08:07 Wednesday 6th August 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
[P]AUL STAINTON: A change in the law will bring local politics into the 21st century. That’s according to Eric Pickles. The Local Government Secretary assigned a Parliamentary Order allowing the press and public to film and digitally report from all public council meetings. It’s hoped this right to report will bring an end to some councils’ resistance to allow filming, blogging and tweeting during meetings. Well earlier the Leader of Hunts District Council Jason Ablewhite gave his reaction to the news.
JASON ABLEWHITE: We welcome these changes as a council, although we amended our constitution over a year ago now to allow filming, to allow tweeting, and to bring our council well into the 21st century, ahead of this new legislation.
PAUL STAINTON: Does it mean now that all councils have to allow it, without having consultations or anything else?
JASON ABLEWHITE: I think they should. At the end of the day local democracy, local councils, should be able to be transparent, if people want to come along. We live in a whole new era now, where people tweet, social media pages. Most councillors now, regardless of age, have a social media page. Lots tweet on a regular basis to get out to a wider audience, and to glean views. And I think it’s only right that we move into the 21st century and allow this sort of thing to happen.
PAUL STAINTON: One political blogger though from Cambridge once had a bit of trouble filming a district council meeting in Huntingdonshire, didn’t he? Is that a thing of the past then?
JASON ABLEWHITE: (LAUGHS) He certainly did, and I fully support the actions of the Chairman at the time, because it was totally unprecedented for somebody to turn up at a council meeting, plonk a tripod in the middle of the floor and start filming the proceedings. There was nothing in our constitution to allow it. And as a result of that we had debate about it, we had round discussion about whether it was appropriate, and we decided then, well in advance of this legislation, that actually we’ve got to move into the 21st century, and actually this is part and parcel of the modern day.
PAUL STAINTON: That was Jason Ablewhite from Hunts District Council talking to me earlier. Well the blogger he was talking about, who set up his tripod and his camera, was Richard Taylor. He’s a citizen journalist who’s reported from council meetings right across Cambridgeshire, and come up against I think it’s fair to say a bit of resistance Richard.
RICHARD TAYLOR: Yes good morning Paul. I’ve been thrown out of Wisbech Town Council. Huntingdonshire District Council threatened to call the police. And I’ve had some very silly rules imposed on me in my filming at Cambridge City Council. So yes, I’d certainly — it’s not been easy to film local councils, and this new law is absolutely excellent. It will really empower people like me and anyone watching a meeting who wants to record and report on what’s going on.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. Sounds like you’ve been thrown out of everywhere that’s worth getting thrown out of. But you pre-empted this really. You forced the issue. Why did you think it was that important to record what was going on at our local councils?
RICHARD TAYLOR: Yes well I’ve certainly been a bit of an activist about this. I’ve been just going ahead and doing it before we had the law to support what I was doing. But I think it is really important to see what our local councils are up to. Your top story this morning is about solar farms. That’s essentially a council decision. People are interested in what’s going on. This morning Cambridge City Council will be deciding a whole bunch of planning matters that people really care about. A new boathouse on the river, lots of people are interested in how it should look and if it should be there. So people are interested in decisions that the councillors are taking.
PAUL STAINTON: Why do you think councils have been reluctant in the past to allow people like your good self to record what they’re doing?
RICHARD TAYLOR: I think it’s a bit of a change for councillors. Councillors have over time been able to make decisions without many people watching. Typically there’s nobody in the public gallery. I’m very often the only person in the public gallery if I go and observe a council meeting. They’re not used to having their decisions observed by anybody.
PAUL STAINTON: But they should be open to public scrutiny, shouldn’t they? It’s our money. We vote for them.
RICHARD TAYLOR: Absolutely. They have to be, otherwise we can’t make informed votes, and we can’t make informed comment on what our councillors are doing on our behalf.
PAUL STAINTON: Is it going to be that interesting though for people? Are there going to be that many things that we’re going to want to watch or see?
RICHARD TAYLOR: Yes, I think that there are occasionally. There are occasionally ..
PAUL STAINTON: You mentioned already that often you’re the only person in the council chamber. If we were that bothered, we’d turn up, wouldn’t we?
RICHARD TAYLOR: No. Well today’s Cambridge City Council planning meeting starts at nine thirty this morning. They’re not many people who can spend four or five hours in the middle of the day, and waiting for an item they’re interested in to come up at this morning’s planning meeting. If you can go online and click straight through to an item and watch the five or ten minutes that you’re interested in, I think people will do that. And hopefully the people like you on this show, you’ll be able to go and easily find the clip that you’re interested in without having to send someone to go and spend all day at the council.
PAUL STAINTON: So it might save us a few bob. But, it might cost the council a few bob as well, mightn’t it, in time and effort, and machinery?
RICHARD TAYLOR: No, this is all about just opening it up. So anyone can go in and film without having to ask permission.
PAUL STAINTON: So they don’t necessarily have to film it themselves.
RICHARD TAYLOR: No. This is all about just allowing campaign groups, individuals, and the professional media to just walk in with no hassle, no faff, no asking for permission, and no threats of being thrown out, no massive debate when a member of the public asks if they should be filmed or not, or tries to opt out, or a big debate if there’s a child saying something to the meeting. That’s something that’s caused a problem before, should we be filming children who are presenting to meetings. And all that, that’s wiped away by the new law. The councils haven’t quite caught up with the new law yet. Around Cambridgeshire. Huntingdonshire District Council still says the Chair can suspend filming at a meeting if it infringes anyone’s rights. Cambridge City Council still require you to notify the Chair in advance. And they still say that members of the public should be able to express a right to opt out of being filmed. But I’m going to take the view that this new law from Eric Pickles overrides all of that, and I can now film a member of the public who’s making a representation to a council meeting, whether they want to be filmed or not. And I think that’s absolutely right. If people are influencing our councillors, just before they make a decision, I think we should be able to see what they’re saying.
PAUL STAINTON: So you’ll be going back to Wisbech, will you?
RICHARD TAYLOR: Absolutely I will.
PAUL STAINTON: Do you expect them to welcome you?
RICHARD TAYLOR: Yes, because I think that we’ve seen a change in culture even over the last year or so, and councillors now know that it is not acceptable to stop people tweeting and filming. I know very recently a councillor from Wisbech, Cllr Tierney, he was told not to record one of his fellow councillors at a council meeting. So I think there Wisbech is not quite up to speed, but they’re getting there. They’re making progress too.
PAUL STAINTON: Is this a victory for democracy?
RICHARD TAYLOR: It’s progress. We are just moving towards a more open and transparent way. But one of the problems is everybody, lots of people still vote for political parties. And when you vote for a political party, you’re voting for some of the key decisions to be made within that party, within a very small group, behind closed doors. If we really want to see the decisions being made in public at council meetings, then I think we need to vote in more independent councillors who actually have the debate there in front of us. We’ve got further to go. We’ve got to get rid of some of these things that councillors do. They hold informal meetings that aren’t on the calendar, so I can’t find out when they’re going on.
PAUL STAINTON: Undemocratic you’re saying.
RICHARD TAYLOR: Yes. Pre-meetings they hold. So they hold a secret pre-meeting. All the decisions are made beforehand. And then they go into the public session, and it’s a bit of a show for a formality. So we’ve still got to work on these things, so that we get an open and transparent democratic system.
PAUL STAINTON: Democracy is what we demand! Is what we require!
RICHARD TAYLOR: Well I think everyone’s got to fight to keep it. There’s always moves going in the opposite direction. If you want to keep an open transparent functioning democracy, then we’ve got to keep pushing for it.
PAUL STAINTON: Richard, thank you for coming in this morning. Appreciate that. Richard Taylor, who’s a citizen journalist.