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Hopkins threatens legal action over council newspapers

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Ministers have angered both Conservative and Labour councils by threatening court orders to prevent publication of their newspapers.

Local government minister Kris Hopkins has given 11 councils a fortnight to contest proposed legal directions against cases of weekly or fortnightly publication.

The government’s publicity code allows a maximum of quarterly publication in the interests, it says, of preventing competition with independent local newspapers.

Breaking such a direction could lead to a court order and possible contempt proceedings, Mr Hopkins warned.

The affected councils are Labour-controlled Enfield, Greenwich, Hackney, Lambeth, Newham and Waltham Forest LBCs and Luton BC, and Conservative Hillingdon LBC, Medway Council and North Somerset Council.

Mr Hopkins’ letter said: “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.”

The fight over what communities secretary Eric Pickles has called ‘town hall pravdas’ has gone on for some years and he issued first formal warnings of legal action coming last spring.

Hackney had argued that its monthly publication helped fulfil the public sector equality duty towards residents unable or unwilling to use the internet.

Elected mayor Jules Pipe (Lab) said: “The secretary of state has now accepted in a letter to the council that older people, disabled people and those without access to the internet will be disadvantaged by this absurd war on council publications, with residents being less able to access information about local services.  

“This is a government more interested in forcing taxpayers to subsidise the failing businesses of newspaper barons than in the needs of vulnerable people.”

Tower Hamlets made similar arguments but in reply the government said that even if the point about equalities were true it had an “overriding policy of maintaining across the whole county an environment that is as conducive as possible to the flourishing of an independent and politically free local media”.

A Tower Hamlets statement said the council had “always maintained that our publication is popular with residents, is cost effective and is operated with regard to the publicity code”.

North Somerset leader Nigel Ashton (Con) told Mr Hopkins that the council’s magazine “serves a very different purpose from the local news media, and carries information in a way that the media never would”.

“We have compelling evidence which demonstrates that the costs the council avoids, by using the magazine to promote take-up of certain services which are cheaper to deliver than the alternatives, far outweigh the relatively small investment in the magazine.”

A Luton statement said: “We feel the frequency of council publications should be a matter of local discretion.”

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