Proposed Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

4  Issues raised by provisions in the Code


46.  No witness to this inquiry criticised the seven core principles set out in the revised code; indeed most were actively supportive of them. Such principles are well established in current best practice and feature strongly in the professional codes of conduct operated by both the National Union of Journalist (for journalists) and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations for (other) professionals working in public sector PR.

47.  Nonetheless, every witness to this inquiry representing local government—both principal authorities and lower tiers—argued that certain provisions in the revised code undermine and run counter to the localism agenda. Cllr Richard Kemp, speaking for the Local Government Association, argued, "It is surely hypocritical for a Government to say that its priorities are localism, localism, localism, and then try to define in a whole number of ways, including this one, precisely how we should carry out our business".[53] Hackney Mayor Jules Pipe, representing London Councils, made the same point in more forthright terms: "Local council publications have been described as town hall Pravdas, but in scope this diktat [the proposed code] is worthy of North Korea."[54] Meanwhile John Findlay, Chief Executive of the National Association of Local Councils, suggesting that the scope of the proposed code of practice "is very much aimed at principal authorities" rather than parish or town councils, warned that the Government "would need to ensure that the localism and big society agenda is not constrained in any way by these proposals." [55]

48.  The Minister for Local Government, Grant Shapps, clearly disagreed, suggesting that "perhaps most people misunderstand what is meant by localism. It does not mean, for example, that Government simply ignores what is going on and turns a blind eye to reality on the ground; it actually means that the Government puts in place a framework to make sure that localism can flourish".[56] He continued, "One of the ways we need to do that in this particular instance is ensure that local democracy itself—freedom of speech and the ability of local publications to produce what they see as the truth about local services—is not snuffed out by state-sponsored so-called journalism. It is very important that as Ministers we take seriously the responsibility to set the framework and put in place something that enables local authorities to communicate perfectly reasonably but, at the same time, does not enable them to compete with publications that presumably present a much fairer and more balanced profile of what is going on in the community".[57]

49.  Echoing numerous other responses to the consultation, the LGA stressed that "Most councillors have a major desire to communicate effectively with our constituents in our wards, our neighbourhoods and across the council area as a whole", and will do this using a wide range of methods or media including their own news publications, especially when they need to reach all parts of their local community.[58]

50.  All three representative bodies (the LGA, London Councils, and NALC) presented evidence that local authority publications fulfil a role disseminating information that traditional newspapers do not perform. No evidence was presented to us indicating that local residents dislike local authority newspapers. The LGA's Richard Kemp argued that recent government research (commissioned by a Home Office working group of which the LGA was a member) indicates that the most cost effective way for local authorities to communicate with people remains that of opting to "put a message on a piece of paper and stick it through someone's letter box".[59]

51.  In January 2010 the Audit Commission concluded that "commercial newspapers remain the most important source of information about the performance of local public services".[60] A recent Ofcom study of Local and Regional Media in the UK published in September 2009 also concluded that council periodicals continue to be less valued for 'news' in general than other independent sources.[61]

52.  There is little disagreement, therefore, about the appropriate and separate roles of the local independent press, and of local authorities' own publications. There is, as we have noted, also broad acceptance of the principles which the proposed Code claims to espouse, which should work to support and enhance those roles. As we note above, a typical local authority periodical will include information about the services and activities of the local council and its partners: this is an entirely appropriate use of local taxpayers' money.[62] It is those periodicals which look and feel like a local paper and contain non-local authority content such as TV listings and small paid-for advertising which the Code, rightly, aims to prevent.[63]

53.  Notwithstanding the Government's avowed commitment to 'localism', we are satisfied that it is appropriate to produce a Code to regulate the production of local authority publicity. However, we are concerned that some of the changes proposed in the revised Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity run counter to 'localist' principles and have potentially negative implications for local democracy. The question must therefore be whether there is evidence that the concerns which have been raised about the publicity practices of certain local authorities are sufficient to justify the detailed restrictions imposed by the proposed Code—as opposed to the promulgation of some guiding principles.


54.  Of the four provisions noted in paragraph 31 above, it is the proposal to constrain the frequency of local authority publications to which councils object most seriously.[64] As responses to the consultation and several witnesses to this inquiry have made plain, the proposal to restrict council newssheets to no more than four issues per year has little if any support at any level of local government.

55.  The LGA estimates this restriction will affect around one in five local authorities. It warned that for many first or second tier councils "focus newsletters would be bad value for money if published as infrequently as four times a year,"[65] and suggested three quarters of authorities who responded to its latest survey of council periodicals believe this constraint will push up costs by forcing them to use more advertising and to print more leaflets for direct mailing to reach every resident.[66] London Councils went further, arguing that this restriction "suggests that CLG Ministers do not recognise the need or value" of town hall newspapers either to local councils or their local partners—including hospitals, PCTs , police authorities, voluntary groups or community organisations—which also use such publications.[67] Citing his work as Mayor of Hackney, London Councils chair Jules Pipe told us

I have spent the past five years moving £62 million worth of money from back-room office and efficiency savings into the frontline, improving, changing and expanding services while keeping the council tax frozen. Residents needed to be informed about all those changes to services and that could not be done just once a quarter. Distributing an additional leaflet to houses every time an individual service changed for a particular area would be far too expensive. Local newspapers won't and can't be expected to carry that volume of information to local residents.[68]

56.  Speaking for parish and town councils, John Findlay of the National Association of Local Councils warned that its members—many of which put out a monthly newsletter—"would not want to see that restricted by a central direction".[69] When challenged on this particular point the Minister appeared to backtrack, telling the committee he agreed there was a need "to separate out the parish councils" on the basis that a parish newsletter "does not carry much of what might be described as propaganda".[70]

57.  Mayor Pipe concluded his evidence on this point by telling us, "The question I would ask of the Ministers behind this is: if we abide by all the rest of the points in the code of conduct, why is the restriction on frequency necessary?". The Minister's answers to that question relied heavily on the claim that the content of newssheets was "propaganda":

[...] four times a year does not seem to me to be terribly restrictive. I would have thought that if a local authority communicated twice, three or even four times a year, in addition to its leaflets that go out with the council tax and the numerous other ways it has to get information out to its citizens, that is not overly restrictive and would enable them to push whatever sensible messages about bin collection they need to get out to residents. […] Four times a year still feels quite regular if you are a resident and something is stuck through your door. It is enough to be remembered from one moment to the next. As I am sure politicians in this room including myself know, if it is much more than four times a year, you are operating an incredible delivery service. The truth is that too many authorities produce that delivery service off the back of their hard-pressed council taxpayers. We simply cannot carry on having propaganda published on the rates.[71]

58.  We consider the issue of "propaganda" to be dealt with adequately by the provisions in the proposed Code relating to format and content. The evidence suggests that a local authority's need to communicate information to residents is commonly satisfied by no more than quarterly publication. We have doubts, however, about the need to specify a maximum frequency of publication within the Code and question whether such a prescription sits well alongside a strong commitment to localism. We would nevertheless expect councils to abide by the principles of cost-effectiveness contained within the Code.

Statutory notices

59.  The implications of the frequency restriction contained in the proposed code for the cost of publishing statutory notices provoked a great deal of comment in the responses to the consultation. Local authorities have an obligation to publish notices relating to range of applications (especially those related to planning, licensing law and road closures) in at least one local newspaper that appears no less frequently than once a fortnight. Survey data from the LGA (supplied in its consultation response) suggests that the vast majority of local authorities still currently place most if not all their statutory notices in local newspapers, at considerable cost to the local taxpayer. LGA estimates the councils currently spend around £40m year on statutory planning notices alone, and around £67.85 million (or an average of £181,000 per authority) across the whole sector—a level of spending the LGA points out represents "a significant contribution to the commercial newspaper industry's turnover".[72]

60.  Some councils—especially those in urban areas where land use intensity ensures a higher than average number of such notices must be published—opt to place such notices in their own periodical. London Councils stated in its consultation response that this was the rationale commonly cited for local authority publications published more than once a quarter, especially those that are fortnightly. As Hackney's mayor, Jules Pipe, explained further:

The gross cost of putting a year's worth of statutory notices in our local paper according to its rate card—this organisation does not discount its rate card for local authorities, because we have checked—would be £543,000. The gross costs of producing 25 copies of our newspaper this year—I am not trying to do any clever accounting by taking off any income from adverts or anything—is £448,000 [...] Therefore, certainly for us, the value for money argument is absolutely clear: it will cost us several hundred thousand pounds more if this code is implemented as is.[73]

Later, he made clear that the publication of statutory notices was the main rationale for the frequency of the publication of his authority's paper.[74]

61.  Recent Local Government Association research shows that an average council will pay its local newspaper just over £100,000 per year to print public notices which are routinely published online (and circulated in council newsletters).[75]

62.  When questioned on this issue, the Minister cited the work of the Audit Commission which found in 2009 that on average only 5% of council periodicals contained statutory notices, and less than 1% outside London.[76] He failed to draw the conclusion from this, though, that it is a significant issue in London itself. London borough newspapers which appear monthly or more often will usually carry statutory notices. As the Hackney figures show, this provision of the Code has the potential to cost certain local authorities very significant sums of money.

63.  As London Councils points out in its consultation response, the placing of statutory notices in the independent press can also raise significant issues of equality and diversity, especially in areas where the independent paper is not read by large parts of the local community. Publication in a local authority newssheet is likely to ensure much greater reach than publication in an independent title which, for commercial reasons, may not be circulated through a whole borough and will therefore fail to reach some parts of the community.

64.  The evidence we received suggests that the requirements for the publication of statutory notices are ripe for review. Cllr Kemp told us

If we take a statutory notice placed in the Daily Post in Liverpool, we will do something about a road closure. Frankly, we might as well stand on top of the Pier Head and chuck the money away, because how many of my constituents will see a road closure in the Daily Post or, for that matter, go through the classified ads to see the bit in the Liverpool Echo? We ought to be thinking very differently about how we communicate. The only people who are interested in a very small road closure are those who live in it and the two roads beyond. Why don't we send out a special leaflet to them? Well, we do but we then put in a statutory notice that no one reads. [...] We waste a fortune on things that people do not read.[77]

65.  Lynne Anderson, speaking for the Newspaper Society, reminded us that "the reason why both the last Government and the Scottish Parliament in the past year rejected the idea of moving such statutory notices out of printed newspapers and have them just posted on council websites was that members of the public told them that they looked to their local papers for these statutory notices, and it is an important part of the public's right to know and access information, and not just to have these things hidden away on a council website, where sometimes it might possibly be in a council's interest to have it hidden from the public gaze."[78] Nevertheless both she and her colleague Simon Edgeley, Managing Director of Trinity Mirror Southern, noted that local newspaper groups recognised that more cost-effective solutions to the need to get that information out were available, and were working with local authorities to come up with them.[79] The Minister also acknowledged the need for reform, conceding that "we will see a change in the way that the statutory notices are handled over a period of time."[80] The Secretary of State himself is cited in the introduction to the consultation on the proposed Code as recognising that "over time, commercial newspapers should expect less state advertising as more information is syndicated online for free".[81]

66.  We consider it unsatisfactory that local authorities should feel compelled to produce fortnightly newssheets simply to meet the demands of statutory notice requirements. We recommend that the Government review the publication requirements for statutory notices, with a view to making them more cost-effective and better able to take advantage of new means of publication such as the Internet.

53   Q3 Richard Kemp for LGA.  Back

54   Q4Jules Pipe for London Councils.  Back

55   Q4 John Findlay for NALC.  Back

56   Q80 Back

57   Ibid.  Back

58   Q3 LGA  Back

59   Q7 Back

60   Letter, 22.01.10 from Stephen Bundred, Chief Executive of the Audit Commission to Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP, Minister for digital Britain. Back

61 Back

62   Condoc, para 4 Back

63   Condoc, para 6 Back

64   Qq 4, 8. Back

65   Q5 Richard Kemp for LGA.  Back

66   LGA consultation response.  Back

67   Q4 Jules Pipe for London Councils.  Back

68   Q5  Back

69   Q4 John Findlay for NALC . Back

70   Q84 Back

71   Qq 83, 85. Back

72   LGA consultation response para 11.  Back

73   Q5 Jules Pipe for London Councils.  Back

74   Q29 Back

75   LGA response to consultation. Back

76   Q84 Back

77   Qq 16, 19. Back

78   Q66 Back

79   Q66  Back

80   Q88 Back

81   Condoc, para 3. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 14 February 2011