The council newspaper set for a comeback - and causing a political stir
The Conservative group on South Ribble Borough Council has denied using the authority's own newspaper to influence residents ahead of next year's local elections.
The ruling party was accused of “gerrymandering” by the Labour opposition, after it emerged that three editions of the “Forward” publication would be produced in the next six months - the first time it has appeared in over a year.
However, cabinet members meeting in Leyland said it was important for people to have access to impartial information about services in the borough.
Forward was last published in March 2017, when the council launched a review of the way it communicates with residents. A cross-party working group suggested using electronic newsletters - but the authority’s website is not yet fully compatible with mobile devices, meaning access would be restricted.
Cabinet member for resources, Warren Bennett, told the meeting that digital delivery might not be the best option in any case.
“How many times have we talked about reaching the difficult-to-reach parts of the community? A direct mail through somebody’s letterbox is one of the easiest ways to do that,” he said.
“A lot of digital media goes straight in the junk file. Letters through letterboxes has a cut through,” Cllr Bennett added.
But in a blistering attack, Labour said the sudden stepping up of production smacked of “sharp practice” - and claimed that Forward was far from impartial.
“Just before an all-out election in eight months’ time, the council are proposing to publish the paper three times,” said opposition leader, Paul Foster. “At best, that’s gerrymandering - it really isn’t on.”
“Having read the [draft of the next edition], I could not believe it. If you swapped Forward for the Conservative magazine “In Touch”, it could be exactly the same thing - it is horrendously biased towards the administration,” Cllr Foster said.
The meeting heard that there had never been a change to the mandate for the council to publish Forward and that it was only the communications review which had caused a hiatus in it hitting the doormats.
Conservative councillor Michael Green said the newspaper would remain politically neutral.
“I remember when Labour and the Lib Dems ran this council and...Forward looked like a political rag - on every page there was an article by a cabinet member [outlining] his or her views,” Cllr Green said.
A cross-party editorial group historically checks the content of Forward for political balance. Cabinet heard that a meeting would be convened to consider the draft of the next edition in the coming days.
Members heard that the cost of delivering each issue to every household would be Â£6,640, under a new arrangement with Royal Mail. Production costs are to be met from within the council’s existing communications budget.
Deputy leader of the Labour group, Mick Titherington, who sat on the communications working group, said he didn’t know of anybody who had complained about Forward’s absence and claimed that the decision to revert to print was not “evidence-based”.
But council leader, Mary Green, said there was demand for the information provided in the paper at both ends of the age spectrum in South Ribble.
The borough plans to continue to develop the capability to deliver the publication digitally and will seek the views of residents in the forthcoming print editions of Forward about which method they would prefer.
Government rules stipulate that council publications should be made available no more than four times a year.