The Planning Inspectorate is to issue guidance which sets out the right of anyone "to report, film and tweet planning appeal hearings", in a bid to encourage councils to follow suit and be more open.
According to a press release issued today by secretary-of-state for local government Eric Pickles, it is hoped that this step, which relates to a process within the remit of an executive agency of his department, will encourage councils to also "open up their planning committees and other meetings in return".
This also follows guidance issued in June, which set out the rights of the public – journalists or otherwise – to report on public meetings, including the right to film or cover events on social media.
But today Pickles said he was concerned that despite June's guidance, "some councils are still continuing to oppose an independent press".
"Eric Pickles, today 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," the release added.
"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," Pickles said.Heavy-handed councils who call the police to suppress freedom of speech are abusing state powersEric Pickles
"Heavy-handed councils who call the police to suppress freedom of speech are abusing state powers," he added.
To tackle this, the Planning Inspectorate's guidance "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 release adds.
The guidance will state that "hearings and inquiries are open to journalists and the wider public, as well as interested people.
"Provided that it does not disrupt proceedings, anyone will be allowed to report, record and film proceedings including the use of digital and social media.
"Inspectors will advise people present at the start of the event that the proceedings may be recorded and/or filmed, and that anyone using social media during or after the end of the proceedings should do so responsibly."
Pickles added in the release that "an independent local press and robust public scrutiny is essential for a healthy local democracy".
Responding to the latest step, group political editor for the Kent Messenger Group, Paul Francis, told Journalism.co.uk by email that "Eric Pickles is right to be taking steps to open up the planning process to both journalists and bloggers and anyone else interested".
"Planning is something that affects the lives of many people in profound ways - from the the prospect of a waste incinerator being built to a neighbour's house extension to a new supermarket - yet it can be misunderstood and shrouded in the kind of unnecessary jargon and bureaucracy that many find perplexing.
"There is no real need for the appeals process to be shrouded in secrecy - there already exists a right to attend major public planning inquiries and planning committees, so extending those rights to other parts of the appeals process appears logical."
Editor of hyperlocal site The Dalstonist, Mark Wilding, also told Journalism.co.uk via email that while its local council has been "reasonably open in dealing with us", it is aware that "others have not been so lucky".We would hope that the government’s recognition of the important role that the independent media play will help illustrate to any less enlightened councils the importance of engaging with less traditional news outletsMark Wilding, The Dalstonist
"Any attempt by a local authority to stop reporting or filming of meetings is outrageous," he said. "Local residents have a right to be kept informed about the activities of their councillors.
"We would hope that the government’s recognition of the important role that the independent media play will help illustrate to any less enlightened councils the importance of engaging with less traditional news outlets.
"Any measures which force councils to open up their activities to reporters and the wider public have to be welcomed. Councils must be open and accountable. The rights of the press and public, whether it be a local news reporter, a blogger or a local resident on Twitter, are crucial to that process."
Managing editor of the Lincolnite Daniel Ionescu argued that the latest guidance announcement "is more symbolic in nature and won't guarantee that journalists will be allowed to film or report on social media from planning meetings across the country".
"In the two months since the initial guidance was introduced, there have been some local authorities that defied it, so it's not surprising further pressure is required from the government to open up the process.
"It should be really simple: If you can attend a council meeting, as a journalist, or member of the public, you should be allowed to film or tweet from the meeting; after all, councils are meant to be working in the interest of the people they serve."
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