Ultimately the debate is about freedom of information, the right of the citizen and the duty of the council
This week LGC broke the news that Eric Pickles plans to remove the requirement for councils to publish statutory notices in local papers within two years.
The news was welcomed by councils and condemned by the newspaper lobby. Much of the argument has revolved around money. The LGA says that publishing statutory notices costs councils £26m per year. Some authorities have focused on the saving, while the newspaper industry has focused on the financial risk to struggling newspapers.
Bob Satchwell of the Society of Editors told LGC that his organisation would fight the move. He says the financial arguments are overrated. The real issue, he says, is that residents won’t actively go looking for notices, so they should be displayed where residents will stumble across them. He is right. But his logic is flawed - his arguments are precisely the reason that newspapers are the wrong place for statutory notices.
When averaged out, the cost to each of England’s councils of publishing notices is about £82,000 - or to put it another way revenue of about £58,000 for each of the 450 paid-for local papers known to the Audit Bureau of Circulation (less if free sheets are included). Not a game changing amount for councils, as Mr Satchwell observes. Painful, but not on its own enough to finish off the papers either.
The issue is, as Mr Satchwell identifies, visibility - placement of the notices so that members of the public are likely to see them. Local papers’ ability to do so has dropped as circulation has fallen - in significant measure. Spring 2013 figures showed a year on year reduction of 6.4%. Figures from 2012 suggest a 20% drop for the five preceding years.
There may be savings to be made but the change should predominantly be about how to spend that budget more effectively - spending the same or less to inform more people than at present. It makes sense to put notices on the council websites, but this will not be the main way residents see them.
Instead councils must use technology to make information more ‘discoverable’ - smart keyword-led online advertising, adverts on hyperlocal news sites and blogs, using Bluetooth to push messages to mobile phones in public spaces and even using targeted advertising on social networks. This will increase the reach of the message and the range of that reach.
Digital activity is not a solution on its own. Print will remain important. Council publications offer an opportunity (and have universal coverage across a council area, if not the same reader appeal as a paid-for newspaper). Increasingly parish and resident association newsletters may also be an option. And local papers will be able to offer an appropriate option in many places.
Ultimately the debate is about freedom of information, the right of the citizen to that information - and the duty of the council to provide it widely. It is disappointing (if not surprising) that Mr Pickles’ view seems to be that the quid pro quo for removing the statutory notices requirement is that councils stop communicating to residents via their publications.