Mr Localism offers yet more of his loud mouth ‘guidance’

Copied from the Local Government Chronicle online
Pickles set to move on publicity powers
6 March, 2014 | By Chris Smith

The communities secretary is preparing to step in and use new powers to try to prevent councils from publishing newspapers more than four times a year.

Five London councils are at the top of Eric Pickles’ hit list when he acquires new powers next month, LGC understands.

When the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 comes into force on 4 April, it will allow Mr Pickles to direct councils to comply with his 2011 publicity code, which states that councils should not publish more frequently than quarterly.

According to the most recent figures held by the LGA, 41 councils in England currently publish a newspaper more than four times a year. But Mr Pickles is understood to be focusing on five London boroughs: Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Greenwich, Newham and Waltham Forest LBCs.

Highest on the list is Tower Hamlets LBC, whose weekly publication East End Life, was named by Mr Pickles in Parliament as the worst offender in publishing frequency.

However, the legislation does not give Mr Pickles any powers of enforcement or intervention, so it is unclear what would happen if a council that had been issued with a direction chose not to follow it. It is thought that any legal challenge would need to be brought by residents or campaigners. The councils involved estimate legal costs of pursuing a case would be between £50,000 and £100,000.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance warned of potential court challenges but stopped short of committing to pursue a test case. Chief executive Jonathan Isaby said: “Those council leaders choosing to ignore the guidance are exposing themselves and their local authorities to legal action.”

The councils involved say that newspaper closures would lead to an increase in advertising charges from local paper owners. They also say increased costs would contravene the publicity code’s demand to be cost effective. They also say that the reach of their communication would be limited.

Hackney LBC said its review of costs for Hackney Today found that to produce a quarterly newsletter and place statutory advertising in a local newspaper would be more expensive than continuing fortnightly publication. The findings were supported by the council’s district auditor.

Hackney mayor Jules Pipe (Lab) said: “I have repeatedly told the secretary of state and his colleagues, both in writing and in person, that we will cease fortnightly production of Hackney Today as soon as he ends the costly and outdated requirement on councils to place statutory advertising in a local newspaper.”

A Greenwich RBC spokesman defended its publication, Greenwich Time: “The paper is published on a weekly basis to inform residents about local services and to promote social housing available through our choice-based lettings scheme. It has also reduced expenditure on advertising costs by approximately £1.5m per annum which we have passed back to our residents in the form of successive council tax freezes.”

A Department for Communities & Local Government spokesman said: “Ministers have been clear that they intend to take action to defend the independent free press from unfair municipal competition and stop any abuse of taxpayers’ money.”

The Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014

This received Royal Assent on 30 January and comes into force on 4 April. It enables the communities secretary to direct one or more councils to comply with all or part of the publicity code. He must first write to a council informing them of his proposed direction.

Councils have 14 days to make their representations about the proposed direction. After the 14 days the secretary of state may make the direction.

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