Councils face ‘draconian’ publicity rules

11 Feb 11
Councils have condemned as 'draconian' plans to restrict council spending on publicity, saying they undermine the government's commitment to localism

By David Williams

11 February 2011

Councils have condemned as ‘draconian’ plans to restrict their spending on publicity, saying they undermine the government’s commitment to localism.

The draft Codeof Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity, put before Parliament today, would stop councils printing their own newspapers more than four times a year, and limit the freesheets’ content to local public services. A minority of authorities have published weekly free newspapers with sports pages and television guides.

Under the new arrangements, councils would also be prevented from hiring private sector lobbyists and setting up stalls at political party conferences.

Commutities Secretary Eric Pickles said the measures would stop councils spending taxpayers’ money inappropriately.

He said: ‘An independent local press is a vital part of local accountability, but the rules around council publicity have been too weak for too long, squandering public funds and pushing local newspapers out into the abyss.

‘Some councils have pushed this to the limit and were effectively lobbying on the rates.’

Pickles said the draft code clarified when councils would be going too far, and added: ‘Councils need to give due diligence to their communications operation and make sure every effort has been made to focus taxpayers’ money to where it should be spent – protecting frontline services.’

But the Local Government Association accused ministers of ignoring the evidence on the issue.

Chair Baroness Margaret Eaton said: ‘If the Department for Communities and Local Government was truly committed to localism it would not be introducing draconian rules dictating to councils how often they are allow to share information with residents.’

She said most newsletters were already bi-monthly or quarterly, and had proved to be a cheap and effective way of communicating with residents. She argued that the growth of the internet had proved to be a greater threat than council freesheets.

Eaton added: ‘It is extraordinary that ministers have chosen to ignore this and take such a heavy-handed approach. Not only are these rules completely unnecessary, they have the potential to harm local democracy and drive up the amount councils will have to spend on advertising to fulfil their legal requirements.’

Clive Betts, chair of the communities and local government select committee, criticised ministers for not taking MPs’ views into account. The select committee published its report on the draft code on January 27.

 Betts said there was ‘no evidence’ that quarterly newspapers were the ideal for all councils, or that more frequent publications would harm independent publications. He pointed out that authorities will still have to pay to take out adverts in local papers, despite being able to make an increasing amount of information available online, unless ministers relax rules on statutory notices.

The committee had also recommended separate guidance be published on lobbyists

The code was originally introduced in 1988 and updated in 2001. Consultation with local authority organisations on the latest revisions closed on November 10 last year.

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