s300_newspapers-pile-960x640At a time when local government is under pressure to deliver eye-watering cuts to services, local councils are spending millions of pounds on advertising.

Figures compiled from Freedom of Information requests made to six northern councils reveal for the first time the extent of the payments being made to media companies.

In Manchester, spending on advertising in the last financial year topped £600K while Leeds spent £107,735

The expenditure comes at a time when many frontline services are under pressure with support such as bus routes, library services and road repairs under scrutiny.

But when it comes to much of the ad spending, town halls have no choice, the councils are obliged to pay out because legislation requires them to do so

Planning notices, decisions and consultations have to be advertised to the public as what’s called ‘statutory notices’. It covers such important local information as pub licences, planning permissions, road signage etc.

Regardless of how well-read a local newspaper is – or if there are better options such as online dissemination – the current rules require that those adverts you see in the back pages are paid for.

The current system has also drawn criticism from those people who publish much lower cost outlets such as independent websites, newsletters, and magazines and who are prevented from offering an alternative, and possibly cheaper, advertising platform for the councils to communicate with local people.

As public sector PR and communications expert, Dan Slee recently posted, the system is ripe for a change:

“It’s an obscenity that even as libraries close and care is cut that there is a £67.85 million back-door subsidy paid by local government to newspapers.This is the true cost of councils being forced by law to pay over-the-odds for public notices tucked away in the back of printed newspapers being read by fewer and fewer people.

“It is a throwback, a misguided sweetener to the newspaper industry and comes from the days when the local paper was the only show in town.”

Figures show that in the last financial year (2013/14) statutory notices cost:

  • Leeds City £230,807.
  • Liverpool City £117,900
  • Manchester City Council £300,365.
  • Middlesbrough spent £315,100 in total but was unable to break down the notices as a separate figure.
  • Newcastle City Council spent £322, 728 in total but was unable to break down the notices as a separate figure.
  • Sheffield spent £601,734 in total but was unable to break down the notices as a separate figure.

It’s a situation which the local government and communities minister Eric Pickles has now called into question with a pilot scheme intended to bring municipal statutory notices ‘into the 21st century’.

Announcing the scheme Pickles said: “How we consume information has drastically changed with advances in technology. Statutory notices need to change too.

“But previously, there has been a sterile debate based on a binary choice of the total retention or total abolition of requirements to publish notices in local newspapers.

“Instead, we are inviting councils, newspapers and others to pilot innovative ways of improving statutory notices. We want to see how statutory notices can be better published and marketed through the likes of pooled notices in newspapers, improved procurement, digital advertising and location-specific mobile technology.”

The minister added that the Government was “committed to supporting an independent free press, and to ensuring that local taxpayers are better informed about council decisions that affect their lives”.

According to the Department for Communities and Local Government, the pilots will provide evidence about what the public wants to be or should be informed about, how they want to be informed and what works and does not work in meeting the public’s need.

The documents to express an interest in the piloting initiative are available here.The pilots will run from March until August.

Coming up: In the second part to this investigation, I’ll take a look at those who have earned the most from the current system.