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PICKLES Eric smiling

Many pointless regulations imposed on local government have been lifted since 2010. Among those that remain is the outdated requirement to advertise planning applications in printed form. These days residents are far more likely to look for such information online. So the requirement has really become a rather bizarre way of forcing councils to subsidise local newspapers.

Sometimes it will be a life support mecahnism for a worthless local paper – a publisher prints a few hunderd copies of a phantom edition in order to secure the advertising.

I’m afraid the Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles defends retaining this requirement. His argument is that a council might have the information on an obscure corner of its website.

Mr Pickles compares that approach to a passage from the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: as Arthur Dent’s house is demolished, he is told by planning officers that the notice has been in the council’s “display department” for the last 9 months.

However Mr Pickles is proposing to reform the way the statutory notices operate.

“This could include paid digital advertising; using location-specific mobile technology; and pooling statutory notices – so rather than being at the back of a newspaper in 9 point text, they would be up front in the hard copy newspaper, with links for residents to find out more.”

Mr Pickles said:

“Both the private and public sector need to embrace the technology and the internet and changing public demand, otherwise they will fall by the wayside.

That’s why local government is now at the forefront of the open data agenda with the new local government Transparency Code.

We are opening up council meetings to new rights to film, tweet and blog – in a digital age, we cannot cling to analogue interpretations of rules on public access.

Statutory notices also need to change.

But it has been a sterile debate, with the LGA arguing for their complete abolition, replacing them with nothing other than an obscure notice on a council website.

I am reminded of the passage from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

As Arthur Dent’s house is being demolished by the council, he’s told by planning officers that the notice has been in the council’s “display department” for the last 9 months. A department located… in the basement; in a disused lavatory; without a light; in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet; with a sign on the door, saying: ‘Beware of the Leopard’.

Rather than this binary debate, I want councils to work with the newspaper industry to look at new ways we can improve statutory notices and better inform the public. Digital advertising. Social media. Location-specific mobile technology. Pooling statutory notices, so they’re not in a 9 point font at the back of the newspaper, but front up, with weblinks to find out more.

To take this forward, I want to bring councils and the newspaper industry together to work together on some pilots to show the case for innovation. Newspapers need to embrace new technology to survive. But they should not face unfair competition from council newspapers. And 21st century independent media offer councils the chance to reach out, inform and engage – an alternative to the depths of obscurity in a council website or lavatory without a light.”

I would just scrap the requriement and deal with Arthur Dent by requiring prominence of a council webiste – a link on the home page with some specified minimum prominence.

Mr Pickles want to retain a requirement is for council’s to provide a subsidy for local, independent, media. That seems to me flawed – not least because such existence is not really independent of the council but thoroughly dependent on its finance. However within that constratint tuhis is to be welcomed as offering some scope for sensible flexibility.

16 comments for: Pickles reforms rules for council advertising

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