Hackney Council has agreed to take the government to court after being told to stop publishing its taxpayer-funded freesheet Hackney Today more than four times per year.
At a meeting last night the council’s cabinet agreed to seek a judicial review if local government secretary James Brokenshire “maintains the current directions” instructing the council to cut Hackney Today from fortnightly to quarterly.
The government has repeatedly said Hackney Today violates the Publicity Code and in April ordered the council to switch to quarterly publication by September 2018.
The council argues the direction was issued unlawfully, and adds that cutting back publication would cost the council money and harm disadvantaged groups which could not access council information online.
The legal challenge would involve “co-operation and cost-sharing” with Waltham Forest Council, which announced a similar plan earlier this month after receiving the same direction about its own freesheet, Waltham Forest News.
Hackney Council and Waltham Forest are the only two local authories in London to still publish fortnightly freesheets after Tower Hamlets scrapped East End Life in 2016.
The cabinet also agreed to continue to publish Hackney Today in the meantime “notwithstanding the purported directions” from the government.
Mayor Philip Glanville, in his introduction to a report for the meeting, said: “We believe that to restrict ourselves to quarterly publication would substantially damage our ability to communicate and engage with our residents, especially those who are hardest to reach, may face challenges around the digital divide, and who often have most need of our services.
“There is also a very clear financial argument for fortnightly publication, which whilst local government remains obliged to place most statutory notices in a newspaper, is a format that continues to save us money, and allows us to control our advertising costs, at a time when we are still under considerable financial pressure.”
Hackney Today costs the council around £500,000 per year to produce, though this is offset by the freesheet’s income, which ranges from £100,000 to £50,000 in both council and external advertising.
The council estimates the cost of scrapping the paper and releasing information through other means would cost around £557,000.
This breaks down as £215,000 to produce a quarterly publication, £196,500 to place statuatory notices in local paper the Hackney Gazette, and £145,000 on leaflets, guides and newsletters on specific issues.
The Mayor concluded: “In short, we believe that it is vital we maintain a regular print communications outlet for the benefit of all our residents, that doing that four times a year is woefully insufficient for our needs and for the reasons outlined in relation to statutory notices, other advertising and communication, cost more than Hackney Today.
“It is right that we should defend our right to engage with local people in the ways that work best for our communities.
“Our legal advice supports that, and I would ask cabinet to agree the recommendation that we challenge the Secretary of State’s direction, if he issues it, further to our new representations.”