Warnings over free speech at councils
LOCAL Government Secretary Eric Pickles has warned that freedom of speech and independent journalism is under attack in local councils, after residents were threatened with arrest for filming and reporting on meetings.
But Swindon councillors say they work on the presumption people are always allowed to blog and film from their meetings Mr Pickles has published new guidance which formally opens up planning appeal hearings to be filmed, tweeted and reported.
He laid down a challenge to councils to open up their planning committees and other meetings in return.
As part of the Government’s review, new guidance by the Planning Inspectorate will make clear the rights of members of the press and public, including bloggers and journalists, to report, film and tweet planning appeal hearings.
Ministers hope this will open up a previously mysterious and rarely seen side of the planning process.
The Inspectorate decides on the outcome of 20,000 appeals a year, of which roughly 2,000 are via hearings or inquiries, compared to almost half a million planning applications considered by councils.
A spokesman for Swindon Council said: “Our presumption is always to allow people to film or tweet from any public meeting unless there are very good reasons for not allowing them to do so.
“The matter is always put to the meeting before the start by the chair if a request is made, and I am not aware of any refusal ever having been given by the members of any committee.”
He said when Channel 4’s team from Grand Designs asked permission to film the Swindon planning committee meeting at which the TV presenter Kevin McCloud wanted to speak a couple of years ago, the cameras were permitted to film the proceedings.
Wirral Council was named and shamed for saying filming compromised health and safety while Keighley Town Council claimed filming breached standing orders.
And Stamford Town Council has placed a ban on journalists tweeting from meetings due to the risk not accurately portraying a debate.
Mr Pickles said: “I am opening up the planning appeals that my department oversees, so the public can see how the planning system works in practice.
“Councils should match this by opening up their planning meetings and other committees.
“An independent local press and robust public scrutiny is essential for a healthy local democracy: without the sunlight of transparency, the flowering of localism will wither.”
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