One of the most contentious topics in local government communications over the past couple of years has been councils publishing newspapers and magazines of their own to communicate with residents.
I won’t go into a protracted history of the issue here, but suffice to say councils generally find them valuable in helping communicate, local newspaper publishers generally see them as anti-competitive, and the coalition’s programme for government says
We will impose tougher rules to stop unfair competition by local authority newspapers
These tougher rules first appeared as part of the consultation into changes in the local government publicity code. This consultation ran from September to November last year, with the new code meant to come into force in January this year. The consultation proposed:
Local authorities should not publish newsletters, newssheets or similar communications which seek to emulate commercial newspapers in style or content. Where local authorities do commission or publish newssheets, they should not issue them more frequently than quarterly. They should not include material other than information for the public about the business, services and amenities of the council or other local service providers.
In December the Communities and Local Government Select Committee held a session hearing evidence from various interested parties about the proposed code.
Their report is published today and comes down firmly on the side of councils in the debate about local authority publications.
The committee calls on the government to commission an independent inquiry to quantify the competitive impact of council newspapers on the independent press; to review the publication rules that apply to statutory notices; and to develop a separate code of practice to govern the use of lobbyists by local councils.
While acknowledging the concerns about a small number of local authority publications, the report takes a measured approach to the majority of councils newspapers and magazines:
There is a clear concern that some local authorities are using council tax payer’s money to promote their local politicians and policies. It is appropriate that the proposed Code should prevent such activities being undertaken at taxpayer’s expense. However, we doubt that the proposed Code should specify a maximum frequency of publication, especially in the context of the Government’s professed commitment to greater ‘localism’. If properly enforced, we believe the provisions in the proposed Code relating to cost effectiveness, content and appearance are sufficient to deal with the excesses seen in the handful of council papers that have caused concern.
They conclude that there is little evidence to support the assertion that council publications are, to any significant extent, competing unfairly with independent papers published in their areas.
Committee chair Clive Betts MP noted “ Most local authorities still find they do not need to communicate information to residents more often than quarterly – in line with the principle of cost effectiveness contained within the Code. In line with a commitment to local decision making it should also be left to every local authority to choose for themselves how often they publish an information sheet.”
The committee also says the government should 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.
However what this means for the new publicity code itself isn’t yet clear. There’s no word from the government on when the new code will be announced or will come into force, so while the committee’s report makes interesting reading, we certainly won’t have heard the last of this debate yet.