Is the end in sight for East End Life? It’s been predicted many times before.
But last Friday, Eric Pickles’s Department for Communities and Local Government quietly announced its latest move against 11 councils which continue to publish freesheets more regularly than the Government would like.
Not surprisingly, Tower Hamlets council’s weekly version–which has been the prototype for so many others, which costs far more than the council claims, and which drains vital funds from frontline services–is one of the top targets.
Ministers have given the council until October 9 to respond to their demands the paper should be published no more than four times a year. After that, the department will consider legal action.
Let’s quietly note that the deadline comes the week before Eric Pickles is due to stand up in the Commons and announce the outcome of, and any action arising from, the PwC report into ‘best value’ spending at Mulberry Place. East End Life was part of PwC’s remit.
The letter sent out by DCLG last week is scathing. It says Tower Hamlets is failing to abide by the local government Publicity Code. The council strongly contests this and claims East End Life is popular and serves a public interest. The council says EEL reaches hard-to-reach groups.
DCLG, on the other hand, maintains there are other ways of communicating with such groups and notes the council’s own boasts that broadband access in the borough has risen to 85 per cent.
The government also wants a “flourishing…independent and politically free local media” and argues East End Life works against that. It effectively says East End Life is biased towards Mayor Lutfur Rahman (as it was to the former Labour administration until October 2010).
It says other councils manage perfectly well with quarterly news-sheets, and were there to be any special circumstances in Tower Hamlets, these would justify no more than a couple of extra “special editions” in any year.
The London boroughs of Enfield, Greenwich, Hackney, Hillingdon, Lambeth, Newham and Waltham Forest, as well as Luton, Medway and North Somerset councils have received similar letters.
This is what Local Minister Kris Hopkins says:
Frequent town hall freesheets are not only a waste of taxpayers’ money but they undermine the free press. Localism needs robust and independent scrutiny by the press and public.
Councillors and political parties are free to campaign and put out political literature but they should not do so using taxpayers’ money.
This is the eleventh hour for 11 councils who we consider are clearly flouting the Publicity Code. They have all now been given written notice that we are prepared to take further action, should it be necessary, against any council that undermines local democracy – whatever the political colour.
And here are some extracts of the letter to Tower Hamlets council, the full copy of which I’ve attached below:
The basis of the Secretary of State’s proposal
Information available to the Secretary of State indicates that the London Borough of Tower Hamlets does not attach sufficient importance to ensuring the lawfulness of its publicity. In January 2013 Ofcom concluded that an advertisement, showing the Mayor associated with the house building programme in the borough, was a political advertisement rather than a public service announcement and so breached section 321(3)(g) of the Communications Act 2003 and the UK Code of Broadcast Advertising. The Secretary of State is not aware of any subsequent acceptance by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets of the unlawfulness of this publicity or any firm public commitment of the Council to ensure the lawfulness of all its future publicity and accordingly is proposing the Direction above in relation to the specified provision on lawfulness.
The balance which, with the approval of Parliament, the Publicity Code strikes is that the newssheets etc. of principal local authorities should be published no more frequently than quarterly. Moreover the Secretary of State recognises that the great majority of councils already publish their newssheets no more frequently than quarterly, notwithstanding the wide range of groups that display protected characteristics in the areas of many councils.
Officials from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets wrote to the Secretary of State arguing that following a review of ‘East End Life’ in 2011, the publication was redesigned, TV listings were removed and the publication was made shorter. They also argue that ‘East End Life’ is the most cost effective solution as the weekly publication aims to run on a net-nil budget.
The Council notes that cost effectiveness in one of the seven principles in the Publicity Code, and that advice taken by the Council in 2011 and a finding by the then District Auditor indicated that the decision to proceed with weekly publication was lawful and justified having regard to the provisions of the Publicity Code. The Secretary of State’s provisional view is that these arguments do not sufficiently outweigh the case for as far as practicable maintaining an environment as conducive as possible to the flourishing of an independent and politically free local media, which is an essential element of any effectively operating local democracy.
The London Borough of Tower Hamlets has not drawn to the Secretary of State’s attention any other special circumstances that could justify a departure from the frequency recommendations of the Publicity Code nor is the Secretary of State aware of such circumstances. Moreover, in any event, the Secretary of State considers it likely that were there to be any such circumstances, these would only justify one or two extra ‘special’ editions each year.
Public sector equality duty
In considering the impact of any direction on the London Borough of Tower Hamlets’ public sector equality duty, the Secretary of State has noted that the Council consider that a printed weekly newsletter is “particularly important amongst those seeking work, older white residents and BME residents”.
The Council also state that there is reliance upon ‘East End Life’ by “key demographic subgroups in the Council’s area which, if there was no weekly publication, would otherwise have limited access to relevant information”. The Secretary of State also notes that the Council state that broadband access in Tower Hamlets has increased to 85 per cent and that the Council “would willingly negotiate a manageable timescale for transition to digital delivery”.
The Secretary of State recognises it may be the case, as the London Borough of Tower Hamlets have commented, that some groups in the community that display particular protected characteristics, such as age, disability or religion/belief will less readily be able to obtain the information currently circulated in ‘East End Life’ and hence all other things being equal could be adversely impacted.
However, the Secretary of State believes that it is open to a council having such protected groups to effectively communicate as necessary with them about the services and other matters which are the responsibility of the council without publishing newssheets more frequently than quarterly.
The Secretary of State recognises that the great majority of councils already publish their newssheets no more frequently than quarterly, notwithstanding the wide range of groups that display protected characteristics in the areas of many councils.
Moreover, even if there is an adverse impact the Secretary of State’s provisional view is that the proposed Direction would be justified because of the Government’s overriding policy of maintaining across the whole country an environment that is conducive as possible to the flourishing of the independent and politically free local media. Such media is an essential element of any effectively operating local democracy and hence the pursuit of this policy is a high priority.
DCLG explains that publicity by local authorities should:
- be lawful
- be cost effective
- be objective
- be even-handed
- be appropriate
- have regard to equality and diversity
- be issued with care during periods of heightened sensitivity
It does not inhibit publicity produced by political parties or councillors at their own expense.
And it says, “On appropriate publicity the Code states that:
Where local authorities do commission or publish newsletters, news-sheets or similar communications, they should not issue them more frequently than quarterly, apart from parish councils which should not issue them more frequently than monthly.
And here are some more pictures of council waste: