BOTLEY resident Mary Gill made the front page of the Oxford Mail in July after she won a two-year Freedom of Information battle against her council.

She eventually persuaded a judge to order Vale of White Horse District Council to stop keeping secrets about its controversial West Way shopping centre redevelopment plan.

Hundreds of residents had marched against the scheme, baffled as to why the authority seemed hell-bent on pursuing a project drawn up by one developer – Doric Properties.

Doric wanted to demolish Elms Parade shops, sheltered housing and the vicarage next door and replace them with a supermarket, a hotel, 50 flats and 520 student flats.

Dr Gill and others simply did not like the development being proposed by their back door – but the council refused to tell them why it chose Doric above the 12 other companies who bid for the contract.

Dr Gill submitted her first FOI request in October 2013, asking the council why Doric was awarded the contract, but it only gave her some of the information she wanted.

She kept pushing and the council released more details in dribs and drabs.

In the end the council’s own planning committee refused the scheme and, under continuing pressure from Dr Gill, the council revealed much of the information residents wanted to know before it even went before a judge.

What the documents revealed was that global retail adviser DTZ had told the council in 2012 that there were potential risks of accepting Doric’s contract without putting the same scheme out to tender.

Dr Gill recalled: “They [DTZ] picked up on all the points the public had made to the council. Entering into this contract with Doric without going to competition presented the chance of a legal challenge; a large supermarket isn’t likely to be very viable in this current climate; they questioned the use of student accommodation.

“The documents gave us what I wanted. They showed clearly that right from the early days the Vale was advised by DTZ that going down that route wasn’t a good idea.”

She and others concluded Doric was simply offering the Vale more money than any other developer – the money on the table was not among the information the judge ordered the council to reveal.

In the end, the order the judge made was not with the Freedom of Information Act, but under the similar Environmental Information Regulations.

But it was the FOI Act Dr Gill originally used to put pressure on the council which led to it releasing the facts.

The information she did uncover remains pertinent: the Vale is now drawing up a second plan for the West Way with developer Mace, which was also involved in the original scheme.

Yet, in perhaps the most bizarre twist, Dr Gill herself said she would support restrictions to the Freedom of Information Act.

As a lecturer in engineering at Cranfield University in Bedfordshire, she said: “I have been on the receiving end of FOI and it is abused.

Students and academics have used it to get my lecture notes and I’ve had to fight it.

“Really it was a bad bit of legislation and I can see that it needs to be tightened.”

Chris Church, co-chairman of the West Way campaign which fought against the Doric plans, said he was concerned about plans to curtail the FOI Act.

He said: “I think the act is fundamental in the modern age. Information is power.

“FOI played an important part in our campaign.”