Why don’t the rules apply to North Somerset Council?
PUBLISHED: 10:31 15 June 2016 | UPDATED: 10:40 15 June 2016
Senior Government figures have dubbed them ‘Town Hall Pravdas’ and rate them as ‘an abuse of public funds’ – yet North Somerset Council continues to defy Westminster directives by publishing its Life magazine more frequently than it should.
Chancellor George Osborne recently became the latest Government minister to hit out at publications which he says undermine Britain’s ‘astonishing’ and ‘invigorating’ media.
Yet despite being ordered by Whitehall to reduce the frequency of North Somerset Life to once a quarter as far back as 2014, North Somerset continues to publish six editions a year – and admits it intends to do so in 2017 and 2018, too.
The Department for Communities and Local Government continues to insist the Government ‘won’t be afraid to step in’ if councils ignore the rules – yet when pressed by the Mercury for an explanation on why Life has been allowed to contravene the rules, it refused to answer.
It is an issue which was first raised two years ago. The Government had published its Publicity Code in 2011, setting out its expectations relating to the frequency of council publications, but it was not until 2014 that it turned attention to North Somerset.
At that stage, Life was published monthly, so then-Local Government Minister Kris Hopkins wrote to council leader Nigel Ashton to order him to scale it down within 10 days.
At the time, Mr Hopkins said the rules were designed to ensure ‘an environment which is as conducive as possible to the flourishing of the independent local media, an essential element of any effectively operating local democracy’.
Cllr Ashton and council chief executive Mike Jackson argued Life was an essential tool for delivering vital information to residents, describing it as ‘very popular’.
Their claims fell on deaf ears however, and Government pressure saw North Somerset reluctantly concede it would ‘take steps’ to adhere to the rules.
However, two years down the line, a publication described as a ‘needless propaganda vehicle’ and ‘spoon-fed nonsense’ by critics within the council is still published six times a year instead of the required four, at a cost to the public of £163,666.
That has drawn fresh criticism from Liberal Democrat group leader Mike Bell, who has led calls for the money spent on life to be redirected to other services.
He said: “No matter how the council tries to justify it, North Somerset Life exists to promote a very one-sided view of the council’s work. In every single edition it promotes the political leader of the council and his opinions. Not once has it published a single opinion from any opposition voices or any alternative views.
“The council has consistently ignored the Government’s guidelines on local authority publicity. They continued to publish monthly, despite being formally advised to stop. Even now, the council persists in flouting rules designed to protect independent media, ensure fairness and stop taxpayers’ money being wasted on propaganda. It is not on.”
The council cites a comment from Mr Hopkins that he is ‘not aware of any special circumstances’ which would justify North Somerset breaching rules, but such circumstances ‘would only justify one or two extra ‘special’ editions each year’ anyway.
It then says: “We would argue that just because the Secretary of State is not aware of special circumstances in North Somerset does not mean that those circumstances don’t exist.
“Our justification for four issues plus two special editions in summer and winter is due to the nature of our area, and the evidence of the effectiveness of the publication as a means of reaching our residents.”
However, Cllr Bell said: “I might have some sympathy with this argument, except that of course they aren’t ‘special editions’ at all, but just more regular editions. It is published bi-monthly, six times a year, in breach of the Code.
“They could even make an argument for extra ‘special editions’ for areas not covered by the established media, but they aren’t doing that either, but sending it to everyone. It just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.”