When I was first elected a councillor I thought that it was wrong for councils to spend money on advertising. I now have a more pragmatic view.
Sometimes advertising provides value for money. Whatever you think of the environmental case for recycling, the financial penalties on councils for landfill are such that it is important for councils to persuade people to recycle.
The more people are encouraged to come forward as prospective adopters, the fewer children are in care. The more people come forward as foster carers, the better the prospects for the children who remain in care. And the cost to councils is lower too. I could go on. Certainly much municipal advertising is wasteful, some propagandist. But abolishing is entirely would not make sense.
On the other hand, the one aspect of advertising which councils are forced to undertake is clearly unnecessary. Statutory notices for items like planning applications are printed at huge expense and placed in the back of local newspapers, written in baffling jargon – and virtually nobody reads them. These days, they are invariably looked at online when residents are alerted by a neighbour or local residents group to a controversial proposal. The Local Government Information Unit have published a report which says:
Councils spend up to £67.85m (or an average of £181,000 per authority) every year publishing public notices in local newspapers.
The individual cost of publishing a notice can be upwards of three times that for a normal advert, reaching over £20 per column cm in some publications. This is a lot of money, especially when councils are trying desperately to find savings. It is also an outdated system that has been left behind by technological advances. The current system provides no feedback to councils and ignores the fact that the audience is moving away from printed newspapers, to a varied digital media landscape.
Some argue that a forced subsidy helps keep independent local papers going. But how independent are they, when their existence is dependent on Council subsidy? Why should local papers get council advertising when local bloggers don't?
Councils could do far more to encourage awareness of planning proposals though email, Twitter, their website, and very localised mail shots.
So the proposals from the LGIU are common sense. I fear they will not be implemented any time soon. The reason is that MPs are much too keen to suck up to their local papers than to allow the decision to be made on its merits.