The government is set to invoke the ‘letter of the law’ to councils which continue to publish Town Hall Pravda newspapers.
Five local authorities have been put on notice by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and face imminent legal action unless they scale back their publications.
And seven more – including four Tory administrations – have been sent a first warning shot across the bows to ensure publishing their news sheets is in line with publicity rules designed to protect the freedom of the regional press.
The latest burst of activity comes a full six months after new ministerial regulations were introduced to ensure council newspapers published no more than four times a year and should not “seek to compete with other local independent publications.”
In a tough warning, Eric Pickles said: “A small, hard core minority of councils are undermining the free press and wasting taxpayers’ money on political propaganda.
“Local democracy and localism needs independent journalism to scrutinise councils and hold them to account.
“Parliament has changed the law to allow action to be taken against these Town Hall Pravdas. We have put them on notice that ministers are prepared to use these legal powers, if necessary, after due consideration and process.”
Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest, Newham and Greenwich councils were all told last April to comply with government guidelines restricting the regular publication of council newspapers.
The action was taken against the municipal newspapers Hackney Today, the Newham mag and Waltham Forest News, all of which are published fortnightly, and Greenwich Time and East End Life, which are weekly.
The affected boroughs could now face the prospect of possible court orders requiring them to scale back or scrap the papers as ministers were now ‘minded to intervene’ against the councils.
But Hackney Council says it sent a comprehensive response to the secretary of state in April, setting out the full benefits of circulating Hackney Today to the residents on a fortnightly basis
“We did not receive any further response from the Government on the matter,” a council spokesperson said.
Hackney and other boroughs insist their publications dramatically reduce the cost of publishing statutory notices, required under the law.
Greenwich Council recently defended the continued publication of its weekly newspaper Greenwich Time on the basis that publishing statutory notices in the local press would cost them in excess of £1.3 million.
However a leaked letter to the authority revealed that one newspaper had actually offered to publish the notices at almost half that cost.
And owners of the Mercury and South London Press also offered to take over Greenwich Time as a going concern, but were rejected out of hand by the council.
Secretary of State Pickles has been accused of waging a political campaign against predominantly Labour authorities with four of the five boroughs facing imminent action from the government being Labour controlled.
However, last month the department wrote to a further seven local authorities across the country warning them to scale back their publication of council newspapers.
The local authorities newly contacted by the department include Conservative-controlled Luton, Medway, Mid Devon and North Somerset councils plus Enfield, Hillingdon and Lambeth.
Mr Pickles added: “It is scandalous that bloggers have been handcuffed for tweeting from council meetings, while propaganda on the rates drives the free press out of business. Only Putin would be proud of a record like that.”