Caerphilly Observer’s first edition being printed in 2013

Concerns have been raised about plans to remove a legal requirement for councils to publish public notices in local newspapers across Wales. 

The changes were proposed earlier this week as the Welsh Government published its Local Government Finance bill.

Clause 20 of the bill proposes removing the requirement to publish information on council tax changes in newspapers.

Instead, councils would only be required to publish a notice on their own websites.

Nick Powell, chair of the Welsh executive council of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), argued that the requirement should be widened to include digital news publications.

He said: “The NUJ views with concern any proposal that would result in loss of revenue to news outlets and which could lead to further job cuts in an industry that is already struggling.

“For many years, the publication of paid-for public notices has been of benefit to local newspapers.

“The union has argued the case for diversifying the obligation so that new digitally focused publications can also benefit from such revenue.

“The Welsh Government should consult all stakeholders to consider fully the implications of this proposal.” 

‘Democratic deficit’

South Wales East MS Peredur Owen Griffiths, Plaid Cymru’s shadow finance minister, urged ministers to ensure the bill enhances, rather than undermines, the public’s right to receive important information.

“Newspapers rely on advertising income to operate,” he said. “I would be concerned by the prospect of a sudden fall in revenue for newspapers.

“This could impact their ability to report on council matters and shine a light on matters that need publicising and scrutinising.

“There is a democratic deficit in Wales that needs addressing, not undermining.   

“Furthermore, the proposed changes could have a disproportionate impact on older people who may not be computer literate and therefore not reachable through electronic means.

“I would certainly oppose anything that digitally excludes older people.”

Sam Rowlands, the Conservatives’ shadow minister, said: “It was a surprise to see this clause in Labour’s Local Government Finance bill.

“Many people – particularly the elderly – rely on local newspapers for important information about their area, including crucial updates on council tax.

“I call on the minister to reconsider this proposed measure.”

Mike Hedges, a Labour backbencher, who represents Swansea East, said: “In many parts of Wales there is not a local newspaper.

“Where there is one, I would expect the local authority to publish council tax changes in it.

“I would also hope that Nation.Cymru could be used to publicise it at least in areas not served by a local daily paper.”

‘Outdated system’

During a statement on Tuesday November 21, Rebecca Evans, the finance minister, said she expects members to scrutinise the proposal as the bill progresses through the Senedd.

She stressed that councils will be required to put alternative arrangements in place, such as notices in libraries, to ensure information is accessible to those who are digitally excluded.

An explanation published alongside the bill estimates that councils spend about £1,500 for each publication, equating to an annual spend of at least £33,000 across Wales.

“These provisions were made in 1992 when the primary method of communicating with citizens was through notices in newspapers,” it said.

“This is now considered to be an outdated system left behind by technological advances.

“The current system provides no feedback to local authorities and ignores the fact that the audience is moving away from printed newspapers to a varied digital media landscape.”

The bill’s impact assessment makes no mention of the potential effect on the news industry.