The growing competition between local publications and council newspapers came to a head this week, as communities and local government secretary Eric Pickles announced he will clamp down on town-hall publicity.

In recent years council newspapers have grown in number, and expanded content areas, while local newspapers have suffered a severe decline.

Following a meeting with the Newspaper Society, Pickles said he would clamp down on taxpayer-funded council newspapers, focusing on the rules surrounding their content, which in some cases has included TV listings and sports reviews.

This would involve making changes to the statutory code to "stop unfair competition, ensure a tougher value for money test, and prevent municipal literature passing itself off as independent journalism."

"The previous Government's weakening of the rules on town hall publicity not only wasted taxpayers' money and added to the wave of junk mail, but has undermined a free press," Pickles says in a release. "Councils should spend less time and money on weekly town hall Pravdas that end up in the bin, and focus more on frontline services like providing regular rubbish collections.

"In an internet age, commercial newspapers should expect over time less state advertising as more information is syndicated online for free. The flipside is our free press should not face state competition from propaganda on the rates dressed up as local reporting."

A survey by the Taxpayers' Alliance in 2008, found that town hall publicity was costing £430 million a year, double the rate of 1997.

The Newspaper Society's Lynne Anderson says in a statement that the society welcomes the announcement.

"Research has shown that the vast majority of people in the UK rely on their independent local paper to keep them informed about local council plans and decisions and to help them make their voice heard on important issues which affect them in their area.

"Independent local papers fulfil a vital democratic role and we need them to be vibrant and economically healthy if they are to continue to do this.

"We therefore hope that local authorities will be encouraged to use the local press – the best read and most trusted source of local news and information – rather than undermining it by setting up rival publications aimed at controlling the media coverage of council activities, diverting advertising away from local newspapers and their websites, and threatening the only voices which can hold local authorities to account."

Bob Satchwell, director of the Society of Editors, says Pickles' announcement represents "an important decision for local democracy" and calls council-funded papers "an outrageous waste of taxpayers' money".

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