Pickles threatens on London’s ‘town hall Pravdas’

17 Apr 14
Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has threatened to issue legal directions to compel five London councils to limit the frequency of town hall newspapers, accusing some authorities of acting like Vladimir Putin in their approach to scrutiny.

By Richard Johnstone | 17 April 2014

Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has threatened to issue legal directions to compel five London councils to limit the frequency of town hall newspapers, accusing some authorities of acting like Vladimir Putin in their approach to scrutiny.

Pickles today said he would give the boroughs of Greenwich, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham and Waltham Forest authorities two weeks to set out why action should not be taken following breaches of the publicity code governing municipal freesheets. The rules form part of the Local Audit and Accountability Act, and formal letters have been sent to the councils as the first step towards action.

The code sets a range of provisions in relation to local authority publicity. These include recommending a publication frequency of no more than every quarter, as well as provisions relating to objectivity and even-handedness when covering ‘matters of political controversy’.

According to the Department for Communities and Local Government, all five councils published titles more often than the quarterly. In addition, four of the titles published by the boroughs – those for Greenwich, Tower Hamlets, Newham and Waltham Forest – were deemed to not be even-handed in their coverage of some political issues, and Greenwich and Tower Hamlets were also judged to be not objective.

Under the Act, Pickles has the power to direct a local authority to comply with the provisions of the code of practice, after a 14-day period to allow the council to make representations. Any council that does not follow the legal direction could eventually face a court order requiring compliance.

Pickles said that some bloggers had ended up in handcuffs for tweeting from council meetings, while ‘propaganda on the rates’ drove the free press out of business.

‘Only [Russian president Vladimir] Putin would be proud of a record like that,’ he said.

‘Localism needs robust and independent scrutiny by the press and public, and municipal state-produced newspapers suppress that. “Town Hall Pravdas” not only waste taxpayers’ money unnecessarily, they undermine free speech.

‘I have given written notice to councils most clearly breaching the publicity code, noting that Parliament has passed new laws to tackle this abuse. We are prepared to take further action against any council that undermines local democracy – whatever the political colour.’

Responding to the announcement, a Hackney Council spokesman said it conformed to every aspect of the code except for the clause on frequency.

‘Publishing Hackney Today fortnightly is the most effective way for the council to communicate with its diverse mix of residents, both in terms of value for money and reach,’ he added.

‘It’s estimated that moving to a quarterly publication would result in the council having to spend at least an extra £100,000 a year to cover the cost of paying for statutory notices in local newspapers and printing and distributing materials currently included in Hackney Today. We have told the minister many times 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 Newham Council spokesman said the Newham Mag provided information so residents could access services and activities provided by the council and its partners.

‘It does so in a value for money way, which is increasingly important in the context of ongoing government cuts for local authorities,’ he added.

‘We remain a strong supporter of independent local media and never seek to compete against it for advertising revenue. Newham Council will respond to the letter in due course.’

A Tower Hamlets spokeswoman said the council had reviewed its publication against the code and made a number of changes as a result of external legal opinion.

‘Whilst the code states councils cannot publish a newspaper more than quarterly, it also says they have a duty to provide cost-effective information to all residents on issues that affect them like community safety, public health and social cohesion,’ she added.

‘Councils also have a duty to publish statutory notices, for example on licensing and planning. Balancing all this, Tower Hamlets decided the best value for money use of resources was to continue to produce a popular weekly publication.’

A Greenwich spokesman said the council believes it is compliant with the code and has asked for sight of the information Pickles has based his notice on, in order to rebut it.

A statement released by Waltham Forest said: ‘The letter received yesterday from the Department for Communities and Local Government states that the secretary of state proposes to direct the council to comply with the recommended code of practice on local authority publicity but without saying how we don't comply.

'We always have regard to the Code of Practice when publishing Waltham Forest News and believe we currently comply with the Code in every way, except frequency of publication. We believe we have strong reasons to publish fortnightly and that it is entirely lawful to take this approach.’


CIPFA logo

PF Jobsite logo

Did you enjoy this article?