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Boroughs lose newspapers court case

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Two London boroughs have lost a High Court challenge to a government direction to stop publishing fortnightly free newspapers.

Hackney and Waltham Forest LBCs took the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to judicial review over an order that Hackney Today and Waltham Forest News should only appear quarterly.

The dispute goes back to Sir Eric Pickles term as communities secretary when he in 2014 took powers over the frequency of council newspapers.

At that time there were 41 published more often than quarterly, and Mr Pickles argued that they represented unfair competition for advertising for local newspapers.

Hackney and Waltham Forest challenged the government on grounds of misdirection in law, abuse of power, irrationality, breach of the public sector equality duty and state aid.

But Mrs Justice Andrews ruled against them on all counts. Waltham Forest has said it will appeal and Hackney is considering its position.

The boroughs argued that they were required only to have regard to the ministry’s code on council newspapers and so could depart from it if the government had not established there was some detrimental impact on local papers.

The judge said: “If parliament had intended to restrict the secretary of state’s powers to situations in which it was possible to prove that non-compliance had caused material and identifiable prejudice to particular local papers, it could easily have said so; instead, it chose to enact widely drawn powers that can be exercised even if the non-compliance has not yet occurred but is merely threatened (and thus it would be impossible to prove the consequences for the local press).”

Hackney elected mayor Philip Glanville (Lab) said: “We’re disappointed with the outcome of this judicial review and are considering our legal options.

“We rightly considered these guidelines, but always took the view that in Hackney the balance of evidence regards use of taxpayers’ money and informing our communities favours fortnightly publication.”

He said publishing Hackney Today saved the council “tens of thousands of pounds by not having to pay to advertise statutory notices in the local press - and we will keep up our campaign to end this arcane practice”.

A Waltham Forest statement said the requirement to publish these notices in newspapers cost councils £68m, according to a Local Government Information Unit estimate.

It said: “Waltham Forest News was our way of complying that also helps us communicate with all our residents, particularly those who are hardest to reach or who don’t have regular internet access.

“These are often the people most in need of help from our services…therefore we are appealing the decision.”

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