GOVERNMENT minister Eric Pickles has upped the stakes in his battle with Bexley Council and other local authorities over filming at meetings.

The Local Government Secretary has published new guidance formally opening up planning appeal hearings to be filmed, tweeted and reported.

This lays down a challenge to councils to open up their planning committees and other meetings in turn.

Bexley Council currently bans filming or recording of meetings unless the chairman allows it following a written request for permission beforehand.

Mr Pickles cited as a case study a recent News Shopper story on Bexley Council’s defiance of previous guidance he issued in which the council argued allowing filming without councillors’ consent would breach "agreed protocol".

The MP said: "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, just as some councils are clinging to their town hall Pravdas.

News Shopper: Nicholas Dowling outside the council offices at the Civic Centre in Bexleyheath.

Nicholas Dowling with the offending audio recorder outside the Civic Offices in June. 

"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 whither.

"Heavy-handed councils who call the police to suppress freedom of speech are abusing state powers."

On June 19, Bexley Council called police to the Civic Centre in Bexleyheath after member of the public Nicholas Dowling, 42, tried to audio record a meeting.

Council response 

A Bexley Council spokeswoman said: “The council is committed to openness. The public are welcome at our council and committee meetings.

"The papers for these meetings are made available in advance and opportunities are offered to ask questions, make deputations and present petitions.

“Our current process allows for filming at the discretion of the chairman and that remains unchanged.

"However, we have already made plans for a report to be considered at the Constitution Review Panel in September 2013 to consider the issues and options for photography, filming and recording to take place in both the current Civic Offices and the refurbished building we are due to move into early next year.

“This will allow the council an opportunity to formulate proposals and to ensure that any arrangements introduced offer value for money to our taxpayers, that they safeguard and respect the wishes of members of the public who do not wish to be photographed, filmed or recorded, and protect those it might not be appropriate to photograph or record.”