Welsh Government plans would devastate the media in Wales and damage public awareness

WalesOnline journalist Will Hayward interviews former first minister Mark Drakeford
-Credit: (Image: WalesOnline/ Rob Browne)

Plans to remove council tax notices from local newspapers would have devastating impacts for titles in Wales and for public awareness, editors and politicians have warned.

The Welsh Government is planning to lift the requirement on councils to publish notices of changes to council tax bills in local newspapers as part of the Local Government Finance (Wales) Bill. If it goes ahead, it could pave the way for the removal of other types of public notices from local papers, leaving huge swathes of the population disenfranchised.

The issue will be debated at a Local Government and Housing Committee debate on the legislation on Thursday. Members of the Senedd from across the political spectrum have also expressed grave concerns about the issue. Welsh Conservative Peter Fox MS has tabled an amendment to keep council tax notices in printed newspapers and a statement of opinion supporting the provision of council tax notices in local papers has been tabled by Welsh Labour Mike Hedges MS gaining support from Labour Members and other parties.

Peter Fox, the member of the Welsh Parliament for Monmouth and shadow finance minister, said allowing councils just to put a notice on their website about council tax changes would be damaging.

He said: "This is a step too far in trying to modernise the council tax system and could leave many people, especially those who don’t use the internet massively disadvantaged. Everyone should have a right to equal access to the information they need and those who choose not to or can’t use technology should not be disadvantaged.

"I believe that this element of the Bill needs to be amended to align with the reality of society where not everyone is in the same place when it comes to accessing everything online. I will be bringing forward an amendment to reverse this."

Mike Hedges, the Senedd Member for Swansea East, said it was "important that those who do not have access to electronic media get the same information as those that do."

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.

New research from OnePoll has found that, across the UK, 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).

The survey conducted for the News Media Association in March found that, out of the four UK nations, Wales (47 per cent) has the highest number of people using local news media to view public notices and the lowest number of people using libraries (six per cent) - an alternative to local papers proposed by the Welsh government.

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.

“The Welsh government has shown its support for local journalism in the past and must do so again by abandoning this dangerous plan which will wreak havoc on local news provision in Wales.”

The industry has set up the Public Notice Portal to increase the reach of public notices by harnessing local news media’s huge digital audiences while ensuring everyone – including the digitally excluded and more vulnerable in society - can still access notices in their printed local newspaper.

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.”