Pickled Pickles and his newspaper nonsense
The plans from Eric Pickles Land to restrict local authority newspapers and newsletters, the consultation document for which emerged from CLCG yesterday, are interesting.
Well, it’s called a consultation. It’s actually more of a decree.
How Pickles new raft of instructions about what local authorities can’t do ties in with the Tories’ much vaunted localism is not very clear, but then little that Eric Pickles has recently said seems to back that pre-election narrative.
Indeed, how instruction on how frequently a newsletter can be published ties in at all with the Coalition’s ‘manifesto’ commitment to allow local authorities do anything they consider to be in the interests of their citizens (the Powers of General Competence), is quite beyond me. Does Pickles not actually understand that these new powers are specifically drafted, for better but mostly for worse, to make any existing or new legislation an irrelevance?
In fact what is now proposed is actually nothing much more than a redrafting and tightening of guidance issued previously as part of Thatcher’s attempts to curb the ‘loonie left’ councils of the 1980s (for the obsessive, Dept of the Environment Circular 20/88 pursuant to the Local Govt Act 1986 Ch10 Part 2). Para 13 of that code in particular reflects the paranoia then at play:
Where publicity is used to comment on, or respond to, the policies and proposals of central government, other local authorities or other public authorities, the comment or response should be objective, balanced, informative, and accurate. It should aim to set out the reasons for the council’s views, and should not be a prejudiced, unreasoning or political attack on the policies or proposals in question or on those putting them forward. Slogans alone will not be an adequate means of justifying or explaining the authority’s views or their policy decisions.
So while the overt purpose for the new guidance may be that “the existing rules on local authority publicity have resulted in taxpayers’ money being wasted and the free press being undermined”, the cynic in me suggests that Pickles is less concerned with the survival of local newspapers than he is about councils saying things the Tories don’t like.
The idea that central government guidance is needed to protect local newspapers is, in any event, a bit far-fetched, as it is based on the assumption that council newspapers/newsletters reduce the sales/advertising income of local papers.
This is very certainly not the case in most areas of the country, where council publications are neither frequent nor in any way newspaper-like.
There are exceptions, as in Tory-controlled Hammersmith and Fulham, where the local Tories’ plans for their council paper seem to run totally counter to what Pickles is now instructing, but surely the best way for Pickles to deal with this difference in viewpoints is for him to give the Tory leader there a call and ask him to stop it, either nicely or with threats.
In other areas, if and where the local newspaper does feel it is suffering from the presence of the taxpayer-funded freebie, then surely the Tories’ logic, as expressed through its Powers of General Competence plans, should be that this is a matter for local politics and politicians, with local elections potentially won or lost on the basis of manifesto commitments to keep/axe the local council newspaper.
Why is Pickles, then ‘taking a hammer to crack a nut’? I think the suspicion must be that Pickles’ rhetoric on this subject is little more than, on the one hand, self-promotion of himself as no-nonsense strongman, and on the other as early planning to take on the new brand of ‘loonie left’ councils which may emerge in the next year or two.
Of course, the drafting of new guidance which may have no weight of authority anyway if the Powers of General Competence do come into being as planned, will cost plenty of civil service time and money, as well as the time and resources needed in both Houses, under the 1986 Act (Part 2, Para 4.6), to bring into force. I suspect Pickles has not considered that.
None of this means I support the growth of local authority PR machinery. I do not, and have said so forcefully, as it relates to right-wing councils like mine using their resources to sell a vision of themselves which not only has no basis on reality, but which also leads to acts of self-delusion.
But what I am saying is that this step not new, in that it simply tightens guidance in a way which is probably not necessary, possibly unenforceable, and is a waste of taxpayer money in itself.
Then there’s the final, glorious illogic of the new guidance.
Pickles’ guidance seeks to be absolutely clear about how often local authorities can publish newsletters and newspapers:
Where local authorities do commission or publish newssheets, they should not issue them more frequently than quarterly (Para. 28)
The problem is that, under the 1986 Act, ‘local authority’ is interpreted to mean a whole range of elected authorities, including ‘a parish or community council’ (Para 6).
And how do these Parish or Community Councils gain the much sought after Quality Parish Council status? They have to:
produce and publish a regular newsletter at least four times a year (Test 4).
So to stay onside with the law, a Parish Council won’t be able to produce anything more frequently than quarterly, and to keep its Quality Parish Council status, it can’t do it less than quarterly.
And the Tories accused Labour of overbearing managerialsm?