Vanity publish and be damned: Why municipal magazines have had their day

Britain's 'town hall Pravdas' are under attack. To the Government, they're a waste of money; to local papers, they're unfair competition.

With local authorities across Britain switching off street lights to save money, some council tax-payers might be surprised to find a glossy magazine, funded with their taxes, thrust through their letterbox with the pizza flyers and minicab cards.

Publications with heartening cover shots of cheering children, beaming gym instructors and exploding fireworks reassure readers in both cities and shires with positive messages.

So while the Local Government Association warns of cuts to vital services such as home help for the elderly and disabled, the latest edition of Northumberland News, an A4 full-colour 32-page magazine launched last year, contains reports on the Princess Royal's visit to the region and the plans to illuminate the Royal Border Bridge in Berwick to mark the 160th anniversary of it being built.

The magazine, delivered to 142,000 households and to businesses with more than 25 employees, is also produced in large print and Braille. It competes for attention and advertising with local media such as the Berwick Advertiser and the Northumberland Gazette. In his column, Northumberland County Council's Jeff Reid notes that when this edition went to press "we were waiting to find out what October's Government spending review would hold in store". He hoped Northumbria's winter weather would not repeat last year's "record-breaking freeze". A spokeswoman for Northumberland County Council said the monthly publication of the magazine was under review as part of a wider audit of services but argued that the title performed an important role. "We have a duty to communicate," she said.

According to an audit of 436 local authorities conducted for The Newspaper Society last year, more than 90 per cent of English councils publish a periodical and around 150 contain private sector advertising. The Society is concerned that the publicly-funded titles are undermining commercial newspaper businesses at a time when many already face chronic trading conditions. Although some titles are simple newsprint products carrying basic details of council services, others are glossy magazines with high production values.

The Government has voiced its concerns and if the titles continue to be made, councils could find themselves in court for breaking new laws. A consultation period on proposed changes to the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity closed on Wednesday. Under the proposed changes, set to become law in January, councils would be forced to limit publications to no more than four editions a year.

The plans, put forward by the Communities Secretary and former Conservative Party chairman Eric Pickles, are controversial. Some local authorities claim that the restrictions will oblige them to spend heavily on publishing public notices elsewhere, increasing the overall burden on community charge payers.

Pickles is unrepentant and says the restrictions would apply to all types of local authority publication, not just the newspapers which he pointedly likens to Soviet-style propaganda, although councils of all political hues are producing magazines.

"Councils won't get away with trying to dress up their town hall Pravdas as glossy magazines in a bid to peddle their propaganda through the back door," says Pickles. "Our proposals will close off these inappropriate practices and make sure that councils focus taxpayers' money on where it should be spent – protecting frontline services."

The Communities Secretary chose the London Borough of Newham, which produces a 40-page fortnightly glossy The Newham Mag, for special criticism. "The practice of Labour-run local authorities like Newham spending public money like it's going out of fashion on vanity publications is disgraceful and totally self-serving."

The latest – 207th – edition of The Newham Mag, is a well-meaning mix of community journalism, including an initiative to encourage voting for a young mayor, an anti-smoking campaign, and a "Mayor's View" from Sir Robin Wales paying tribute to the late Mohinder Singh Pujji, a Battle of Britain veteran fighter pilot who had been given the freedom of the borough.

A spokesman for Newham council said it enjoyed a "good, professional working relationship" with the local Newham Recorder and has taken steps to avoid driving the newspaper out of business. "We have avoided direct competition by not issuing council information in newspaper format and not withdrawing advertising from the paper towards our own publications," he said. "Recent research shows that more than 80 per cent agreed The Newham Mag told them what they needed to know about local issues. Residents value our publication, which has been in circulation since 2000."

Amid increasing public concern over pressure on frontline services, some local authorities are scaling back their publishing ambitions. Shropshire Council announced in September that it was scrapping Your Shropshire magazine. "In the current climate, a quarterly magazine through every Shropshire door was starting to look increasingly at odds with our drive for efficiency," said council leader Keith Barrow. "I've asked staff to come up with more cost-effective, environmentally-sustainable alternatives."

This year, the London Borough of Richmond, one of the most affluent neighbourhoods in the country, axed its rather smugly titled resident magazine Arcadia. "I feel magazines like Arcadia from the 'Radio Town Hall' tradition have had their day," said Nicholas True, the Conservative Leader of the Council, anticipating the thinking of the Government. "We are fortunate in Richmond upon Thames to have superb local papers which are read and trusted by a large number of residents. They generally report on the Council in a fair and balanced way. We should be working with these local papers as far as is possible."

The Conservative-run Isle of Wight Council produces (with partners including Hampshire Police) a stylish bi-monthly, One Island. In Stoke-on-Trent, where the council is having to lay off more than 700 staff, money is still found to produce the award-winning Our City glossy, which can boast of being the "Best-Designed Council Publication". A recent edition, boasting pop stars The Saturdays and Jedward on the cover, would not have looked out of place on any news-stand. Tom Reynolds, Stoke-on-Trent City Council cabinet member for communications and community engagement, said: "If the Government does impose a limit of four publications a year we will look at changing the frequency of Our City. Council publications may have been town hall Pravdas during Eric Pickles' days as a council leader, but Our City offers essential updates to every resident and business. It makes the council process open and transparent – something the council could not provide without such a dedicated resource."

The London Borough of Southwark produces a smart-looking monthly, Southwark Life, which this month bases a piece on a recycling initiative around a woman who makes frocks from bin liners. An interview follows with Barry Albin-Dyer, the owner of a 200-year-old firm of funeral directors. He talks about organising the funeral of reality TV star Jade Goody. "I was chair of school governors when she was at St James's so I saw a lot of Jade Goody. She was always in trouble. But she was also hugely funny as a kid," he recalls. It's the sort of stuff any regional newspaper editor would lap up but Peter John, leader of Southwark Council, says the authority has a good relationship with the local press.

"Unlike just about anywhere else in the country, this borough has a healthy local newspaper title, called the Southwark News, which is independent of a large media group," he says. "The council magazine doesn't carry non-council news and doesn't proactively seek out advertising."

The Star in Sheffield is less convivial when it comes to Sheffield City Council's free Your Sheffield magazine. This year it ran a story based on Freedom of Information requests which revealed the authority was spending £190,000 a year on the 24-page quarterly, distributed to 235,000 homes in the city.

The Newspaper Society fears that local authorities will attempt to make their publications exempt from the new code by producing them with partner organisations such as police forces and health authorities. It is urging Mr Pickles to clamp down not just on magazines and newspapers but all forms of council publishing. "We are making the point to the Government about effective implementation and enforcement," says the society's Lynne Anderson.

"We are stressing the importance of encompassing within the Code all council media channels which compete with independent media, including websites, electronic newsletters and TV services."

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