Editors speak out about public notice threat to press

We are joining forces with the Welsh newspaper industry today to call on the Welsh Government to abandon plans which could harm Welsh journalism and prevent many people from accessing vital information.

In a unique joint approach, as owner of several titles including the Abergavenny Chronicle, Brecon and Radnor Express and Monmouth Beacon we are working alongside media giants Reach and Newsquest to call on Senedd members to scrap plans to remove the requirement for local authorities to publicise changes to council tax in the local press.

We believe that not only would this have a devastating effect on the sustainability of many Welsh newspapers, but will worsen transparency and the scrutiny of local authorities and most vitally, disenfranchise many elderly and vulnerable residents who may not have access to the information online.

These concerns are echoed by the Older People’s Commissioner for Wales Heléna Herklots (pictured above) who has warned that the move could leave elderly residents feeling excluded.

Independent research and the Welsh government’s own impact assessment for the Bill show that local papers continue to be a crucial platform for ensuring the public – particularly the elderly, those living in rural areas, and lower-income households – have reliable access to important information.

And new UK-wide research from OnePoll conducted for the News Media Association in March found that local news media in print and digital (41 per cent) remains the number one platform used by the public to view public notices, ahead of local authority websites (29 per cent), social media (28 per cent) and printed mailouts (26 per cent).

Removing council tax notices from printed local newspapers would also deal a hammer blow to local journalism by removing a critical revenue stream from the sector, inevitably leading to title closures and a weakening in the provision of local news.

Liz Davies, Tindle Newspapers regional editor in Wales, said: “All the evidence shows that print local newspapers continue to be a critical platform for people to find public notices. Removing the legal requirement on councils to advertise these notices in local papers would lead to huge swathes of the population being unable to access vital information which may have a profound impact upon their lives.

“The local news sector across the UK is watching developments in Wales with increasing concern. It is not too late for the Welsh government to change course by striking out this dangerous provision from the Bill and we strongly urge them to do so immediately.”

Gavin Thompson, Newsquest regional editor, Wales, said: “Six out 10 of our local newspapers in Wales would have been loss-making last year without public notice revenue and, as a commercial business, we cannot continue to run titles that are loss-making.

Wales Online acting editor David James said: “We do not believe that the Welsh government intends to deal a hammer blow to local journalism yet that is exactly what will happen if council tax notices are removed from local papers.

“The consequences of this will be straightforward – weaker democratic engagement and weaker provision of local news in Wales.”

Cambrian News editor Mick O’Reilly said: “The legal requirement to advertise public notices in local papers creates consistency of access to information and local government transparency across different areas.

“Removing this would create a postcode lottery with people penalised depending on where they live. This would be a completely unacceptable outcome for people Wales and not what the Welsh government intended when this Bill was drafted.”

THE OLDER PEOPLE’S COMMISSIONER FOR WALES SPEAKS OUT AGAIN PUBLIC NOTICE PLANS

Older People’s Commissioner for Wales Heléna Herklots writes: Finding the information we need is something we often take for granted these days. With just a few taps and swipes on the smartphone in our pocket, we can find out almost anything, which is obviously incredibly useful. But the rapid shift towards digital is leaving many people feeling excluded and left behind: data from the National Survey for Wales indicates that 10 per cent of the Welsh population – over 300,000 people – do not use the internet.

Levels of digital exclusion amongst older people are even higher – around a third of people aged 75+ in Wales do not use the internet, and many individuals are now finding it difficult, if not impossible, to complete everyday tasks they previously found straightforward, something I highlighted in my recent Access Denied report.

That’s why I shared concerns about proposals to remove the legal requirement to publish notices of council tax charges in newspapers in evidence I shared with the Senedd’s Local Government and Housing Committee earlier this year.

As I highlighted in my evidence, the proposed changes would have a disproportionate impact upon older people, and the promise of ‘suitable alternative arrangements’, which is decidedly vague and ambiguous, is not likely to provide any assurance to older people who rely on their local paper to access information. Concerns have also been raised that similar requirements to publish other forms of public notices in newspapers may be removed in the future, which could leave many older people further excluded and disengaged.

A growing number of Senedd Members have voiced their concerns about the impact of the proposed changes, and I welcome the fact that we are seeing the potential consequences – and unintended consequences – being scrutinised in more detail. I recognise the significant financial pressures that local authorities are facing, but short-term financial savings must not be delivered at the cost of people being left behind and unable to access information they need, not just older people but also other groups at greatest risk of digital exclusion, including people with disabilities, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people and those on low incomes.

But more than that, I am concerned about the kind of message these proposals send to people who are digitally excluded, often individuals in vulnerable situations facing other forms of social exclusion. In my Access Denied report, older people told me that the growing digital divide often leaves them feeling worthless, inadequate and that they are not valued by society.

In the past, legislation has been used to make information and services more accessible, to help enable more people to access them, to help tackle the barriers that leave people excluded. But these proposals, offered with no detail about what suitable alternative arrangements mean – suggesting little thought has been given to those who could be affected by the changes – risk having the opposite effect.

That’s why, the requirement to publish council tax notices in local newspapers should be retained, and the proposals to remove this should be removed from the Bill currently making its way through the Senedd. And in the longer-term, greater efforts are needed across society to ensure that, regardless of our circumstances or digital skills, we are enabled and supported to access the information we need.

“TOMORROW IS A DEFINING MOMENT FOR WELSH JOURNALISM”

Owen Meredith, NMA Chief Executive on the threat to a robust press: Tomorrow will be a defining moment for journalism in Wales. Members of the Senedd are set to scrutinise the Local Government Finance (Wales) Bill, including a provision which could have highly damaging consequences for local democratic engagement.

At the moment, local authorities are legally required to publish public notices – important announcements about things such planning, traffic and council tax changes – in printed local newspapers. This ensures that critical local matters are given a proper public airing and receive robust scrutiny.

Councils are of course free to publish public notices in other ways – on social platforms, on their own websites, mailouts to residents’ homes, and in notices posted near the areas where the change is taking place. But, critically, publishing in local papers ensures transparency through a trusted and independent medium.

It’s no secret that newspapers’ print circulations have been declining. But many millions of people across the UK still read local papers in print, with tens of millions more reading online, and rely on them for public notices. In fact, public polling conducted in March this year shows that local news media in print and digital (41 per cent) is the number one platform used by the UK public to view public notices, ahead of local authority websites (29 per cent), social media (28 per cent) and printed mailouts (26 per cent).

And, out of the four UK nations, Wales (47 per cent) has the highest number of people using local news media to view public notices. As it stands, the Local Government Finance (Wales) Bill would remove the statutory requirement on local authorities to publish council tax notices – an important category of public notice which informs people about changes to their council taxes – in printed local newspapers.

The Welsh government has suggested that individual notices and tax bills sent directly to households will provide adequate transparency. Yet research shows that only 13 per cent of people in Wales – by far the lowest out of the four UK nations and half the UK average – view notices in this way.

Wales is therefore at a much higher risk of democratic deficit than the other UK nations. Printed mailouts are no substitute for the trusted context and scrutiny which a newspaper provides. 2 Scrutiny of council tax is rightly a matter of importance for public debate and not solely a matter between individual councils and households. We fear this could be the tip of the iceberg for other types of notices being removed from local papers.

The effects of this would be nothing short of catastrophic, both for local democratic engagement and journalism in Wales. Many people who rely on printed local papers for public notices – including older and vulnerable people – would be left disenfranchised.

The Bill’s own impact assessment raises this important point which is also a deep concern for groups such as the Older People’s Commissioner for Wales. Wales would become a postcode lottery for transparency with some councils choosing to continue to publish public notices in local newspapers, while others might decide to hide away controversial notices on little-viewed corners of their own websites.

Another unwanted side effect of the change would be the impact upon the sustainability of journalism in Wales. Public notices are an important revenue stream for local news providers, in turn funding the provision of trusted news. If this revenue were removed, then the industry would be dealt a serious blow just as it is seeking to stabilise and embrace a digital first future. It is not too late for the Welsh government and Members of the Senedd to change course and save Welsh journalism.

An amendment to the Local Government Finance (Wales) Bill by Peter Fox MS would remove the damaging Section 20 from the Bill, ensuring that public notices remain in printed local newspapers. We urge both the Welsh government and Members of the Senedd from all parties to stand up for transparency and Welsh journalism by backing this amendment tomorrow. Otherwise, journalism and democratic accountability could suffer irreparable harm. And for all of us who believe in a robust and vibrant democracy, that would be an unacceptable outcome.

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