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April 17, 2014updated 18 Apr 2014 12:57pm

Eric Pickles attacks five London councils for continuing to publish ‘Town Hall Pravdas’

By Press Association and Press Gazette

Conservative Cabinet member Eric Pickles has attacked five London councils for behaving like Russian president Vladimir Putin over their alleged attempts to drive local newspapers "out of business".

The Communities and Local Government Secretary has given the five Labour-run boroughs a fortnight to defend their actions and to explain why legal proceedings should not be taken against their "propaganda on the rates".

Mr Pickles described the council-published newsletters as "Town Hall Pravdas", a reference to Russian political newspapers associated with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

"It is scandalous that bloggers have been handcuffed for tweeting from council meetings, whilst propaganda on the rates drives the free press out of business. Only Putin would be proud of a record like that," he said.

"Localism needs robust and independent scrutiny by the press and public, and municipal state-produced newspapers suppress that. Town Hall Pravdas not only waste taxpayers' money unnecessarily, they undermine free speech."

Formal letters have been sent to the five councils responsible for Greenwich Time, Hackney Today, the Newham Mag, Waltham Forest News and (Tower Hamlets) East End Life.

The letters are the first in a series of measures Mr Pickles could now take to force the councils to comply with the Publicity Code for local authorities, part of the new Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014, passed in January.

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All publicly-funded news sheets now published by local authorities should be objective, limited in frequency and represent value for money.

However, in all five cases, the freesheets were found to have been printed too often, with the Greenwich and Tower Hamlets' papers published at least 50 times a year.

The provisions were strengthened by Parliament after continuing concerns that a few local authorities were breaching the publicity code.

Any council that fails to adhere to these provisions could face a court order requiring compliance.

Mr Pickles said: "I have given written notice to councils most clearly breaching the Publicity Code, noting that Parliament has passed new laws to tackle this abuse. We are prepared to take further action against any council that undermines local democracy – whatever the political colour."

He added: "We have changed the law to protect the free speech of councillors. If councillors and political parties want to campaign and put out political literature, they are very welcome to do so, and it's an important part of our democratic process. But they should be using their own money, rather than taxpayers'."

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