SCOTLAND’S Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew has issued a stinging rebuke to Argyll and Bute Council and ordered it to release secret details of the controversial sale of Castle Toward.

In what could be a devastating blow to the political administration of the council, Argyll and Bute must now disclose “the criteria it used in assessing best value in relation to the sale of Castle Toward.”

A community development company had wanted to buy the school for community use in 2014 but the council eventually sold Castle Toward to local businesswoman Denice Purdie and her husband Keith Punler.

The council had tried to keep both the “best value” and environmental information secret, but the commissioner, while finding that the council was correct to withhold other commercially sensitive information, had failed to deal properly with the request from a local resident, known only as Mr X, about Castle Toward.

A statement from the commission said: “The commissioner finds that Argyll and Bute Council failed to comply fully with Part 1 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA) and the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (the EIRs) in responding to the information request made by Mr X.”

The commissioner said the council failed to comply with the regulations on environmental information and “wrongly relied upon section 30(c) of FOISA to withhold information.”

The commissioner said the council must release the environmental and ‘best value’ data by January 23, 2017.

In comments that are unusually strong, the commissioner stated: “During the investigation, the commissioner’s office approached the council to see if it would be willing to disclose any more information to Mr X. The council declined to do so.”

The council even tried to withhold information that was already public, according to the commissioner.

She stated: “The commissioner is disappointed that the council refused to disclose some information to Mr X during her investigation. There is substantial evidence that the information in question was published and placed in the public domain during the commissioner’s investigation.”

Two of the published items cited by the commissioner were reports in The National which has covered the Castle Toward row for the last two years.

The commissioner issued a strong warning: “If the council fails to comply with this decision, the commissioner has the right to certify to the Court of Session that the council has failed to comply.

“The court has the right to inquire into the matter and may deal with the council as if it had committed a contempt of court.”

The council has the right to appeal against the decision but must do so within six weeks.

In the meantime, some of those who campaigned for the community buyout of Castle Toward are keenly awaiting the release of the no-longer-secret information.

One of them told The National: “Now at last we might get the chance to see how and why they rejected our bid on ‘best value’ grounds. There will be many people interested to see what comes out.”

The National told yesterday how local residents Angus Files and Alan Stewart are appealing to the Information Commissioner against the council’s refusal to give details of the costs of four senior officers making complaints against independent Dunoon councillor Michael Breslin who was cleared of 14 of the 15 allegations against him.

Angus Files said: “They think they are totally untouchable as the people of Argyll are so powerless to do anything.

“It has gone well past time that the Scottish Government intervened and sacked all of the administration, parachuted in a temporary administration until a new board can be installed, and stop the misery being inflicted on Argyll through very bad management.

“The people of Argyll are fed up of being subjects of subjugation.”

Alan Stewart said: “Yet again officers from Argyll and Bute Council have been found to have failed in their duties.

“Now we find that they cannot even properly interpret the rules regarding freedom of information requests.

The question is: Are they simply incompetent or are they trying to hide something?

“Our council is dysfunctional and more than ever, we need the government to step in.

“It is not enough to say that the elections are coming next year. Most of the problems stem from unelected officers who are untouchable by the electorate and cannot be removed. We need a full external investigation and we need it now.”

Local MSP Mike Russell welcomed the commissioner’s findings and said: “The pattern here is obvious. They are just reluctant to disclose information.”

The National asked Argyll and Bute Council if it was appealing the commissioner’s ruling. There was no reply by the time we went to press.