Thursday 22 August 2013

Eric Pickles; 'Abuse of state powers as councils threaten bloggers with arrest'

Update 23rd Aug;
BBC Wales; The Welsh Government have again hit back at "obsessive" Eric's criticism; Eric Pickles sparks new row over council meeting blogging 
(And I get a mention).


Eric Pickles has announced today (22nd August) that he will be issuing new guidance which will formally open up planning appeals to be filmed, tweeted and reported. The full statement from DCLG is below.

Mr Pickles also challenges the Welsh Government, yet again, to open up Welsh council meetings.

Back in June there was a bitter row between the respective Local Government Ministers (Labour Assembly Member Lesley Griffiths is currently the Welsh equivalent) with the WG accusing Mr Pickles of having an 'unhealthy obsession' with Wales. I find it quite staggering that the Welsh Government refuses to countenance the transparency agenda - as I have said numerous times it should never be either a devolved issue nor a party political one.

The people of Wales are being denied their basic democratic rights and are subject to town hall tyranny which I have personally experienced.

"The Labour Administration in Wales is openly opposing the right for journalists and bloggers to tweet, film and report meetings. It is obscene that Welsh bloggers are being handcuffed and arrested in Wales for reporting meetings because they don't have the legal rights that English bloggers now have. No amount of bluster can disguise the fact that the Labour Party are the enemies of openness and on the side of town hall tyranny."
DCLG June 2013

Planning Committee meetings, theoretically anyway, along with all other open meetings, can now be filmed in England already, this new guidance will extend this to planning appeals heard by the Planning Inspectorate, I should think so too.

I shall certainly be continuing my campaign to film all council meetings; planning, scrutiny, Executive Board etc etc. The principle desperately needs to be established in Wales. With difficult and controversial budget decisions on the horizon, the principle of openness and transparency has never been more important.

I have also set up a FaceBook page to track and report progress in Wales, please feel free to contribute.

Here is the full statement from DCLG;

Eric Pickles opens up planning appeals and lays down challenge 
Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, today (22 August 2013) warned that freedom of speech and independent journalism were under attack in local government, following local residents being threatened with arrest for filming and reporting meetings. 
In response, Mr Pickles upped the stakes, as he 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 return. 
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 hyperlocal 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 Planning Inspectorate determines 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. The number of applications going to appeal has fallen since 2010. 
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. 
However, since June, some councils are still continuing to oppose an independent press: 
Wirral Council has said filming a planning committee would compromise “health and safety” 
Tower Hamlets Council barred a 71 year old resident from filming due the risk of “reputational damage to the authority” 
Keighley Town Council blocked residents filming as it would amount to a “breach of standing orders” 
Bexley Council said audio and visual filming would breach its “agreed protocol” 
Stamford Town Council has placed a ban on journalists tweeting from meetings due to the risk of them “not accurately portraying a debate” 
a blogger in Huntingdonshire was removed by police for filming, and has advised fellow bloggers to “be prepared for the police to be called and the possibility of arrest” if they try to film or report council meetings 
The Welsh government has also rebuffed the suggestion that the same approach should be taken to open up council meetings in Wales, as is being pushed in England. Welsh ministers have claimed that the interest in openness is “an unhealthy obsession” and a blogger in Carmarthenshire was arrested and handcuffed by the police for filming a council meeting. 
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 should not 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. (includes further links and information)





Anonymous said...

Good on Eric Pickles! Only those who have something to hide need fear.

Anonymous said...

You are missing the point about devolved government . It's the right of the Assembly and its ministers to decide what laws it wants to implement not Eric Pickles in London Like it or not devolved means Wales decides what it wants !!!! If you do not understand that pack your bags and head for the border

Anonymous said...

Anon 16:44 - Watch and learn!

Anonymous said...

writen by a true Con-Dem!

Anonymous said...

Planning committee meetings and planning appeals most certainly should be filmed and made public.

I for one have many many questions re the planning history close to my door, I'd like answered by CCCs Head of Planning and indeed the planning committee.

If filming of these processes had been available, I wouldn't have had the need to continue asking questions for nigh on ten years without satisfactory answers being given by all concerned. It is obvious that planning matters that go wrong can have devastating affects upon innocent peoples lives caught up in them. Transparency has to be the way forward for all concerned, not least of whom are the officers themselves.

Anonymous said...

Inspectors have long allowed (at least since 2004) recording at planning appeal inquiries and hearings, so long as it did not intimidate witnesses, and if there were no objections to it. So the default position was to allow it, in the interests of transparency.

The Wales Government is right not to jump just because Uncle Eric says jump, but at the same time, they should see the sense and fairness in allowing public blogging, recording etc, to enable the public to hold Councils to account.

Anonymous said...

WAG should also intervene when planning goes seriously wrong by those responsible in the planning processes. It is totally unacceptable for the Welsh Government to continue referring those whose lives have been seriously damaged due to highly questionable planning shenanigans back to the perpetrators!!!

Good on Eric Pickles. We could do with the likes of him here in the Welsh Government. Clearly he is not afraid to go against the tide!

Anonymous said...

As one unenlightened soul has already pointed out, Welsh Government is indeed for a large part devolved. The idea was to bring democracy closer to the people - so you would be represented by people closer to yourselves, better able to represent you, and indeed serve you.

Not worked out so well, has it?

There can never be any excuse for arguing against transparency in public affairs, and you should watch those who do like hawks...