Posted by: nigelashtonuk | September 8, 2014

8 September, 2014 11:01

Kris Hopkins MP Minister for Local Government

DCLG

2 Marsham Street

London

SW1P 4DF

Dear Mr Hopkins

RE: CODE OF PRACTICE ON LOCAL AUTHORITY PUBLICITY

I write in response to your letter of 15 August. As you are already aware, I was away when you sent your letter, and am only able to send a full reply now.

North Somerset Council has published North Somerset Life on a monthly basis for ten years, and we have a wealth of evidence to show that the magazine is highly valued by our residents, and making a positive impact on the community.

In North Somerset we have three main newspaper titles – one paid-for daily (serving mainly the Bristol area), one paid for weekly, and one free weekly. An examination of their ABC figures shows that they are largely bucking the national trend of rapidly declining circulations, and have held steady over the past four years. There is certainly no evidence that the presence of a monthly council magazine has affected their circulation or readership in any way.

Our magazine serves a very different purpose from the local news media, and carries information in a way that the media never would. For example, our magazine features in-depth stories about Council services for vulnerable members of the community – including fostering and adoption, short break care for disabled people, community meals and community alarms. We have compelling evidence which demonstrates that the costs the council avoids, by using the magazine to promote take-up of certain services which are cheaper to deliver than the alternatives, far outweigh the relatively small investment in the magazine.

For example, we have used the magazine repeatedly to inform older and more vulnerable residents about the benefits of the ‘Carelink’ community alarm system which gives them peace of mind in their own home, help at the touch of a button, and the confidence to live independently for longer. A concerted effort to promote the service generated 92 new customers. The council saves up to £13,000 a year for every person who is supported at home instead of council-supported residential care, so the magazine potentially saved the council £1.2m in care costs.

A single article to promote the ‘Shared Lives’ scheme – where people open up their homes to accommodate people with learning disabilities – generated 19 enquiries, and, in turn, six approved carers. No other promotional work carried out by the service achieved anywhere near this kind of return.

The magazine costs about £250,000 (gross) a year for 12 editions including all research, writing, design, print and distribution. This equates to 22p per issue per household, including delivery. The cost of a second class stamp alone is currently 50p.

Although we continue to have a healthy local independent print media in North Somerset, the coverage is patchy, and does not reach large parts of our rural hinterland. We have over 90,000 households, but the main local newspapers (North Somerset Times , Bristol Post and Weston Mercury) have a combined circulation of under 50,000. Unlike the London boroughs, we simply don’t have a viable alternative to our own publication as a means of regular communication of important information

In our 2012 survey of local residents, 91 per cent of respondents told us they used the magazine as a source of information about the council and its services. Two thirds of the population read the magazine every month, and 86 per cent read it regularly. 63 per cent of respondents told us that they find the magazine to be a useful source of information about the council and its services.

The magazine is not political, and does not seek to be. You don’t have to take my word for that though. Following the original consultation on the Publicity Code in the autumn of 2010, Sir Merrick Cockell wrote to me and said:

“Thank you for copying me in to your letter to CLG on the Publicity Code consultation.

I thought the response was balanced and accurate and the two examples of North Somerset Life showed exactly the sort of publication that councils should be aiming to produce.

They are first class, do not stray into politics but inform and entertain. There is no possible way they compete with or endanger a vibrant local press. Any local paper that cannot compete does not deserve to survive or be propped-up by statutory notices.

I will use them as examples in discussions with Ministers.”

When my administration came to power in May 2007, I instructed officers to carry out a comprehensive review of the publication and other forms of council publicity as I was not convinced of their efficacy. The outcome of that review was the consolidation of a number of less effective forms of communication into the one monthly magazine, using Royal Mail to ensure delivery to all households in our area. This has also enabled us to lower costs to the council significantly by reducing the number of general publications

and focusing our effort through a single magazine. If we were not able to do this, we may in fact have to reintroduce other more costly means to get messages across.

The magazine is also a very useful tool as a means of conveying messages from central government – free school meals and Individual Electoral Registration – being very recent cases in point. Our ability to do this without a monthly edition would be significantly compromised.

So, in summary, I believe, very strongly, that the magazine, in its current format, is our single most effective means of communicating with our residents, there is not a viable alternative, it is not political, it does not compete with the local media, and it has demonstrated an ability to save the council money many times over.

For those reasons, I do not think it would be in the best interests of our resident community to reduce the magazine’s frequency to just four editions a year. We would be in dereliction of our duty to inform and safeguard. Whilst I totally understand and support the intentions of the Code of Practice, the publication of information articles written by our departments is not what it was aimed at. I hope, in the light of this evidence, that you will withdraw your objection to our current arrangement.

Yours sincerely

Cllr Nigel Ashton

Leader of North Somerset Council

Cllr Nigel C Ashton

Leader of North Somerset Council

A Unitary Authority

Twitter @NigelCAshton

Website nigelashton.co.uk

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