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Planning appeal hearings to be opened up for filming, tweeting and blogging

"Heavy-handed councils who call the police to suppress freedom of speech are abusing state powers,"says Eric Pickles

Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has warned that freedom of speech and independent journalism are under attack in local government after a string of incidents in which local residents have been threatened with arrest for filming and reporting meetings.

He said today that he would be publishing new guidance to formally open up planning appeal hearings to be filmed, tweeted and reported, while encouraging councils to open up their planning committees and other meetings too.

The new guidance will clarify the rights for members of the press and public, including local bloggers and hyperlocal journalists, to report, film and tweet planning appeal hearings.

The Planning Inspectorate determines 20,000 appeals a year, of which around2,000 are via hearings or inquiries, compared to almost half a million planning applications considered by councils.

In June this year, Mr Pickles published guidance to councils asking them to open up to overt filming and social media, but since then several councils are still continuing to prevent reporting.

"Watching television programmes like Grand Designs, viewers have been baffled as cameras are stopped from filming meetings of the planning committee," said Mr Pickles. "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: without the sunlight of transparency, the flowering of localism will wither. Heavy-handed councils who call the police to suppress freedom of speech are abusing state powers."