At Budget 2016, the then Chancellor announced a new £1,500 business rates discount for office space occupied by local newspapers as they adapt to new technology and changing circumstances.
New guidance has now been published on the tax breaks, alongside the Communities Minister Marcus Jones sending written notices to 3 councils calling on them to stop publishing regular newsletters - so-called freesheets - more often than quarterly.
Communities Minister Marcus Jones said:
An independent free press is vital for local democracy and it’s important that we support them in holding local leaders to account.
That’s why from next year newspaper offices will benefit from a £1,500 discount on their business rates bills, making a real difference to their overall running costs.
Equally, councils shouldn’t undermine local democracy by publishing their own newsletters, more often than quarterly. I’m offering the small number that aren’t playing by the rules this last chance to put their publishing houses in order or I will use my powers to require them to do so.
Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, said:
Local newspapers play a key role in our society.
As we devolve more power away from Whitehall, it is more crucial than ever that we have a vibrant local press shining a spotlight on politicians and keeping people informed.
These moves will be a real boost for independent local newspapers, allowing them to keep providing the vital journalism which is so important for their communities.
Protecting the press, protecting democracy
Guidance published today (2 December 2016) provides advice to councils about the operation and delivery of the tax-break, to ensure local newspapers across the country benefit.
But in a further show of support Mr Jones also highlighted the need for all councils to comply with the ‘Publicity Code’, which sets out the clear rules they must have regard to when producing any publicity material.
He highlighted this as a key part of protecting the independent press from unfair competition, helping to protect local democracy through independent scrutiny of elected officials. Not only that, it also ensures value for taxpayers’ money.
The vast majority of councils comply with the Code in relation to the provision on frequency of publication- and most recently Luton Borough Council became the latest council to do so - agreeing to publish ‘Lutonline’ no more than 4 times a year, effective from July 2016.
Tower Hamlets also stopped its weekly publication following the intervention of the government-appointed commissioners.
But there are still a small minority of councils not playing by the rules who are in non-compliance with the Code. The London Borough of Hackney, the London Borough of Newham and the London Borough of Waltham Forest are currently publishing their respective newsletters on a fortnightly basis.
The Business Rates relief is specifically for local newspapers. The relief will not be available to magazines. Central government will fully reimburse councils for any relief they grant.
The Publicity Code sets out 7 key principles for local authority publicity. It notes any publicity should:
- be lawful
- be cost-effective
- be objective
- be even-handed
- be appropriate
- have regard to equality and diversity
- be issued with care during periods of heightened sensitivity
In 2011, the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity – the Publicity Code - was updated, and approved by Parliament, to make clear that no council newspaper or magazine should be published more than 4 times a year. The legislation on the Code was strengthened by the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014.
The Communities Secretary has the power to issue a direction requiring a specified authority to comply with some, or all, of the Publicity Code. Sections 4A and 4B were inserted into the Local Government Act 1986 via provisions in the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 which gave the Secretary of State this power.
The Communities Secretary holds these powers under the 1986 Local Government Act – if, once a direction has been issued, the council fails to act they could face a court order requiring them to.
On 19 April this year, the then Secretary of State wrote to three councils that publish their newspapers and magazines on a fortnightly basis.
- The London Borough of Hackney who publish Hackney Today
- The London Borough of Newham who publish The Newham Mag
- The London Borough of Waltham Forest who publish Waltham Forest News
The 3 councils continue to publish their newsletters on a fortnightly basis.
As a result Mr Jones has written “minded to” direction letters to the councils. These are written notices of proposed directions which require the councils to comply with the provision in the Publicity Code about the frequency of publication of council newsletters.
The Secretary of State has carefully considered representations from the 3 councils about their free fortnightly newsletters. In doing so, he has regard to the Equalities Statement on enforcing the Publicity Code before coming to his decision to issue these written notices.
These 3 councils now have 14 days from the date of the notice to make any further representations to the Secretary of State.
Following this, the Communities Secretary may, if he considers it necessary, direct any or all of the Councils to comply with the Code, having had due regard to any further representations received and the Equalities Statement on enforcing the Publicity Code.