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Paper loses legal bid to hear key council debate

A legal challenge by a Midlands daily to overturn a council’s decision to hold a key debate in private has failed.

The Leicester Mercury was campaigning to attend a Leicester City Council meeting on Monday to discuss the possible demolishing of the city’s historic Bowstring Bridge and a nearby pub.

Leicester de Montfort University wants to use the city centre site to build a £6m sports centre and swimming pool – a scheme which has caused uproar among locals since it was first mooted in 2005.

The city council marked the debate papers ‘Not for Publication’ but an insider leaked them to the Mercury last week, enabling the daily to begin its legal challenge over the weekend.

When the Mercury queried the council as to why the meeting had to be held in private, its response was that sensitive financial information would be discussed.

Acting editor Keith Perch explained that this exact financial information had already been splashed across the front of the Mercury on Friday – therefore it was no longer private.

The council merely reiterated the point that this was its policy.

Specialist media lawyers Foot Anstey wrote on behalf of the Mercury to the council demanding that the press and public be allowed in to watch the debate as they felt the action was illegal.

The solicitors made an alternative request that it be postponed until the council had properly considered the newspaper’s challenge.

Neither of these succeeded so the debate went ahead with the Mercury only able to report the cabinet’s decision to proceed with plans to knock down the bridge and pub.

Keith wrote on his blog: “There was a depressing predictability to Leicester City Council’s dismissal of our legal challenge.

“In removing us from the chamber they called us irresponsible, erroneous and a rag. Apparently no other newspaper ‘in the world’ would act the way we do.

“Our complaint is that they are making a huge decision about an area of Leicester without allowing anybody else a say – it just doesn’t sit with their claims to support open governance.

“If they really believed in openness they would find a way to allow the substantive part of the debate… be heard in public. They could separate out the bits that they really think need to be kept confidential into a different paper.”

City council leader Ross Willmott told the Mercury its decision to publish details of the leaked document was “irresponsible”.

He added: “There are more than sufficient reasons why it would not be in the public interest and why we would not take this in public.

“It is something that the general public would understand. To suggest that we are trying to keep it secret is beyond belief. The decision was taken in 2005.

“This report brings forward the arrangements which hopefully lead to the development of something that’s for the benefit of the public.”


Paul Francis (05/08/2009 10:45:59)
Was the information exempt or confidential? If exempt,rather than confidential, then the council could – as I understand it – have used its discretionary powers to consider the report in open session, in a redacted form if necessary. Either way, the information could now come out under FOI.
But I agree with Keith – another example of a supposedly publicly accountable body, democratically-elected, treating information as a commodity it owns rather than one it should share with the people it represents.