By Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles.
This week I want to let you in on a tale of two parties, two councils and two town hall Pravda's… On one hand, the Conservative-run Hammersmith and Fulham, who axed their £150,000 a year freesheet, agreeing to place any essential adverts or statutory notices in their local commercial newspaper instead… On the other, the leftist hotbed of Tower Hamlets, who are clinging onto their “East End Life” so-called newspaper with its eye-watering £1.5 million yearly budget. They say they are taking time to “consider” if producing this is in the best interests of their community. How much is there to consider? I would have thought it was obvious by now that this council needs to focus its efforts and resources on creative ideas for protecting local services rather than wasting it on creative writing for the paper.
Let me tell you why. Aside from a highly questionable use of taxpayers’ money – there are democratic principles at stake here. All good government needs scrutiny and to be held to account. It's independent local newspapers that put councils under the microscope. They examine issues councils are rather less keen to put in their own glossy freesheet. Today when the new Government is giving unprecedented power and freedom to town halls it’s more important than ever that residents can keep tabs on their council. We need local journalists to keep up their record of holding municipal government to account.
The creeping trend of council newspapers expanding in number, frequency and scope in recent years, while local newspapers suffered as a result, was a serious blow for local democracy. We reset the balance this month, fulfilling a long-held promise to bring in new publicity rules for councils. From now on town hall freesheets should be limited in frequency and they should only relate to local services. Very simply glossy magazines designed for the sole purpose of telling people how great the council is can no longer be in direct competition with the free and independent press. If councils ignore these rules, any local resident (or indeed, local councillor) can complain to their local district auditor – who has the power to investigate and intervene to stop illegal expenditure.
Those enemies of a free, strong and vocal press in the Labour Party have of course cried foul and championed the town hall Pravda and their love of socialist propaganda.
In the Commons, the Labour Opposition voted en bloc against the new Code, with Shadow Ministers even defending the publication of TV listings. They've complained that by protecting the independent press, I’m telling councils what to do. Which is rich from a party that staked its fame on endless top-down dictates when they were in power. But perhaps it’s not surprising that the idea of politicians writing the news appealed to a political party that spent its decade inside government trying to control the headlines.
The explosion in town hall Pravda's stems from the weakening of the local authority publicity code by Labour in 2001. Had they stayed in power, Labour had plans to weaken it even further.
This exposes Labour’s fundamental failure to grasp what localism is. It’s not just moving power from the central state to the municipal state. It’s people power. Residents getting a say over what gets on in their area. The Localism Bill in Parliament at the moment is giving communities new rights to challenge their local services and councils the legal power to act in the best interests of those communities with greater control over their budgets. Alongside this people power will decide where to build in the neighbourhood and what happens to valued local assets.
As local areas start to seize these opportunities to do things their way, the need for local scrutiny is more not less. If local newspapers are pushed out where will residents hear that independent, thoughtful critique of what’s happening and how their local leaders are performing?
At the heart of the localism agenda is the right to know. This Government promised to empower every neighbourhood and every home in the country. And information is power. It’s the free flow of democracy.
That’s why we want Whitehall and the Town Hall to open their books and release data on every aspect of our lives. Crime, education, health, the economy. That’s why we’ve got councils to put their spending online. And it’s contemptible that Labour-run Nottingham is still holding out claiming they have “better things to do”.
We can see Labour hasn’t changed yet. It still hates transparency because of its power to expose the waste and inefficiency of the state. I want local newspapers to expose this. They are a key part of open and transparent government. Ideally placed to independently scrutinise newly empowered local councils and the reams of data being unleashed. We expect them to lead an army of armchair auditors to hold their local leaders to account.
Albert Camus wrote that a free press could be good or bad but without freedom it will never be anything but bad. I’m not pretending every local paper is a paragon of journalistic brilliance. But it's an issue of choice and if state funded propaganda is squeezing out authentic local news then the country loses something important. If politicians want good news they need to make it not write it. So I'm urging every council to put democracy above self interest and those who haven't yet reined in the Pravda's to put that cash to better use and give your residents the best deal possible. That will give your independent local press something to shout about.