Government acts to end “active resistance amongst some councils to greater openness”

In a boost for local democracy and the independent free press, councils in England were brought into the 21st century yesterday after Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, signed a Parliamentary order allowing press and public to film and digitally report from all public meetings of local government bodies.

Slough's Council Chamber

Slough’s Council Chamber

The recording of town and parish council meetings is now law following a new ruling this week. The Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014 came into effect yesterday.

The Department for Communities and Local Government says the move covers broadcasters, national press, local press, bloggers and hyper-local journalists and the wider public.

“The new law aims to end active resistance amongst some councils to greater openness. Councils have even called the police to arrest people who tried to report, tweet or film council meetings, or claimed spurious ‘health and safety’ or ‘reputational risks’ to digital reporting.”

The new law builds on Margaret Thatcher’s successful Private Members’ Bill from 1960 which allowed for the written reporting of council meetings by the press. The new rules will apply to all public meetings, including town and parish councils and fire and rescue authorities – and cannot be overridden by restrictive standing orders that prohibit such measures.

Broadcasting of meetings also no longer requires the permission of councils.

Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, said:

“Half a century ago, Margaret Thatcher championed a new law to allow the press to make written reports of council meetings. We have updated her analogue law for a digital age.

“Local democracy needs local journalists and bloggers to report and scrutinise the work of their council, and increasingly, people read their news via digital media. The new ‘right to report’ goes hand in hand with our work to stop unfair state competition from municipal newspapers – together defending the independent free press.

“There is now no excuse for any council not to allow these new rights. Parliament has changed the law, to allow a robust and healthy local democracy. This will change the way people see local government, and allow them to view close up the good work that councillors do.”

A stick without a stick just isn’t going to work. Those of you who have watched the broadcasts of the Commons will know how successful that has been.

Herbert Smith, editor of CPALC – Communities, Parish and Local Councils – has, however, cast doubt over the effectiveness of the new rules without an ombudsman to enforce them.

“The bad councils will I suspect continue as they have always have, failing to be open, communicate and consult with the communities they are supposed to serve. The objective, of course, is to shame some councillors into better behaviour.”

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