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Local government must be prepared to take a stand
Council papers could turn out to be a testbed
6 March 2014 | By Emma Maier
Not long after the 2010 general election, the communities secretary set out his three priorities: localism, localism, localism.
This has not stopped him from taking a close interest in the operation of local authorities, including commenting on the frequency and type of bin collections, telling councils to share services (but to stop short of unitarisation), recommending they spend reserves on revenue spending and suggesting they should remove the chief executive role. To the untrained eye, this regular comment might seem somewhat directive. But we are assured that it is, in fact, simply “guided localism”.
The recently enacted Local Audit and Accountability Act brings more of the same. LGC understands Mr Pickles plans to use it to pursue one of his other focus issues: council newspapers.
Under the act, Mr Pickles will be able to direct one or more specified councils to comply with his publicity code, which says, among other things, that councils should not publish a newspaper more than four times a year.
Beyond issuing a direction, Mr Pickles does not have any powers of enforcement or intervention. Councils will only find themselves in court if a resident or pressure group, such as the Taxpayers’ Alliance or the Newspaper Society, takes it upon themselves to spend the £50,000-£100,000 needed to pursue legal action. In other words, it is relatively unlikely.
However, in the meantime, there is a small window between the act coming into force and the start of purdah in which political capital could be reaped from a press release headlined “councils ordered to scrap propaganda freesheets”.
There are many good reasons for councils to publish more frequently – not least that it can be the most cost-effective way to convey important information about services and local issues. With councils taking on responsibility for public health, there is more reason than ever to communicate with residents.
Attacking “expensive looking glossy publications” is seen by some to be an easy vote winner. But if councils are compelled to reduce the information they share with residents, and to spend more doing it, those who will lose out most will be residents.
This is an important issue over which councils should be prepared to take a stand – and to work together in the event that legal challenge is brought. The need of councils to communicate with residents is fundamental.
Council papers could turn out to be just a testbed. The publicity code also seemingly prevents councils from lobbying on behalf of residents on issues of government policy – something citizens living on the HS2 route or under the Heathrow flight paths expect their councils to do for them.
This edition is my last as LGC editor before moving to sister magazine Health Service Journal. I would like to thank LGC readers, contacts, columnists and partners for your valued support over the past five years, and to welcome acting editor Nick Golding. As the health integration agenda picks up I look forward to seeing how local government continues to develop.
Emma Maier, editor, LGC