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‘Town hall pravda’ clampdown set to become law

The government’s plans to introduce a four-a-year limit on the publication of council newspapers have cleared both houses of Parliament.

But some peers questioned whether communities secretary Eric Pickles’ curbs on so-called ‘town hall pravdas’ amounted to a “sledeghammer to crack a nut.”

The introduction of an updated code of practice on council publicity comes in light of complaints that council freesheets pose a threat to local and regional newspapers.

But the Government’s plans were criticised last night by Labour local government spokesman Lord Beecham and some Liberal Democrat peers.

Local government minister Baroness Hanham, introducing the code to the Lords, said it was aimed at addressing the “the problem of unfair competition by taxpayer-funded local authority newspapers.”

She went on: “This competition can have a detrimental effect on commercial and local newspapers.”

Tory ex-Cabinet minister Lord Fowler, the former chairman of Midland Independent Newspapers, backed the new code, arguing that councils were attempting to take over the role of the press.

He said: “The regional and local press has a proud record in this country of exposing injustice and at times exposing corruption. Too often councils are trying to take over the role of local independent newspapers without the necessary qualification of independent judgment.”

But Lord Beecham, a member of Newcastle City Council for 44 years, pointed to a decline in the quantity of reporting of local authority activities.

And fellow Newcastle councillor Lord Shipley, a Lib Dem, added: “I don’t think it is the business of Government to be legislating on whether a newsletter should be published quarterly or bi-monthly and it just seems to me here we are in very great danger of producing a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”

The Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity was agreed by peers without a vote after MPs had earlier accepted it by 297 votes to 187.

Councils are not legally compelled to follow the code – which also contains provisions to stop councils employing lobbyists to attempt to influence MPs or the Government – but breaches can be referred to the district auditor.