Sir Eric Pickles, when he was the Communities and Local Government Secretary, launched a Judicial Review of Greenwich Council back in March 2015 for breaking the Local Government Publicity Code with its weekly town hall Pravda.
The court case was due to be heard this month but Greenwich Council has folded. That will have left them with a substantial legal bill – although not as large as if they had continued to blatantly ignore the new rules. I suspect the delaying tactics were based on their hope that Labour would win last year’s General Election and that a Miliband Government would allow them to publish as much propaganda as they liked.
A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said:
“We have agreed that Royal Borough of Greenwich will be fully compliant with the Publicity Code from the end of June 2016, settling the matter without having to go to court.”
That means in future the council will publish no more than quarterly. That will limit their potential to “crowd out” competitors. These are papers that as well as praising the Council and denouncing central Government often include theatre and film listings, cooking recipes, and Sudoku puzzles – as well as subsidised advertising.
So that is good news that progress is being made to enforce the law. But there is still some unfinished business. There are still some councils publishing fortnightly newspapers ignoring the code – such as Newham, Hackney and Waltham Forest.
Tower Hamlets Council still publishes East End Life – albeit fortnightly instead of weekly.
These councils have a choice. They can either reduce the frequency of publication to the legal requirements – or they can wait for the courts to order them to do so and thus incur unnecessary expense for their Council Taxpayers.
Another concern is that it is not only over frequency of publication that the Code is being flouted. The content of council communications – both on websites and in publications – routinely disregards the requirements to be honest, objective and politically impartial. Even when incidents are reported to the Council’s Monitoring Officer and then the District Auditor the rules are still ignored.
Around the country we have the paradox of Labour councils using million pound communications budgets to declare they have “no alternative” but to cut services because of the terrible “austerity” unfairly imposed on them by the Conservative Government.
The rules on council publicity should be strengthened and the DCLG should do far more to enforce them – to prohibit political propaganda from councils whether online or in printed form.