Cover-up claim as council bars press from meeting

A row has broken out after East Lindsey District Council refused to let the media cover a meeting about the threat of coastal flooding.

The council invited all 60 of its members to the meeting, but asked the press not to attend in case "scare headlines" discouraged investment in Lincolnshire's two main holiday resorts.

Freelance reporter Jim Wright quoted council leader Jeremy Webb saying:

"We're trying to encourage regeneration… in particular we want a casino development. The last thing we want is scare headlines about rising sea levels — adverse media coverage could have a highly detrimental impact."

Wright said: "It would be far healthier if [the council] showed readiness to address the challenges openly rather than in secret. The lives of seaside residents and holidaymakers are more important than the prospect of a small casino with a £4,000 jackpot."

Editor of the Skegness Standard John Cowpe said the council's decision was "regrettable" and added: "Apart from the obvious argument about the public's right to know, to be seen to hold secret discussions about an issue as important as a flooding risk could jeopardise the very investment the council is keen to attract."

Council leader Webb said: "We have, as all councils do, working meetings specifically for councillors, when the press are not invited. We had a meeting with councillors and officials of the Environment Agency.

"We told the press we were having the meeting and when Jim [Wright] asked if he could attend we said no. The other two members of the press were not fazed by this because it goes on all the time.

"The reality is we need to be extremely sure of the facts and what the position is before we start making public statements about rising sea levels.

"Politicians in London are working with the Environment Agency and Government to make sure the sea walls are maintained. When we know what the Government is going to do, we will inform the public.

"It would not be in the public's interest to say you've got 20 years before the sea walls collapse, get out — you can see where the headlines are going."

The Local Government Act 1985

The Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 says all meetings of principal authorities, their committees and sub-committees must be open to the public unless dealing with confidential or exempt information.

According to McNae's Essential Law for Journalists, councils have the right to ban the press in three situations when discussing key decisions:

  • It is likely that, if members of the public were present, confidential information would be disclosed.
  • The cabinet has passed a resolution excluding the public because otherwise it is likely exempt information would be disclosed.
  • The cabinet has passed a resolution excluding the public because otherwise it is likely the advice of a political adviser or assistant would be disclosed.

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