Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles Conservative Home, 26 June 2010
The plan to reform council newspapers or so-called “weekly town hall Pravdas” was enshrined in the Coalition agreement back in May. The new government said it would: ” impose tougher rules to stop unfair competition by local authority newspapers”. And that’s why they’re consulting on this very subject at the moment. A draft of new rules governing council freesheets has been drawn up to stop councils using taxpayers’ money to publicise themselves favourably and put that cash back into front line services.
The added bonus here is that the Communities Secretary (and former council leader) also hopes it will help boost the local press which is having to fight tooth and nail with subsidised council freesheets for advertising and readers – why buy a paper when you can read it for free in the Council Courier?
So sounds like a plan: less propaganda, more money for frontline services and local newspapers don’t close, hurray, everybody wins! Or do they? FactCheck smelled a rat and when we looked more closely, we found a bit of a rats’ nest.
Let’s take this one fact at a time. Is there such a thing as a “weekly town hall Pravda”? Research submitted to the consultation by the Local Government Association and seen by FactCheck seems to show that only one council actually produces a weekly newspapers: Tower Hamlets, in London. Tower Hamlets is a majority Labour controlled authority (now with an independent Mayor). The LGA found the majority of councils publish their freesheets at most 6 times per year.
Most councils who responded to the LGA survey don’t publish their newspapers weekly, so it sounds like a little bit of exaggeration.
Next fact: publishing fewer newspapers means more money for frontline services. Again, the warning light flashed on our fact detector. One Tory council leader from the south of England told us that council freesheets are an efficient way for them to fulfill legal obligations to publish announcements like planning applications or notice of roadworks and that if the government really wanted councils to save money, it could change the rules on what they have to advertise.
He told us: “Mr Pickles said that he’ll save money by banning council newspapers. But in fact some councils started publishing their own papers to save council taxpayers’ money.
“Publishing statutory notices like planning permission in local commercial newspapers costs district councils around £80,000 and county councils in the order of £1m. And even the quarterly publications that the Secretary of State will still allow will now cost councils more to deliver because we won’t be able to take advertising.”
The LGA agrees. It’s worked out that on average it costs £105,000 per authority per year to publish statutory notices. Our council leader says more cash could be saved if the Communities Secretary allowed councils to post these notices much more cheaply on their websites. FactCheck’s worried this information might get ‘lost’ on those websites, but in this time of austerity, perhaps the bottom line is more important.
When we asked the Department for Communities and Local Government how they could justify the pricey proposals in these austere times, suddenly cost didn’t seem to be the issue. They told FactCheck that the plans are all about promoting democracy and a free press. Ah. Here’s another problem.
We spoke to other councils on this issue and it turns out that the plans to help local papers may not even do that. Newcastle City council publishes its City Life magazine six times per year. It takes advertising from local community groups to help them promote their work rather than taking ads from big companies as other council publications do. It reckons cutting two editions of City Life will save it around £20k / year. But it also pays the local newspaper to print the magazine, which under these new plans for only quarterly publications, means Newcastle’s local papers are going to miss out on two editions’ worth of council money. And we understand this arrangement is not unusual. So local papers could actually also lose out if the rules change.
On the question of advertising however, the local newspaper body the Newspaper Society says as well as competing for content, council-taxpayer funded freesheets are also competing with local newspapers for ad revenue which is diverting vital money from local newspapers and their websites.
So why is the government wanting to change the rules? FactCheck is slightly confused. But Eric Pickles did originally say it was about saving money and it will according to the councils we’ve spoken to, but not that much. So because both sides here have a point, we’ve given it a medium rating.