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Council newspaper ban ‘could restrict town hall rights’

Paul Nettleton | 17 July 2013

Councils fear they could lose the right to campaign on behalf of their communities against big transport schemes and housing developments under government plans to stop them competing unfairly against local newspapers.

The Local Government Association has today called on peers to help stop a code of conduct, introduced by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles in his fight against so-called ‘town hall Pravdas’, from becoming law.

The Lords will debate putting the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity on a statutory footing at the report stage of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill. The code would restrict councils to four publications a year.

Ahead of the debate, LGA chair Sir Merrick Cockell said that the restrictions could make authorities less able to campaign on behalf of their residents, which is often alongside their local newspapers.

‘It might be inconvenient for central government or big business, but a community being able to effectively stand up against unpopular proposals affecting their area is a key part of democracy,’ he said.

‘Putting into legislation the power for one individual in Whitehall to restrict without recourse councils from campaigning, making it easier for government to ignore the concerns of local communities, is unacceptable and sets a dangerous precedent.’

Council magazines were the cheapest, most effective way to tell people about local services, events and issues, Cockell added. ‘With councils now responsible for public health they’re an increasingly vital tool in promoting health and safety advice, as we saw with the recent measles outbreak.

‘It’s extraordinary that if a council wants to communicate with its residents but has already used its quota of four publications it will have to ask the secretary of state for permission to send out another one. There is simply no justification for such micromanagement from Whitehall.’

The LGA says there is no evidence that council publications compete unfairly with local newspapers; nor did a select committee find any two years ago. ‘Before any decision is made on legislation an independent review should be undertaken to establish what, if any, impact council publications have on local newspapers.’

The LGA also accused Pickles of prejudging consultation on the bill when he said in a speech to newspaper editors in April: ‘I can say to you today that we will be introducing an anti-Pravda law in the very next Parliament. This will close down those apparatchik printing presses powered by taxpayer pennies. It will muffle those hardcore of council rebels flouting the rules despite the public concern.’

In a survey of councils earlier this year, the LGA found that 81% of councils thought that a limit on publications would lead to ‘extra expense’ of leaflets and other adverts to keep residents informed, which could cost taxpayers more.

Among the reasons citied in the survey for the publications were: value for money, content not covered in local newspaper, public consultation, promote volunteer and support groups, and to encourage links with fire, police and health bodies.

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