggest that some users utilising the right are awkward and will not benefit anyway. Rather, these findings highlight that the actions of users with personal motives can have wider positive environmental impacts.

Scottish public authorities should recognise this in order to ensure that they are not pre-judging users who do not indicate that they have altruistic motives. This is not to discount the “awkward” users who are unlikely to have a positive environmental impact, but by doing this Scottish public authorities are less likely to unjustly perceive users as abusing the system. In turn this is likely to improve the relationship between Scottish public authorities and users, which may lead to an improvement in how the right is guaranteed in Scotland.

Sean Whittaker

[1] Examples of personal reasons include information relating to a land ownership dispute the user is embroiled in and information on a flood which damaged the user’s property.

[2] Examples of professional reasons include journalists seeking environmental information for a news story or lawyers advising their clients.

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1 Response to Why Do You Seek Access to Environmental Information?: Motives and the Right of Access to Environmental Information

  1. celia pattle says:

    I am so glad that someone is looking into the inaccessibility of public and environmental files. Whether it be the SBC, SEPA, the SIC or the SPSO that despite there being a preference in favour of releasing environmental information they simply do not. Some claim that it would take too long to redact personal information – how much personal information would you expect to find in a Building Warrant File or an application to discharge sewage into someone elses property. Why would the SIC issue and publish a Decision Notice and then alter it at the request of the person discharging the sewage and then remove that very same Decision Notice from their website? When a sewage discharge overflows and runs down the road or into peoples property, why would these authorities say it is not in the public interest to release the information you are seeking. The hoops you have to jump through are clearly put in place to stop people uncovering what the authorities do not wish to reveal, due to their many mistakes or complicity. The system can be wholly corrupted by those authorities purportedly put in place to assist you.

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