ON MONDAY, the start of the most significant week in terms of government policy we’ve seen for a long time, the Local Government Association unleashed its latest attack on the regional media.
It argued that the rules which demand that local authorities place a range of statutory notices – planning applications etc – in local newspapers be scrapped. It argues they cost too much when the squeeze is on, suggesting £40million a year gets spent in the local Press by councils.
Baroness Eaton, the Tory chair, argued that it’d be much cheaper to stick the information online or for the council to send out the information directly to people instead.
For regular readers of this blog it’ll probably come as no surprise that I disagree with the LGA’s stance here. Not because I work in the regional media (although I daresay those who disagree with what I’m about to say will suggest a bias at play) but because there are plenty of examples within local government of councils being given an inch and taking a mile. Council newspapers being the obvious example.
If this was an argument about councils being upset at always being charged full rate card by newspapers which know the councils have to advertise, this discussion would be a different one. But it’s not. It’s about the LGA once again wanting to hand councils total control of how they handle communication with the public. A current cost is floated, but no cost of alternative means. Are they expecting all information just to be placed on council websites in some misguided belief that everyone will know where to look for it? Sadly, there’s little substance behind the call.
The LGA has been one of the loudest champions of council newspapers over the years. It has repeatedly encouraged councils to produce councils to produce newspapers as frequently and as often as possible, despite its own surveys showing the public value A to Z guides of council services more than anything else. It has also produced laughably naive ‘evidence’ to back up claims that council newspapers don’t do any harm at all to the regional press sector.
It carried out a survey of councils to decide whether council newspapers posed a threat to the regional press. Rather like asking Wayne Rooney if he is to blame for fans being upset with him. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of council press officers said they felt the internet had done more harm to the regional press than their publication than they had.
When Baroness Eaton said this week: “The press plays a vital role in local democracy by scrutinising the goings on at town halls up and down the country. Councils recognise this and many have been proactive in supporting their local newspapers in other ways,” she was stretching the truth a bit. The LGA’s own survey on council newspapers shows just 20% have tried to help local newspapers. I’m not saying councils should be obliged to help their local newspaper, just that the LGA should spin less on its own data.
The LGA also claimed that the fact most councils only produced newspapers four to six times a year meant they didn’t have the potential to distort the market. However, the fact that among unitary and top-tier council authorities, some £8,501,274.15 of advertising revenue was generated in 12 months, of which around £3million came from outside town halls, including private companies and public sector partners.
The LGA cleverly forgets to mention that even with four publications a year, a council can contrive to ensure that public sector marketing campaigns – eg the police or the PCT – can be timed to go into a publication which isn’t subject to independent scrutiny. So in claiming that low frequency means no distortion is itself a distortion of the facts, especially when you consider councils are under no obligation to mark up which editorial features have been paid for by third parties in the way newspapers are.
But this argument is all but done and dusted. The new government appears to share the concerns of the regional press and is curbing the number of times a year a council newspaper can be produced – and the newspapers will have to stick to the facts. Little surprise then that just a few weeks after this announcement, the LGA turns its attention to public notices.
The LGA’s demand for the lifting of the rules doesn’t come with any idea of how it will ensure that public notices will reach a wide audience. The vague notion of ‘the internet’ isn’t good enough. For every good council like Lichfield, which is open and proactive, or Walsall, which not only published all spending over £500 early but made it easy for people to ask questions about it, there will be one which seeks to make the most of vague rules. Moving public notices to a place on the internet of each council’s discretion isn’t a cheaper form of distribution, it’s carte blanche to hide the awkward stuff.
Why, for example, are council public notices always tucked away in classifieds? Ask an ad rep and they’ll tell you the council want them there. It’s a theory which is supported by the positioning councils which do produce weekly or fortnightly newspapers give credence to with their positioning of public notices. Given councils supposedly want as many people to see them as possible, it’s a little odd that, given control of their own newspaper, they mainly tuck them away at the back. The most recent issue of Lambeth Life is one example – and it isn’t alone.
Labour ministers argued before the election that they never intended for councils to produce their own Pravdas when they relaxed local authority publicity rules. The fact that was the result is further proof that the rules and regulations are required for public notices – councils ‘using the internet’ isn’t good enough.
If the LGA’s real motive here was to try and help out local councils when the pips are starting to squeak, then perhaps it would be better off looking at its own performance where cuts are concerned. Breathlessly on Thursday, the LGA was predicting 100,000 jobs would be axed. If that number has been obtained in the same way the numbers the LGA used to back its stance on council newspapers, they aren’t worth much.
The fact town halls are being hit so hard is proof of a failure by the LGA. Set up in 1997 to speak up for councils, it has failed spectacularly here. Maybe councils do need a collective voice to fight their corner in Westminster, but they need it to be an effective one.
LGA deputy chair David Sparks told Five Live on Thursday: “Libraries will close, parks will be open shorter hours, potholes won’t be filled, bins might not be as filled as often [I think he meant emptied] people have been made redundant. We have deliberately as the LGA not gone in for what is known as shroud waving and what has happened as a result is we have the worst case scenario.”
Shroud-waving, I believe, is scaring by numbers. Every other part of the public sector was doing it, so why wasn’t the LGA, an organisation which is funded mainly by the taxpayer via subscriptions paid by local councils. Last year, £14million of taxpayers money went into the LGA in subscriptions alone. Another £20million came from conferences and advertising, much of which can be traced back to local councils, and £2.7million from grants. I found this out on Lancashire County Council’s website after giving up on the LGA website. Scrap the LGA and you’ve almost recovered the cost of public notices straight away.
The questions councils should be asking is ‘Can we afford the LGA?’ as money gets tighter. On the very week the government was preparing to slash £81billion from the public sector, the LGA was picking a fight over public notices – a fight which wasn’t even backed up with a sensible plan. Windsor and Maidenhead Council has served notice it wants out of the LGA as it doesn’t see the value in it. If there’s a sensible conversation to be had about public notices and the relationship between media the town halls, it would seem it’s best served without involvement of the LGA, which is little more than a lobbying body funded by you and I.