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More from the coalition plans for Government. It includes the following proposal:

"We will impose tough new rules to stop unfair competition by local authority newspapers."

Bring it on, say I. It is an abuse of power for a ruling administration in a Town Hall to entrench themselves through spending vast sums on propaganda. They should be restraints including a a requirement to show such spending represents value for money. My own Council of Hammersmith and Fulham has been criticised for producing a newspaper. But I think the basis upon which we have done so means we would fulfil any reasonable rules against unfair competition from excess subsidy.

Andrew Gilligan (who I rate very highly) doesn't see it that way. He brackets us together with Tower Hamlets which spends £1.1 million on their newspaper East End Life (a figure he mentions) and our newspaper H&F News, which made an profit on production costs in the last year and after staff time and office costs were included cost £148,000 (a figure Andrew does not mention.) This is down from £175,000 the previous year.

But isn't £148,000 still too much, I hear you cry. Of course we would like to get the cost down as low as possible. However I think any rule that said it was unfair would have to consider the alternative on all the statutory requirement to place advertising for licensing, planning and highways announcements in the printed media – which would end up costing more. That statutory requirement is very out of date – who reads planning application ads in their local paper? The Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt should remove the imposition of that cost on local councils. Doing so would making it harder to justify producing Council newspapers.

However there is also some promotional stuff that it would still make sense to do even though it is non-statutory. For instance there is a shortage of foster carers. So we advertise in H&F News for more to come forward. If we weren't producing H&F News wouldn't we have the cost of advertising for them elsewhere? What does Andrew suggest we do?

Andrew also suggests our electoral success in Hammersmith and Fulham was due to our "giant official PR and marketing apparatus." Not so. It was due to us cutting the Council Tax – funded among other things by a huge cut in our communications budget. In Enfield the publicity/communications budget was £2.15 million. We lost. In Ealing it was £2.98 million. We lost. In Harrow it was £1.39 million. We lost. In Hammersmith and Fulham it was £0.67 million. We won.

For more details here is a letter I sent to my local paper, the Chronicle, in March:

Dear Sir,
Your complaint about the h&f news costing the Council £174,292 a year should be put in context. According to an Evening Standard survey our total spending on publicity at £669,000 is the second lowest of the 32 London boroughs. Only Bexley spends less. Southwark spends over £5 million. We have slashed spending on spin and cut the number of Communications staff from 13 under Labour to seven. The cost of h&f news is much lower than the previous Council publication HM Magazine
which cost £400,000 a year.

Ironically if we were to produce h&f news less frequently than fortnightly, or cease publication altogether, then the cost to the Council Taxpayer would be higher. This is because of the requirement to run the statutory notices which if we weren't producing our own newspaper we would have to pay to place elsewhere. The paid advertising would cost more than the £174,292. Of course it would be nice for you as you could expect to be on the receiving end of a lot of it but it would not represent value for money.

The good news is that h&f news advertising revenue has been flourishing and that the cost of £174,292 should be sharply down in the financial year just ending than in the previous year upon which your figure was based. Already it breaks even on production costs and we should work towards it breaking even when staff costs are included.  I do think there is a valid role for a Council communicating with residents. There are many issues where the involvement of residents as
active citizens is enormously helpful to the Council achieving its objectives. (Would you like to start a Neighbourhood Watch scheme? Would you like to sponsor a street tree? Would you like to be a school governor? Are you in interested in fostering or adoption? Etc, etc, etc.) Then there are all the events and services which the Council is involved with which residents can only use if they are aware of them. Sometimes events generate revenue and the more who turn up the greater the revenue for the Council.

But I also welcome the remarkable transformation of the Chronicle. As a paid for paper you only sold around 1,500 copies, but you are now going to 72,000 homes in the borough for free.  You are now a genuinely local paper – previously as a "local" paper you were something of a fraud as apart from the front page most of the news stories were from other boroughs and were syndicated from sister publications. The only reason it made sense to continue its rather nominal existence was the life support system of huge Council subsidy via advertising of the statutory notices, etc, unseen by 97% of residents. With the end of this dependency culture of Council advertising I quite see that the way the Chronicle operated would have to change. You have had to expand and operate on a viable commercial basis or give up and die.

The ending of the life support of statutory ads has prompted the Chronicle to develop into a local, independent paper that is genuinely local and independent. As we have seen elsewhere subsidies seldom cause a concern to flourish. Forget about them and get on with selling ads to people who are not forced to advertise with you as a statutory requirement.
There should be room for both papers in our borough of opportunity.
Yours sincerely,
Cllr Harry Phibbs
(Ravenscourt Park Ward. Conservative.)
Hammersmith Town Hall,
King Street,
W6 9JU

17 comments for: New rules planned on Council newspapers

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