Councils on notice for potential legal action over frequency of newspaper publishing

Sajid Javid, the Local Government Secretary, has threatened two London councils with legal action for repeatedly breaching the Government's Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity.

The Secretary for Local Government has told Hackney and Waltham Forest councils to stop publishing newspapers fortnightly
The Secretary for Local Government has told Hackney and Waltham Forest councils to stop publishing newspapers fortnightly
The code stipulates that council newsletters and similar publications should not be published more than quarterly, to protect the interests of local newspapers by preventing unfair competition.

However, the guidance has been disregarded by the London Boroughs of Waltham Forest and Hackney for several years, with both councils publishing fortnightly newspapers.

This has provoked a long-running dispute with government officials that resulted in Javid taking the unusual step of issuing a direction against the two councils.

Local authorities have a statutory obligation to pay careful attention to the Code and the Secretary of State has the power to direct a local authority to comply with it.

Javid’s decision to issue directions against the councils, taken last November, means they have effectively been put on notice that if they do not comply with the code they may face legal action. 

Commenting on his decision, Javid said: "An independent free press is vital for local democracy… councils shouldn’t undermine local democracy by publishing their own newspapers more often than quarterly."

He added: "While the majority of councils abide by the Publicity Code, Hackney and Waltham Forest have ignored repeated requests to stop publishing their council newspapers so frequently. In the interests of local democracy, I will therefore use my powers to require them to do so."

However, subsequent requests by the councils for further time to make their case have prompted Javid to back down from his original decision, with the local authorities having instead been threatened with having directions issued against them.

A Waltham Forest council spokesperson said, "The Government’s direction from November has been withdrawn. Instead, the council was asked to make representations on the Government’s intention to issue a notice. We await a response."

In a statement, a spokesperson for Hackney Council commented: "After further correspondence, the Secretary of State gave Hackney the opportunity to make further representations before making a final decision about whether to issue a direction, and we are awaiting his response to those representations."

They added: "Hackney has argued, as we have done many times, that Hackney Today provides us with a highly effective and cost-effective way of engaging with and informing Hackney’s diverse communities, and that to reduce frequency would increase our costs and damage our ability to communicate with our residents."

However, the threat of legal action remains one of the options open to Javid. A spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: "Hackney and Waltham Forest had until 5 January to make representations and have done so. The Secretary of State is now considering what next steps to take."

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