New rules were put out to consultation today which would ban local councils from producing publications that compete with independent local newspapers.
The proposals put forward by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles today pay scant regard to a series of recommendations made by MPs last month which poured cold water on his plans to curb council-run newspapers and magazines.
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In recent years local newspapers in many parts of the UK have found themselves competing for advertising and readers with local authority-published titles, which in some cases come out monthly, fortnightly or even weekly.
The new rules outlined today state that only parish councils could produce monthly magazines, with other councils limited to quarterly frequency.
Pickles said: “An independent local press is an essential part of our open democracy and it is a vital part of local accountability, but the rules around council publicity have been too weak for too long squandering public funds and pushing local newspapers out into the abyss.
“Some councils have pushed this to the limits and were effectively lobbying on the rates.
“The changes will end the weekly town hall freesheets, stop professional lobbyists being hired and make advertising guidelines crystal clear so councils know exactly when misuse of public funds is a breach of the code.
“Councils need to give due diligence to their communications operation and make sure every effort has been made to focus taxpayers’ money to where it should be spent – protecting frontline services.”
The revised Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity includes seven new central principles designed to ensure council publicity is “lawful, cost effective, objective, even handed and appropriate, and that it has regard to equality and diversity and is issued with care during periods of heightened sensitivity”.
The section on publications states: “Local authorities should not publish or incur expenditure in commissioning in hard copy or on any website, newsletters, newssheets or similar communications which seek to emulate commercial newspapers in style or content.
“Where local authorities do commission or publish newsletters, newssheets or similar communications, they should not issue them more frequently than quarterly, apart from parish councils which should not issue them more frequently than monthly.
“Such communications should not include material other than information for the public about the business, services and amenities of the council or other local service providers.”
The new code was laid before Parliament today. Pickles said it would come into force “as soon as possible” following a debate in each house.
These planned changes come despite the Commons Local Government Select Committee last month questioning a number of provisions previously put forward by Pickles to crackdown on ‘Town Hall Pravdas’which threaten the viability of independent local press.
Pickles outlined his intention to stop council taxpayers’ money being spent on “frivolous town hall propaganda papers” last year. However, MPs said his proposals had “potentially negative implications for local democracy”.
Publishing a report that examined the Government’s draft Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity, the Committee called on the Government to commission an independent inquiry to quantify the impact of council papers on the independent press – a plea which seems to have now been ignored.
Responding to today’s proposals, the National Union of Journalists condemned a move which it said could lead to many journalists working on local authority publications losing their jobs.
Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the NUJ, said: “Today’s announcement is undemocratic and perverse and shows what a sham the consultation really was.
“The committee found no evidence to back up Eric Pickles’ wild assertions. It called for a fair and independent assessment of the impact of such publications on local newspapers. Eric Pickles has chosen not to deal with the facts but to display gross ignorance and bias.”
Baroness Margaret Eaton, chairman of the Local Government Association, said: “If the Department for Communities and Local Government was truly committed to localism it would not be introducing draconian rules dictating to councils how often they are allowed to share information with residents.
“It is extremely disappointing that ministers have failed to make any significant amendments to the code following consultation, and appear to have ignored the advice of their own MPs.
“Newsletters delivered to people’s homes have consistently proved to be the cheapest way for councils to directly communicate with residents and keep people informed about local services.
“The Communities and Local Government select committee found there was scant evidence of council publications competing unfairly with local newspapers.
“Most are distributed between four and six times a year and pose no threat to the local press, on whom the growth of the internet has had a far greater impact.
“It is extraordinary that Government ministers have chosen to ignore this and take such a heavy-handed approach. Not only are these rules completely unnecessary, but they have the potential to harm local democracy and drive up the amount of money councils will have to spend on advertising to fulfil their legal requirements.
“We strongly agreed with the Communities Secretary when he said in one of his first speeches that no-one working in local government signed up to be told what to do for the rest of their lives by Whitehall.”