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Pickles opens up planning appeals to journalists

Local government secretary Eric Pickles has given a fresh warning to councils over allowing social media and filming at meetings, as he issues new guidance opening up planning appeals.

He will publish new guidance to formally open up planning appeal hearings to be filmed, tweeted and reported, including by local bloggers and hyperlocal journalists.

Mr Pickles also warned councils not to “suppress freedom of speech” after a series of incidents in which journalists and residents have been prevented from filming or tweeting from meetings.

It comes after the minister published a new guide for local people about attending council meetings in June, which explicitly stated that they should be allowed to film and use social media.

Mr Pickles said: “Watching television programmes like Grand Designs, viewers have been baffled as cameras are stopped from filming meetings of the planning committee.

“Councillors shouldn’t be ashamed or be trying to hide the work they do. 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.

“A small number of councils are blocking filming because they want to suppress independent reporting, just as some councils are clinging to their town hall Pravdas.

“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 whither. Heavy-handed councils who call the police to suppress freedom of speech are abusing state powers.”

One of the cases highlighted by Mr Pickles was how Stamford Town Council prevented reporters from the Rutland and Stamford Mercury from using Twitter at its meetings, which was reported by HTFP in June.

He also highlighted a number of instances where councils barred residents from filming despite the guidelines he issued.

The Welsh Government has also rebuffed a suggestion that the same approach should be taken to open up council meetings in Wales.

The Planning Inspectorate determines 20,000 appeals a year, of which around 2,000 are via hearings of inquiries and the guidance issued by the government will make clear the rights of members of the press and public in covering them.

It will say: “Hearings and inquiries are open to journalists and the wider public, as well as interested people. Provided that it does not disrupt proceedings, anyone will be allowed to report, record and film proceedings including the use of digital and social media.

“Inspectors will advise people present at the start of the event that the proceedings may be recorded and/or filmed, and that anyone using social media during or after the end of the proceedings should do so responsibly.”

The Chartered Institute of Journalists has welcomed the move by Mr Pickles but warned that legislation may be needed.

CIoJ president Charlie Harris said: “For many councillors and council officers, the default position now is to hinder the public’s right to know and journalists’ right to report by narrowly defining ‘reporter’ and restricting reporting to the notebook and pen.

“This is a far more important issue than freedom of the press. It is about the right to the public to know what their elected representatives, and paid public officials, are up to in their name.

“The Institute wholeheartedly applauds Mr Pickles’s efforts to remind councils of their duty to the public, but knowing the willingness of local authorities to brazenly ignore official guidelines, we feel that legislation is necessary to force them to fulfill that duty.”