"Town hall Pravdas" once again

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Pretty much since the government published the latest version of the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity back in March 2011, Eric Pickles has been talking about putting compliance with the code on a stronger legal footing.

At the moment under the Local Government Act 1986 councils must “have regard” to the code of recommended practice on local authority publicity.

But the government feels that a stronger and legally enforceable regime is needed – and their focus is clearly on council publications. Today they’ve launched a  consultation entitled “Protecting the independent press from unfair competition” that proposes some new powers for the Secretary of State in relation to the new code.

In the words of the consultation:

Underpinning this new Publicity Code is the recognition both that good, effective publicity aimed at improving public awareness of a council’s activities is entirely acceptable, and that publicity is a sensitive matter because of the impact it can have and the costs associated with it. It equally reflects the government’s view that local authorities should focus their resources on frontline services, reducing resources expended on publicity such as newspapers, and above all that it is wholly inappropriate for taxpayers’ money to be used to pay for material that could be perceived as political or competing with the independent press and media.

So the government plans to put the code on a more robust legal basis by creating some new powers:

  • the Secretary of State will be given the power to direct one or more councils to comply with some or all of the recommendations made in the code
  • the direction could be to a single council, a number of named councils, to all authorities in a particular class (presumably this means types of authority, such as London boroughs or district councils) or to all councils to which the code applies
  • these directions could be issued anytime the Secretary of State considers it appropriate to do so – which means because from the information
    available to him he considers the authority is not, or there is a risk that it might not, comply with that recommendation in the code
  • before issuing a direction the Secretary of State would be required to give notice to the authority or authorities in question of his intention to issue a direction to them to allow them a chance to prepare or to tell him why they don’t think a legally binding direction should be issued (in the case of multiple councils he would give this notice to any collective representatives of councils, presumably the LGA or London Councils)
  • a time limit for complying with the code could be issued if the Secretary of State wishes
  • once a direction had been issued, any interested party could pursue a council that doesn’t comply with the code through the courts using a court order

You can see the full document here. The consultation is now underway and closes on 6 May.

Back in November 2011 you might remember the government published a plain English guide to the Localism Act – one of the flagship aspects of the devoluton of powers to localities. In the introduction to this document, Greg Clark – then the Minister for Decentralisation – said:

For too long, central government has hoarded and concentrated power. Trying to improve people’s lives by imposing decisions, setting targets and demanding inspections from Whitehall simply doesn’t work. It creates bureaucracy. It leaves no room for adaptation to reflect local circumstances or innovation to deliver services more effectively and at lower cost.

Further on in the document extolling the importance of local-led decision making the government’s position seems clear:

The Government is committed to passing new powers and freedoms to town halls. We think that power should be exercised at the lowest practical level – close to the people who are affected by decisions, rather than distant from them. Local authorities can do their job best when they have genuine freedom to respond to what local people want, not what they are told to do by central government. In challenging financial times, this freedom is more important than ever, enabling local authorities to innovate and deliver better value for taxpayers’ money.

Hmmm….

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