Communities secretary Eric Pickles stepped up his battle to axe Greenwich Council’s weekly newspaper Greenwich Time today by formally demanding it ceases publication by the end of this month.
In January, the council was given two weeks to respond to Pickles’ decision to tell it to close the paper, one of only two council weeklies left in the country.
Now Pickles has rejected the council’s arguments, and a statement issued to the House of Commons today declares Greenwich has been told it must not publish Greenwich Time more than four times in the year starting from 31 March.
The council is also barred from outsourcing Greenwich Time – which would appear to prevent the long-mooted idea of putting the paper out to tender. (See the full Government statement.)
While council-linked leisure supplier GLL has long been connected with a possible takeover of Greenwich Time, last November Greenwich put its advertising contract out for a three-year tender at £400,000 per year – roughly the cost of distributing GT, a move called “Plan B” by council leader Denise Hyland.
Arguments over Greenwich Time have raged long and hard for many years – particularly as local newspaper coverage has traditionally been poor, arguably in quality but unarguably in distribution.
But with a general election approaching, the rhetoric has ramped up – not least because of the potential for GT to be promoting a Labour council’s good works at a politically-sensitive time. Last month, this website showed how Greenwich Time had played fast and loose with the truth over council tax freezes.
Five weeks back, the council used a centre spread to puff work it is doing in Eltham – not that there was much new to promote, but a reminder of council achivements would reflect well on the once-marginal seat’s Labour MP Clive Efford, who has increasing influence at Woolwich Town Hall.
Of course, regular readers will know that what’s left out of Greenwich Time is as important as what’s left in – indeed, it’s been four years since the controversy over GT last featured in its own pages.
Is this really the end, though? Today’s announcement seeks to ensure that with a fortnight, Greenwich “will take the necessary decisions in order that the Council will be in a position to comply with the requirement on publication from 31 March 2015 onwards”.
This is important, because the approaching election gives Pickles very little room for manoeuvre. Both the Westminster Government and local government go into “purdah” from 30 March – the day Parliament is dissolved.
Advice issued before the last election states:
“It is customary for Ministers to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character. Decisions on matters of policy on which a new Government might be expected to want the opportunity to take a different view from the present Government should be postponed until after the Election, provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money.”
So whether Pickles could take any action against Greenwich after 30 March is open to question.
Furthermore, it’s also been suggested that Pickles’ own “localism” legislation, which allows local groups to bid to run council services, could be used against him. A “community right to challenge” for Greenwich Time could disrupt the process.
Asked about this at the last council meeting by Tory leader Spencer Drury, council leader Denise Hyland simply said “my Plan B is a Labour government in May”.
So Greenwich Time ain’t dead yet, and remains likely to stagger on – which is why Greenwich’s Labour councillors chuckle so heartily when it’s mentioned in the council chamber. After the 2010 council election, one cabinet member declared in a Labour group meeting that Greenwich Time had helped the party win seats.
Other councils adjusted easily to cutting back their council publications when Pickles demanded – Lewisham, for example, has outdoor advertising space to promote its messages.
But Greenwich – which is the only Labour borough to publish weekly – sets its whole communications strategy around Greenwich Time, publishing news releases only when GT has gone to the printers and the local papers have gone to press. Losing GT would be an enormous blow.
But the final decision may well rest with the next government, which, looking at the electoral maths right now, could well have a lot more on its mind than one errant south London council.
5.40pm update: A feisty response from the council’s Twitter feed:
Only RBG has been directed to stop publishing a weekly newspaper despite a strong case. Next Cabinet meeting will consider a report on GT.
— Royal Borough of Greenwich (@Royal_Greenwich) March 3, 2015
Worth pointing out that despite this victim mentality, the only other council to publish weekly is Tower Hamlets, which is now being partly-run by commissioners appointed by the Government, putting the future of its own paper in doubt.