A PARISH council has been accused of stifling democracy after dropping a ten-minute public forum at the start of each monthly meeting.

This evening's meeting of Pittington Parish Council, serving Low and High Pittington, near Durham, will be the first in several years where members of the public have been unable to voice concerns at the start of business.

Parish council chairman Bill Kellett, who brought in the ten-minute open section, gave notice that he intended dropping it from the agenda of future meetings as it was no longer serving the purpose for which it was introduced.

The axe finally fell on it at last month's parish meeting, despite the opposition of councillors Alistair Donaldson and Brenda Tall.

Coun Donaldson, an independent, said: "I feel it's a retrograde step because the public have a right to come along and see how the parish council works and how things are decided in the place they live."

Coun Tall, a Liberal Democrat, said: "This comes at a time when the Government is calling for an improvement in parish councils, with more accessibility.

"Yet the chairman is preventing the general public here having their say."

Villager Robin Newlove, who often used the ten-minute opportunity to raise issues of concern, said the parish was "stifling democracy".

He said: "The effect is to gag members of the public who might wish to raise legitimate issues."

But Coun Kellett, a Labour member for 25 years and parish chairman since 1999, said: "I introduced it because I thought it would help public participation and, at first it went fine.

"But for the past couple of years we've been getting the same things coming up every month, and it wasn't being used correctly."

Coun Kellett said questions were often asked about issues over which the parish council has no control.

He urged anyone in the village with a concern to raise it with their local parish councillor.