Councils Told To Stop Using Taxpayers Money For Own Publicity

Revised code of practice evens 'unfair' competition with independent local media


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New proposals to stop taxpayers' money being used to publish Council newspapers and magazine or hire lobbyists have been announced by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles.

In recent years there has been a marked growth in the frequency and scope of council publicity techniques funded by taxpayers' money, whilst local independently owned media have struggled. This year saw the demise of Hounslow and Brentford Times after more than a century in print.

A consultation published this week outlines new proposals to tighten up the publicity rules for councils so they guard against campaigning with public funds. Mr Pickles has previously raised strong concerns over such practices and pledged to rewrite the rule book.

The new proposals set out specific rules to stop council's publishing newspapers or magazines more often than four times a year and to prevent the hiring of lobbyists. Instead, Ministers believe councils should redirect resources into protecting front line services.

A spokesperson for Hounslow Council said: "The council has not produced a borough magazine since March 2010. We are currently reviewing the options for the future of the magazine."

The proposals also give more transparency and certainty to local authorities and political parties about exhibition stands at party conferences, for example, by distinguishing between the promotion of a local area for tourism purposes and the taxpayer-funded lobbying of politicians.

Mr Pickles emphasised that he believed the assumption should be that all council publicity would be clearly branded material, issued solely to explain services, and not to influence opinion. He said: "An independent local press is an essential part of our open democracy helping local people scrutinise and hold elected councillors to account. The rules around council publicity have been too weak for too long allowing public money to be spent on wasteful town hall papers that have left many local media looking over the abyss. The proposals I am publishing today will close off these inappropriate practices and encourage councils to focus taxpayers' money on where it should be spent - protecting frontline services."

The revised Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity includes proposals for seven new central principles that will make sure that council publicity is lawful, cost effective, objective, even handed and appropriate, and that it has regard to equality and diversity and is issued with care during periods of heightened sensitivity.

In particular, the new rules would define 'appropriate use of publicity' in relation to council newspapers and use of lobbyists:

* Councils should not publish newspapers in direct competition to local press. They should not appear more than quarterly and should only include material directly related to council services.
* Councils should not spend taxpayers' money to lobby government through private sector lobbyists or through publicity stalls at party conferences.

September 29, 2010