A new law that comes into force next week, allowing council meetings to be filmed, will move Britain away from a local government system characteristic of "Putin's Russia" and will revolutionise how the public views councillors, according to Eric Pickles.
The Communities Secretary condemned the current system, under which, in recent weeks, police have been called to chambers to throw the press and public out of meetings for attempting to tweet or record proceedings. He said the new rules, which will be implemented in early August under the Local Audit and Accountability Act, will unlock the mysteries of local government, providing more transparency over how councils use taxpayers' money.
The public will have greater rights to report at open meetings of local government bodies by filming, photographing, audio recording or any other means. The results can be published, posted or otherwise shared during or after the meeting.
The new rules apply to all "relevant local government bodies", which include all English two-tier and unitary authorities, fire authorities, national park authorities, joint committees (such as police and crime panels) and parish councils.
Filming rows have erupted in councils all over the country in recent months despite the passage of the new Act. Five police officers arrived at Thanet council's meeting earlier this month after Green councillor Ian Driver attempted to film proceedings, which included a discussion on the potential compulsory purchase of Manston airport.
Mr Driver last night hailed the move as "a great day for democracy". "Councils like Thanet have been veiled in secrecy for far too long. The criticism I have of the current cabinet system is that there's too much secrecy and my decision to start filming was a gesture of defiance. I've been thrown out of council meetings three times in the past year for trying to film. I couldn't believe it when the chairwoman called the police and five burly officers turned up and threw me out. The whole chamber knew new rules were about to come into force allowing filming, yet they still did it. The irony is that ITV had just been in filming at the same meeting."
Housing and Planning minister Brandon Lewis called Thanet's actions "blinkered". "Openness and transparency are crucial pillars in local democracy and must be upheld. It is time for state officials to stop hiding behind out-of-touch excuses.… Blinkered actions like this completely undermine the good work that councils do to champion local communities and local interests," he said.
Stapleford Town Council in Nottinghamshire voted to ban filming in April. Only two of 16 councillors voted for meetings to be filmed. Helen Grindell, a Lib Dem who voted for the ban, said: "If the last meeting [had been] filmed, some councillors would have shown themselves up due to their behaviour, which could paint the council in a bad light."
Mr Pickles' office criticised the decision. A letter to councillors said: "Members of the public should not be prevented from filming the town council meetings just because of distortion of the truth or selective edition. Allowing the public to film a public meeting is more likely to reduce one-sided distortion as video footage is more difficult to selectively quote. Councillors are no more likely to be quoted out of context than is currently the case when a written note is taken."
Councils around England and Wales have frequently banned the press and public from filming meetings this year. Bath and North East Somerset and Gloucester City councils are just a few of those who have been told by ministers to lift their bans in recent weeks.
Nicholas Dobson from Lawyers in Local Government, an independent body that advises local authorities, said he hoped the Government would not regret the move. He said: "Tony Blair was responsible for the Freedom of Information Act and he has been kicking himself in the backside ever since. I think, with the new filming rules, it's just a question of councils getting used to it. At least there are guidelines now."
The Government also intends to produce a plain English guide, which will cover matters such as what would constitute "disruptive behaviour" at a meeting, and the sort of decisions that officers would be required to record and publish.
Mr Pickles said last night: "Half a century ago, a Private Member's Bill by Margaret Thatcher opened up council meetings to the press and public. But these analogue rights need to be updated for a digital age – there is no legal right to blog, tweet or film a council meeting. This unhappy situation is epitomised by the average episode of Grand Designs, when the doors are slammed shut on the cameras if they want to film the planning committee.
"How can we criticise Putin's Russia for suppressing freedom of the press when, up and down the land, police are threatening to arrest people for reporting a council meeting with digital media?"