Local government can no longer act like 'Putin's Russia', says Pickles

Councils will soon have to allow meetings to be filmed. The Communities Secretary Eric Pickles hails a new openness

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?"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative / Forklift Driver

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Through a combination of excell...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company are looking for a ...

Recruitment Genius: Service Plan Champion

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a Service Plan Champi...

Recruitment Genius: Service Plan Champion

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a Service Plan Champi...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific