Town Hall chief executive Tim Shields has penned a bullish response to the government’s threat of legal action over its taxpayer-funded freesheet Hackney Today.
Earlier this month, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid issued a notice that means Hackney Council could end up in court if it fails to cut back its freesheet from a fortnightly to a quarterly.
The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) gave the council 14 days to accept the ruling and until 6 February 2018 to comply.
But in a letter to DCLG last week, Town Hall chief executive Tim Shields accused Javid of failing to “give the authority an opportunity to comment upon the reasons and/or evidence” for the directions, adding: “This should hardly be controversial.”
He went to write: “Not only will the council need proper time to make its representations, it will require further information from the Secretary of State about the decision-making process to date, and about the evidence upon which [he] purports to rely.”
Shields also questioned the DCLG’s recent “urgency” after Javid “sat on the matter for nearly a year”.
He added: “In circumstances in which the Secretary of State has procrastinated, without explanation, over a 3½ year period, it is simply unacceptable (and unlawful) to behave as though the matter was one of great urgency.”
Government rules stipulate that freesheets like Hackney Today should not be published more often than quarterly.
Neighbouring Tower Hamlets Council complied with this order in June last year, replacing its fortnightly East End Life with the quarterly Our East End.
But Hackney Council has so far refused to budge, arguing that Hackney Today “provides the best value for money solution for the council to regularly and effectively communicate with its diverse communities”.
DCLG, which told the Citizen it would be responding to Shields’ letter in due course, has previously stated: “The government expects all councils to comply with local government publicity rules, which are there to protect local taxpayers.
“This expectation includes the requirement that councils do not publish a newsletter more than quarterly.”
Last month, Mayor Philip Glanville defended the council freesheet at his Mayor’s Question Time, saying: “Hackney Today is a rare thing, and it’s a controversial thing for some, but actually having a council newspaper that goes to every door and promotes events like this isn’t available to most councils.”
A recent London Assembly report on ‘The Fate of Local News’ concluded: “Local newspapers have, in some cases, been negatively affected by local authorities regularly publishing their own newsletters. While these newsletters have their place, they should not be a substitute for local news.”
The Citizen has revealed how Hackney Today might not comply with the legal requirements of a newspaper carrying statutory notices.