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Pickles warns on speech freedom
LOCAL Government Secretary Eric Pickles has warned that freedom of speech and independent journalism were under attack in local government, after arrest threats to local residents for filming and reporting meetings.
Mr Pickles will be publishing 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 a statement from the Department for Communities and Local Government Wirral Council was identified as one of the councils still continuing to oppose "an independent press."
The council claimed that filming a planning committee would compromise health and safety.
As part of the Government’s review of planning practice guidance, new guidance by the Planning Inspectorate will make clear the rights for members of the press and public, including local bloggers and local journalists, to report, film and tweet planning appeal hearings.
In June, Mr Pickles published clear guidance to councils asking them to open up to overt filming and social media.
This, he said, would build on the rights to attend council meetings that were introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1960.
Mr Pickles said: "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.
"An independent local press and robust public scrutiny is essential for a healthy local democracy.
"Heavy-handed councils who call the police to suppress freedom of speech are abusing state powers."
Wirral Council leader Cllr Phil Davies said in a recent statement: "I have no problem with people filming, but I know some of my members are concerned – not necessarily with the filming – but with how the footage would be used.
"They want to know what rights the people filming have in terms of how the footage is used following meetings."
He said he had ordered a legal review of the situation and that in the meantime it would be left to the chair of each meeting to decide if they were prepared to allow filming to take place.
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