Editor steps in as reporter barred from Falmer meeting

Melanie Cutress

Melanie Cutress

First published in News by

The Argus has made a formal complaint after councillors tried to eject a journalist from a public meeting.

Falmer parish councillors sparked outrage on Tuesday when they tried to kick Argus reporter Simon Barrett out of a meeting in the village hall.

Members were to discuss whether to appeal against the Government's decision to grant Brighton and Hove Albion planning permission for the 22,500-seat arena at Village Way North.

But the meeting was adjourned as councillors refused to debate the stadium issue in front of the Press.

A villager later physically stopped our reporter getting back into the public building.

Officials pledged to hold the decisive meeting behind closed doors in someone's house, despite it affecting tens of thousands of people in Sussex.

Michael Beard, the editor of The Argus, has written a letter of complaint to the parish council. Our lawyers also looked into complaining to the Local Government Ombudsman but the watchdog does not cover parish councils.

The letter, sent to council chairwoman Melanie Cutress, reads: "We, members of the Press, are entitled to attend the public meeting, which was in fact labelled as public' on the door, unless the matters to be discussed were confidential or prejudicial to the public interest. It is clear from the agenda of the meeting that the issue regarding Falmer stadium was to be discussed in the presence of the public.

"It was only when the reporter from The Argus arrived that there was a discussion and the issue regarding the stadium was branded confidential'.

"It seems very clear to us that the sole reason the parish council removed the Falmer stadium issue from the agenda is because they did not want a representative from The Argus to be present, despite their approval of the presence of any other members of the public."

The parish councillors' conduct angered stadium campaigners, Albion fans and MPs who have all urged the council not to oppose the plans.

Opponents have until September 4 to try to derail the development and the decision of the parish council is seen as the final hurdle in Albion's marathon journey for a new home.

The parish council has a duty under two Government acts to hold meetings in public unless the matter is deemed confidential and a resolution to exclude the public is put forward. The law does not allow councils to remove any particular member of the Press or public - even if they don't like them.

There were celebrations among stadium supporters last week when Lewes District Council announced it would not appeal.

Lewes MP Norman Baker, who opposed the £50 million scheme, has also called for opponents to accept the Government's verdict.

Parish councillors say they could ballot villagers on whether to appeal. They have also mooted the possibility of forming a coalition alongside the Campaign to Protect Rural England and South Downs Society.

Communities Secretary Hazel Blears approved plans for the arena last month.

If no appeal is brought, Albion hope to kick off the 2010-11 season in their new home.

The original decision to grant permission, made by John Prescott in 2005, was quashed in the High Court after it was revealed he made a mistake in the wording of the document.

Tell Falmer Parish Council what you think of their decision below.

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