Removal of public notices would be a “kick in the teeth for democracy”

THE Advertiser has joined the fight against the abolition of the requirement for public notices to be published in local newspapers.

The local media sector and scores of MPs — including those representing Rotherham, Rother Valley and Wentworth and Dearne — have expressed concerns over proposals to remove planning notices from local papers, which would leave millions of people disenfranchised and undermine local democracy.  

With the recent announcement of a new online portal, local news media is leading the way in the digitisation of public notices, but does not believe this should result in their removal from printed local newspapers.

To do so would leave millions of people, particularly elderly and vulnerable groups, disenfranchised, and cut off an essential revenue stream which funds the local journalism people have increasingly relied upon during the coronavirus pandemic, newspaper trade body The News Media Association says.

The NMA has now written to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps after a new threat to public notices emerged in the form of a Government-commissioned report recommending the abolition of the requirement for transport notices to be advertised in local newspapers.  

Advertiser editor Andrew Mosley said: “It is vital public notices continue to be printed in local papers as a primary source of information that impacts directly on the lives of readers. To remove this service would remove the only way a large section of our community find out about the likes of planning applications.

“The Advertiser scrutinises planning closely and already provides regular and detailed coverage regarding information given in public notices. It is important that we can continue to do this alongside publishing notices, the removal of which would be a kick in the teeth for democracy.”

Last week, the NMA announced a ground-breaking new industry digital portal, funded by £1 million from the Google News Initiative, to further promote public notices to communities and enhance local democracy by harnessing local media’s massive online audiences.

The project will see the creation of a common online portal containing public notices, including planning and transport notices, published in print by regional and local newspapers across the UK.  

The local media sector has also agreed to adopt new Public Notices Publishing Guidelines — a set of commitments to better publicise public notices, including regular editorial coverage in print and digital, and clear signposting in paper.

In the letter to Mr Shapps, the NMA said that, with the announcement of the new portal, news publishers were leading the way with “the implementation of digital systems and solutions” for public notices.  

The NMA said: “Developing a separate, less effective portal at significant cost to the taxpayer, would be counterproductive and unlikely to achieve the desired result of reaching the largest number of people.

 “Instead of having two competing portals, which would be counterproductive and a waste of resources, the Government and local highway authorities should seek to collaborate with news publishers to harness these innovations and our expertise at facilitating large levels of public engagement to help achieve the report’s stated goal of ‘maximising the reach of its advertising to the largest number of people’.”

The NMA letter states that the statutory requirement to advertise public notices must be maintained so that public awareness of the notices is not diminished.  

The NMA added: “Maintenance of statutory requirements for publication of TROs in newspapers would also be consistent with Government policy in respect of sustaining high quality journalism and, in particular, the local and regional press.

“The withdrawal of TROs from print newspapers could even prove fatal to financially fragile local publishers. The Government has committed to support the news media industry, including most of the recommendations of the Cairncross Review which recognised that revenue derived from public notices is one of local and regional publishers’ largest sources of income, warning that ‘their sudden withdrawal could do serious damage to fragile local publishers’.”