Proposals to scrap the requirement for planning notices to be placed in local newspapers would come at the “worst possible” time for the sector, which has been badly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
A number of regional newspapers and websites owned by Newsquest and Archant have this week carried the same editorial urging readers to oppose the proposals, which contribute an estimated £10m to the sector each year.
The Government published the Planning for the Future white paper in August, setting out ways it could modernise the planning process including by removing the requirement for local authorities to print statutory notices in local newspapers in a shift to more online spaces.
The white paper, which is open for consultation until 29 October, says: “Residents should not have to rely on planning notices attached to lamp posts, printed in newspapers or posted in libraries. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for modern digital planning services that can be accessed from home…”
Depending on the outcome of the consultation, the Government said it will develop more detail before bringing forward legislation and policy changes.
The News Media Association, which represents national and local newsbrands across the UK, estimates the obligation on local authorities to place statutory planning notices in local newspapers puts about £10m each year into the industry.
A crude calculation, assuming the average local journalist costs employers £25,000, suggests 400 jobs could be put at risk without the income from these notices.
Last year, Hackney Council estimated the cost of placing statutory notices in Archant’s Hackney Gazette was £196,500 as it fought – and lost – the right to publish its own newspaper instead.
Back in 2009, when similar proposals were scrapped, it was thought the requirement put £15m in ad revenue into the industry each year.
After the NMA briefed its members on the issue, several regional news titles have run the same editorial urging readers to object by telling them their access to information could be “severely impaired”.
“As well as publishing these notices in this newspaper, we also publish them on our local website to ensure that awareness and access to this important information is as wide as possible,” the papers, including the Ham & High in London and Bradford Telegraph & Argus, said.
“If you combine print and digital reach, local news brands across the UK now enjoy huge audiences – 40.6m visitors a month, according to JICREG.
“And that powerful reach and unique connection with local communities is at the disposal of councils when they need to communicate with the public. As an industry, we are very open to finding new and innovative ways for councils to communicate with the public.
“But we firmly believe that the obligation to publish public notices in printed local papers is critical to ensuring that councils and local papers work effectively together in this way.”
The NMA believes the proposals could actually make it harder for some members of the public to find planning notices, especially those who only get their news in print, and is concerned councils would be able to bury controversial issues on hard-to-find areas of their websites.
It also fears the impact of taking away a core revenue stream as publishers struggle with the loss of newsstand and both print and digital advertising revenue because of the Covid-19 crisis.
Lynne Anderson, News Media Association deputy chief executive, said: “Highly trusted local newspapers are by far the best platform for public notices. If the obligation to place planning notices in local papers was scrapped, millions of people, particularly vulnerable groups, would miss out on vital information which could have a dramatic impact upon their lives.
“The local news media sector is willing and ready to work with councils and other partners to explore new and innovative ways to take public notices to their audiences, through both print and digital platforms.
“But removing planning notices from local papers would undermine this partnership and leave millions of people in the dark, as well as cutting off a critical source of revenue for local papers at the worst possible time.”
The revenue from statutory notices is seen as so beneficial that the Independent Community News Network has been campaigning for years for its members in the online hyperlocal sector to receive the same consideration as traditional local newspapers.
Councils can already publish statutory notices on newspaper websites as well as their print editions.
A number of MPs have tabled parliamentary questions this week