Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Local Government, may not be so welcome next time he comes to Hammersmith & Fulham. He's just announced a toughening up of rules governing taxpayer-funded council newspapers, such as H&F News, which he calls "Town Hall Pravdas". The goal is to apparently ensure a robust and healthy independent local press can continue to scrutinise the activities of local councils.
Our own Council is one of the worst offenders in the country, with Conservative MPs slamming H&F News for being a propaganda organ dressed up as a legitamate newspaper. The high profile but ultimately fruitless campaign waged by the Fulham Chronicle against what the Government is now calling "propaganda on the rates" even reached David Cameron's front door.
The steady creep of publicity beyond council-related matters started in 2001 when a watering down of a statutory code lifted the restrictions on council publicity. The new Secretary of State intends to clamp down on this by making changes to the statutory code that will stop unfair competition, ensure a tougher value for money test, and prevent municipal literature passing itself off as independent journalism.
Eric Pickles said:
"The previous Government's weakening of the rules on town hall publicity not only wasted taxpayers' money and added to the wave of junk mail, but has undermined a free press.
"Councils should spend less time and money on weekly town hall Pravdas that end up in the bin, and focus more on frontline services like providing regular rubbish collections.
"In an internet age, commercial newspapers should expect over time less state advertising as more information is syndicated online for free. The flipside is our free press should not face state competition from propaganda on the rates dressed up as local reporting."
Hear, hear. Council Leader Stephen Greenhalgh has made a "solemn pledge" to cut the Council's "debt mountain", and the axe has already started to swing on frontline services to the most vulnerable. How about following your own Conservative Government on this one and save us all a lot of money at a stroke? Deal or no deal?