Eric Pickles names Stamford Town Council amongst authorities opposing press freedom

Eric Pickles, secretary of state for communities and local government  Picture: Sarah Standing
Eric Pickles, secretary of state for communities and local government Picture: Sarah Standing

Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has directly named Stamford Town Council in a list of councils opposing an independent press by not allowing journalists to tweet and film at meetings.

Yesterday (Thursday) Mr Pickles warned that freedom of speech and independent journalism were under attack in local government across the county.

In some parts of the country residents have been threatened with arrest for filming and reporting meetings.

Stamford Town Council has twice voted not to allow Mercury reporters to tweet and film from at meetings.

Mercury editor Eileen Green also wrote to each of the town councils in the area requesting permission to tweet and film.

Bourne Town Council, Oakham Town Council and Uppingham Town Council said the Mercury was not allowed to follow Mr Pickles guidelines.

But two Uppingham councillors have been has assigned to look into the pros and cons of the matter and will await guidance from National Association of Local Councils, which is due to publish guidelines later this year, and present the findings to the council in October.

Market Deeping Town Council, South Kesteven District Council, Lincolnshire County Council and Rutland County Council have said the press may tweet and film at meetings.

In June, Mr Pickles published clear guidance to councils asking them to open up to overt filming and social media. This builds on the rights to attend council meetings that were introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1960, following a Private Members’ Bill in her maiden speech to Parliament.

But since June, some councils are still continuing to oppose the idea.

Mr Pickles said: “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 wither.

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

Mr Pickles will publish 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 of planning practice guidance, new guidance by the Planning Inspectorate will make clear the rights of members of the press and public, including bloggers, to report, film and tweet planning appeal hearings.

Ministers hope this will open up the planning process.

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.”