New rules on council publicity fail to take into account mounting concern by leading public sector communicators and an influential committee of MPs, LGcomms has warned.
As LGcomms News went to print the Department for Communities and Local Government announced new rules on council publicity which are set to ban local authorities from using lobbying firms and restrict councils to issuing publications no more than four times a year.
Despite a lengthy period of consultation, which included LGcomms submitting extensive evidence and preparing speakers to give evidence at a CLG select committee in December, Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has put forward the revised Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity, with its main proposals intact.
It fails to heed concerns about the proposed restrictions raised by LGcomms, which represents more than 200 local authority communication departments, the organisation warned.
In addition, just last month LGcomms called on the DCLG to review the code after an independent select committee questioned the Government’s approach saying the proposals ran contrary to the principles of localism and could 'have potentially negative implications for local democracy'.
Councils have recently come under fire from ministers for publishing local newspapers, at taxpayers' expense, attacked as little more than ‘Soviet Pravda-style publications’, promoting specific councillors and political agendas while competing with and damaging the local newspaper industry.
But in its report the commons committee found 'scant evidence' that council newspapers were 'competing unfairly' with local newspapers.
LGcomms supports this view, arguing that fewer than six authorities across the country have sought to publish regular council 'newspapers' and these are not representative of what most authorities produce.
The rules also stipulate that council advertising should not be politicised or commentary on 'contentious areas of public policy'.
On announcing the rules Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, said: "An independent local press is an essential part of our open democracy and it is a vital part of local accountability, but the rules around council publicity have been too weak for too long squandering public funds and pushing local newspapers out into the abyss.
"Some councils have pushed this to the limits and were effectively lobbying on the rates. The changes will end the weekly Town Hall freesheets, stop professional lobbyists being hired and make advertising guidelines crystal clear so councils know exactly when misuse of public funds is a breach of the code.
"Councils need to give due diligence to their communications operation and make sure every effort has been made to focus taxpayers' money to where it should be spent - protecting frontline services."
In response LGcomms is set to press for local authorities to be given more freedom to advertise statutory notices in the most effective media.
LGcomms will call on the Government to 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.
Ending the requirement for councils to publish public notices in newspapers could result in savings of up to £40 million of taxpayers’ money, which LGcomms argues is currently being spent propping up the local newspaper industry.
LGcomms will also provide a briefing on the code for all LGcomms members and host seminars outlining the code in practice, particularly during periods of heightened sensitivity.
There are already differing views to the extent that the code would be enforceable. The rules are currently only recommended, but reports suggest the Department for Communities and Local Government hopes to make them statutory by April 2011.
David Holdstock, National Chair of LGcomms, has voiced disappointment about the new local government publicity guidelines.
He said: “It’s regrettable that the code appears to ignore the views of public sector communicators, respected industry figures and the select committee.
“This code could penalise the majority of 'good councils' and jeopardise effective communications between them and residents at a time when the role of communications has never been more vital.
“We will continue to press for a review on the requirement for councils to publish public notices in local newspapers, a rule that could result in tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money being spent on propping up the local newspaper industry."
The revised Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity includes seven new central principles that make sure that council publicity is lawful, cost effective, objective, even handed and appropriate, and that it has regard to equality and diversity and is issued with care during periods of heightened sensitivity.
For details of the new Government Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity visit: http://www.communities.gov.uk/news/localgovernment/1841578