You know those rather boring adverts at the back of local newspapers? Pages upon pages of public notices and planning applications, all put there courtesy of your local authority. Many people wonder why on earth in the days of websites all these adverts appear, week after week. Well it’s because local authorities are under a statutory obligation to place them in local papers. It’s the law, you see.

Local authorities would dearly love not to have to do this. They think the same purpose could be served if the adverts and public announcements were put on their websites, thus saving huge amounts of council tax payers’ money. They also argue that they could be included in their regular Pravda-esque freesheets, although these are soon to be banned by Comrade Pickles. (In my view quite rightly, although it is arguable whether it really requires national legislation – surely local voters could vote in a party which promsied to abolsih them? I think that would be called ‘localism’).

So Eric Pickles is really pleased about this and will urge all local authorities to withdraw their local newspaper adverts so they can each save hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, right? Wrong. And it’s for a very simple reason. He doesn’t want to go down in history as the man who killed off the local newspaper industry, because that’s what would happen if these adverts ended. Dozens of local newspaper simply wouldn’t be able to survive the fall in ad revenue they would undoubtedly experience.

So effectively, local government is subsidising local newspapers to the hilt. And council tax is therefore rather higher than it need be.

Local media is important, whether it be print or broadcast. But this cash cow won’t be there for ever and local newspapers would be wise to plan for a future without these public service adverts. Sooner or later they will be gone.

UPDATE: Here’s some information sent to me by a source close to Mr Pickles.

Helen Goodman : To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government if he will deregulate the publication of planning permission applications in local newspapers. 100347
Robert Neill : The hon. Member may not be aware of the fact that the last Administration produced a consultation paper on this issue, proposing to remove the statutory requirements to publish notices in newspapers (Department for Communities and Local Government, ‘Publicity for planning applications’, July 2009). However, this was not well-received. Following that consultation, the Administration concluded:
“The Government has decided not to take forward this amendment. This means that the statutory requirement to publish certain applications in newspapers remains. It is clear from the responses that some members of the public and community groups rely on the statutory notices in newspapers to learn about planning applications in their area. The Government is not convinced that good alternative arrangements can be readily rolled out”. (Department for Communities and Local Government, ‘Publicity for planning applications: Summary of responses to consultation’, December 2009. p.14).
My Department does not have any current plans to remove the statutory requirement for certain planning applications to be advertised in newspapers. Such notices ensure that the public are informed of decisions by their local authority which may affect their quality of life, local amenity or their property. This is especially the case in relation to planning applications, where there is a limited period for local residents to make representations.
Notwithstanding, there is scope for reviewing statutory notices in general. Ministers have been clear that, in an internet age, commercial newspapers should expect over time less state advertising as more information is syndicated online by local authorities for free. The flipside is the free press should not face state unfair competition from town hall newspapers and municipal propaganda dressed up as local reporting.”

In essence, it has have flagged to the newspaper industry that they should expect – down the line – a reduced income from statutory notices, and they should adjust their business models accordingly, and find new ways to raise income and adapt to the internet. My source says: “Equally, some statutory notices are useful, but some aren’t. It very much depends on what the notice is for. The public appreciate planning notices slightly more than – say – temporary road closure notices. But dumping information on an obscure council website doesn’t necessarily mean that people will see it…”