How do we reform local government spending on public notices?
Local councils spend tens of millions of pounds to publish notices in newspapers up and down the UK. Almost none of the money goes to small, independent publishers, instead lining the coffers of corporate giants. Jonathan Heawood writes about our attempts to untangle the arcane policies that got us here, and our new effort to fix them.
How much do local councils spend on public notices in newspapers across the UK? In 2012, according to the Local Government Information Unit, it was £67.85m. In 2022, we calculated that it was £46.29m.
No-one knows the exact figure – but it’s clearly in the tens of millions of pounds. What we do know is that almost none of this effective subsidy goes to independent local news publishers, whilst the vast majority flows to the dominant corporate publishers, National World, Newsquest and Reach.
On the face of it, the system is simple. Local authorities are obliged by law to publish information about issues affecting local residents, from licensing applications and planning notices to tenders and highway closures. They can’t just put this information on council websites, because of the risk that no-one would see it. So, they pay local newspapers to run public notices.
At PINF, we’ve been speaking to independent local news publishers around the country to understand their concerns about the present system.
Erica Roffe at the Bedford Independent told us that ‘a substantial portion of taxpayers’ money in Bedford Borough is being spent by our local authority on public notices lining the pockets of the hedge fund managers who own the local legacy print title.’
She pointed out that ‘this is despite a constantly dwindling circulation and a constantly rising population. Copies of the paper feature nine to 11 “news” stories per week, most – if not all – of which have already been published on their website. With lower overheads and higher circulation, we would not only save the taxpayer money by charging a fraction of the cost demanded by our print rival, but public notices would reach a far wider and more engaged audience.’
Daniel Ionescu of The Lincolnite and MyLocal says that corporate publishers are receiving millions of pounds from Lincolnshire councils without having a single political reporter or an office in the area. In 2016, his reporters calculated that local councils had spent more than £3.1m on public notices over five years – of which The Lincolnite received nothing. In 2021, a Freedom of Information request revealed that Lincolnshire County Council alone had spent more than £461,000 in a single year.
Tabitha Stapely, founder and director of Social Streets CIC in East London, pointed out that public notices can provide ‘a viable revenue for indies, in all their shapes and sizes, without relying on government handouts or capricious big tech schemes.’
Another independent editor told us that ‘there is a tangible benefit to a community in seeing a local authority spend money with a community business, rather than shovelling it to shareholders in the United States.’
So, why is so much public money flowing into the coffers of so few companies? Local authorities seem to believe that they are obliged to place public notices in local newspapers that are printed on a daily, weekly or fortnightly basis – even if these titles aren’t widely read in the area and have no reporters on the ground.
Each type of public notice is covered by its own legal requirements, but all of them –we believe – are underpinned by the same definition of ‘newspaper’. So, what is this definition? Does it accurately capture the state of the media in the early twenty-first century?
Er, perhaps not. Because the definition of ‘newspaper’ that is channeling a significant subsidy to the legacy newspaper industry comes from the Newspaper and Libel Registration Act 1881, which states:
‘The word “newspaper” shall mean any paper containing public news, intelligence, or occurrences, or any remarks or observations therein printed for sale, and published in England or Ireland periodically, or in parts or numbers at intervals not exceeding twenty-six days between the publication of any two such papers, parts, or numbers.’
This definition is about as relevant to today’s local news market as Treasure Island (also published in 1881) is to today’s shipping industry.
AI image of a pirate reading a newspaper, generated by StableDiffusionXL.
When the DCMS Select Committee investigated the sustainability of local journalism, MPs heard many concerns about the public notice regime.
The Committee discussed this with the Minister, Julia Lopez, who said:
‘Given how fluid the industry is and how there are more publications coming online, questions probably need to be asked about the reach and audience levels of different publications and how that is measured and determined in the rules that govern public notices. I am very happy to look into this in greater detail.’
However, after the Committee published its report, asking ‘how the revenue stream from statutory notices can be made more easily accessible for new entrants to the local news market’, the government backtracked, saying that the ‘sudden withdrawal’ of statutory notice revenue ‘would seriously damage the sector and […] that government intervention has the potential to adversely impact an already fragile industry.’
This misses the point. Nobody is asking the government to withdraw public notices from the local news industry. They are simply asking for this revenue to be made available to a wider range of publishers, including digital first and digital only publishers, who often reach wider audiences than their corporate counterparts. This change would have the dual advantage of stimulating the local news economy and ensuring that more people see these important notices.
At PINF, we are concerned about this situation because of the effect it has on local communities. In order for communities to thrive, they need a vibrant information ecosystem, where councils share important information and publishers run sustainable news organisations.
There is a win-win here, where councils and local news publishers meet each other’s needs in a way that protects editorial independence. At present, however, the system looks badly broken, and we will be working over the coming months to find a way to fix it, talking to stakeholders and policymakers in order to understand and remedy the situation.
We encourage anyone with an interest in this issue, whether you work in local news or local government, to get in touch with us, so that we can build an accurate understanding of what’s currently going on and form sensible recommendations to make the public notice regime fit for purpose.
Jonathan Heawood is Executive Director at PINF.