Hold the front page: how efficiently does local government communicate?

By: Shimeon Lee, researcher at the TaxPayers' Alliance


Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI), made headlines this week over demands for compensation stemming from changes to the state pension age. They argue that many women received inadequate notice of the changes, a claim that has been bolstered by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) which found that the government “failed to provide accurate, adequate and timely information about areas of State Pension reform”.  While it remains to be seen whether the government will give in to WASPI demands, this episode raises broader questions about the effectiveness of government communication. With council tax bills for the new financial year landing in inboxes, it’s worth looking at how well local government communicates with its residents. How many know about the almost universal rate rises, and for how many will it be a nasty surprise? 


Each year, tens of millions of pounds are spent by local authorities to publish notices in newspapers, including things like planning notices, licensing applications and tenders. The Local Government Association (LGA) estimated in 2023 that upwards of £28 million is spent each year by local authorities on statutory notices, with one council spending £512,000 in 2021/22, while the Public Interest News Foundation (PINF) estimated the sum at £46.29 million. Publishing these notices in print newspapers specifically is a legal requirement for local authorities, one that many argue is increasingly anachronistic in a digital age.


According to a 2021 Ofcom report, less than a third of UK adults use print newspapers as a source of news, compared to 79 and 74 per cent who use television and the internet respectively. This is even more pronounced among younger generations, with just 16 per cent of children aged 12-15 getting their news from print newspapers. Among this group, social media is a growing source of information with 57 per cent citing it as a news source, compared to just 49 per cent of UK adults. At the same time, average daily and weekly print circulation of local newspapers have declined sharply, with 2019 figures just 31 and 39 per cent of their 2007 equivalent, according to a report commissioned by the Department of Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS).  


Of those that still read local newspapers, how many read the statutory notices? And of the few that do read the statutory notices, how many could have been informed through more cost effective means? According to a 2023 LGA report, four in five councils already utilise physical notices on lampposts and buildings, as well as digital solutions such as publishing information on the council website. An online Public Notice Portal was set up by the News Media Association in May 2023 that aggregates public notice data from news publishers, allowing interested parties to search for notices about their local area. Curiously, councils cannot publish notices directly to the portal, but this could easily be implemented at a relatively low cost, as could reaching out to residents through social media which four in ten councils already do.


It is notable that local authorities themselves do not think that publishing statutory notices in newspapers is particularly effective and want to see the requirement changed. The same LGA report found that nine in ten heads of communication at local councils felt that “there are more effective ways to disseminate information”, and that the statutory requirement to publish notices in the local press is “unnecessarily burdensome”. The government’s own independent review into the future of journalism admitted in 2019 that “it is not clear whether it remains the most effective means of advertising public notices”.


The reason given by the government for retaining this archaic system is that it provides an important source of revenue for local newspapers. Yet while many local newspapers do invaluable work, should local authorities be the ones responsible for subsidising them? And even if they should, should the subsidy be provided in such a roundabout way as opposed to directly and transparently with measurable results? Taxpayers deserve to know where their council tax is going and exactly what has been achieved with it.


There are, of course, valid democratic considerations surrounding the publication of statutory notices, chiefly in ensuring that residents are informed about their councils’ activities and can hold them to account. But government ought to keep up with the times, especially if it is possible to achieve the same result at a lower cost. With the decline of print media, and other forms of communication such as social media becoming more prevalent, councils should have the flexibility to respond to the needs of their local area instead of being tied to potentially inefficient and costly methods of communication.

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