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November 7, 2017

Government threatens court action on town hall ‘Pravdas’ in two London boroughs

By Freddy Mayhew

Two London borough councils have been ordered to stop publishing their own fortnightly free newspapers after ignoring repeated government requests to desist.

Hackney Council, which produces Hackney Today, and Waltham Forest Council, which produces the Watham Forest News, have been issued with “directions” from Communities Secretary Sajid Javid.

Failure to comply within 14 days could see both local authorities facing court action.

Hackney is served by the Hackney Gazette and Hackney Citizen while Waltham Forest is covered by the Waltham Forest Guardian and Waltham Forest Echo.

Councils must not publish their own newspapers more than four times a year under the Publicity Code, a set of regulations approved by parliament in 2011 to try and stop taxpayer money being spent on them.

The code was later strengthened by the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014.

Communities Secretary Sajid Javid said: “An independent free press is vital for local democracy and it’s important that we support them in holding local leaders to account.

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“Councils shouldn’t undermine local democracy by publishing their own newspapers more often than quarterly.

“While the majority of councils abide by the Publicity Code, Hackney and Waltham Forest have ignored repeated requests to stop publishing their council newspapers so frequently.

“In the interests of local democracy, I will therefore use my powers to require them to do so.”

Both councils have previously received written notices from the Communities Secretary indicating his intentions, a government spokesperson said.

They added that representations from each local authority had been “carefully considered” before the direction orders were made.

A Waltham Forest Council spokesperson said: “Waltham Forest News reaches all 97,000 households in our borough and is a valuable, cost-effective, way of communicating with  our community.

“It also fulfils our obligation to publish statutory notices – as opposed to the Government’s insistence we pay other newspapers to do that.

“We will now carefully consider the Government’s directive before deciding the best way forward for the residents and businesses we serve.”

Hackney today has a print run of 108,000 copies and is delivered free to every home and business in the borough, according to Hackney Council.

A spokesperson said: “We have received the notice from Department of Communities and Local Government and we are carefully considering our options.”

Former Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, who brought the Publicity Code before parliament, has previously described council-published newsletters as “Town Hall Pravdas”, a reference to Russian political newspapers associated with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

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