Hyperlocal bloggers to get right to council meetings – by law

Following on from our previous posts on the right to attend, report and record local council meetings, the Department for Communities and Local Government has announced that it will be changing the law to further open up council meetings.

In particular, the new regulations, which come into effect September 10, will reduce the permitted reasons for holding meetings behind closed doors and has widened the definition of media to cover “organisations that… provide news to the public by means of the internet”, thus including hyperlocal blogs.

Will Perrin at TalkAboutLocal has a good summary of some of the other issues in the announcement, but this is important news for hyperlocal bloggers, particularly those that have faced obstruction and restrictions from their local councils.

 

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One Comment on “Hyperlocal bloggers to get right to council meetings – by law”

  1. Captain Black says:

    Although the new regulations may provide more freedom for bloggers, far from improving transparency they actually provide those wanting to be less transparent with the tools to do so.

    Under existing regulations, individual executive member decisions and key decisions by officers taken under delegated powers are only taken after a report on the matter has been published and available for inspection for 5 clear days prior to the decision. This requirement (old regulation 9(1)) has been removed from the new regulations with only a requirement to give notice that a key decision is to be made including “a list of the documents submitted to the decision maker for consideration in relation to the matter in respect of which the key decision is to be made”. Where now anyone can see the report and make representations to the executive member or officer before the decision is made, these regulations only require the report to be available after the decision is made and recorded. Thousands of decisions can now be made without anyone other than the decision maker seeing a report until after the decision has been made. Is that increasing transparency?

    Under the existing regulations, only key decisions by officers needed to be formally recorded but the wording of these new regulations seems to extend the requirement for officers to produce a written statement for every decision they make as the distinction between key and non-key decisions in relation to them has gone. The existing regulations in drawing the distinction between key and non-key decisions recognised that officers make a lot of minor operational decisions under delegated powers. If records of these are to be made, not only is there the potential to paralyse councils under the weight of additional bureaucracy, but also the opportunity to facilitate hiding the important decisions amongst the volume of notices/statements being produced.

    The new regulations place a requirement on authorities to produce notices in relation to each key decision to be made. The Forward Plan brought all of these together into a single document and place on council web sites making it easy for those interested to find all the information in a single document in one place at any time, day or night. Unless authorities choose to continue producing something akin to the forward plan, the only way Joe Public and the media will be able to identify all the items coming forward will be to go to the offices and inspect them or open any number of individual notices on authorities’ web sites.

    The publishing of notices 28 and 5 days before a private meeting will add little, if anything, to transparency as the basis on which an authority can exclude the press and public is already tightly restricted. In most cases the decision to exclude relates to the disclosure of exempt information relating to personal or commercially sensitive information which councils are required to keep secure under data protection legislation anyway. The 28 and 5 day notices will almost certainly just restate what has been appearing on agendas for years in the paragraph excluding the press and public. If anyone believes that some councils have been abusing the law then that should have been raised and addressed rather than adding another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy at a time when council budgets have been cut to the bone.

    Anyone who understands the system will view these new regulations as anything but a reason to celebrate. Those who know how and want to exploit loopholes will be rubbing their hands with glee knowing that, whilst the media may have won a few extra rights, they and the public as a whole will from 10 September not only find it harder to obtain information even if they know what they are looking for, but also not be entitled to see the full facts until after many decisions have been taken. It would be easier to believe that this was by accident rather than design if the new regulations had been subject to the usual consultation. They weren’t and the issues I’ve raised which surely would have come out in any proper consultation, did not.


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