By Daniel Hunter
Councils could lose the right to campaign on behalf of their communities against major transport schemes and housing developments under Whitehall proposals to dictate how they communicate with residents, Parliament will hear today (Wednesday).
The new measures would also ban local authorities from publishing more than four newsletters a year, limiting how effective they can be at keeping their communities informed, particularly with regard to public health advice such as the recent measles outbreak.
Government is trying to place the Local Authority Publicity Code — currently a guidance document for English councils — into legislation. Established in 2011, the code lists a series of recommendations regarding the political content and ‘value for money' of council communications.
Government argues that putting the code into law is necessary because council publications compete unfairly with local newspapers, a claim it has been unable to evidence and one which was refuted by a Select Committee. It also claims council newsletters are a waste of taxpayers' money, something research shows is unfounded.
One tenet of the code is that councils should not spend money on publicity campaigns, whether leading or supporting them. Past council campaigns, driven by local opinion and often run in partnership with local newspapers, which could be banned under the Government's proposals include those against major transport schemes, large housing developments, cuts to police and fire services, and the proliferation of betting shops.
The Secretary of State can already take a council to judicial review if they believe it's in unacceptable breach of the guidelines. They would have to provide evidence and the council could defend itself and provide context. So far no council has been taken to judicial review. The new proposals would give the Secretary of State power to order one council or the entire sector to abide by the letter of the code without any recourse.
The proposal to make the Publicity Code law as part of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill will be debated in the House of Lords today. The Local Government Association is calling for it to be removed from the Bill and remain guidance only, a stance supported by the National Union of Journalists.
Sir Merrick Cockell, Chairman of the LGA, said: "Councils have a proud history of campaigning on behalf of their residents, often alongside their local newspapers. It might be inconvenient for central government or big business, but a community being able to effectively stand up against unpopular proposals affecting their area is a key part of democracy.
"Putting into legislation the power for one individual in Whitehall to restrict without recourse councils from campaigning, making it easier for Government to ignore the concerns of local communities, is unacceptable and sets a dangerous precedent.
"Council magazines delivered to people's homes have consistently proved to be the cheapest and most effective way for them to tell people about local services, events and issues. With councils now responsible for public health they're an increasingly vital tool in promoting health and safety advice, as we saw with the recent measles outbreak. They are also a great way to promote voluntary groups and support organisations which would otherwise receive little newspaper coverage, and often link in the work of local police, fire and health bodies.
"It's extraordinary that if a council wants to communicate with its residents but has already used its quota of four publications it will have to ask the Secretary of State for permission to send out another one. There is simply no justification for such micromanagement from Whitehall. Councils should be free to make decisions based on what works for their communities and if residents are unhappy with what they are doing they can make their feelings known.
"Councils work closely with many local newspapers and see them as a key part of local democracy. However, we've not been shown evidence council publications compete unfairly with local newspapers, and a government select committee couldn't find any when it looked into the issue two years ago. Before any decision is made on legislation an independent review should be undertaken to establish what, if any, impact council publications have on local newspapers."
Earlier this year the LGA surveyed councils on their use of publications. Key findings include:
- 81 per cent of councils say that if they had to reduce the number of newsletters the extra expense of leaflets, direct mail outs and advertising to keep residents informed would cost taxpayers more.
- The main reasons councils sent out publications were — value for money, content not covered in local newspaper, conduct/engage in public consultation, promote volunteer and support groups and effective way to link with fire, police and health bodies.
- 78 per cent of council publications reach 90 per cent or more of the local population, and 95 per cent reach 71 per cent or more. Just 23 per cent of local newspapers reach more than half the local population, and in 8 per cent of council areas the reach is less than 10 per cent.
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