New ruling heralds big change in local media

More use of internet in local planning publicity encouraged

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Ove Arup's report on planning publicity

Camden's Special Development Order

Wide disparity in planning information on web

Neighbour Net, the publishers of this site, have predicted that developments in the way Councils communicate with the public could have a massive impact on the local news industry. The publication of a report commissioned by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister into the way planning notices are publicised has coincided with moves by a London Borough Council to make more use of the internet in communicating with residents.

Camden Council have obtained a ruling in parliament which gives them the option to dispense with the use of newspaper advertisements. This chimes well with the report by Ove Arup which showed that ads in newspapers were the least effective and most expensive way of publicising planning notices. The report stated that many local authorities were hopeful that legislation could be amended to allow more on-line advertising.

The Ove Arup report has been criticised for failing to address the issue of the role that digital media could play in the way local authorities could communicate with the public and increase participation. The assumption the report makes is that any on-line advertising would be done on the Council's web site. A spokesman for Neighbour Net Ltd., which develops local community online portals ,said, "Whilst we welcome the way in which the report has highlighted the failings of the current system, it is very disappointing to see an assumption that all local media was print based and that the only web based alternative was a Council's own site. It is wrong to expect an engineer to have a good grasp of current developments in the media."

Planning and other statutory notices have been an effective subsidy to local newspapers, an increasing proportion of which are now owned by major media groups. Even in areas where local community portals had a higher readership there has been resistance amongst many borough authorities to use them to keep residents informed of key developments in their communities even though such developments were often the topic of lively discussion on the portals' message boards. Some council's have signed deals through media buyers which obliged them to publish notices in papers which are not even distributed in the relevant areas.

Camden's Special Development Order has been discussed in Committee in the House of Lords with the conclusion that it was undesirable to use the internet as opposed to newspapers because of the possibility that groups such as the elderly would not be able to access details. In practise it would appear that all residents would benefit from the use of the most effective media available as it increases the chances of them being informed by a neighbour if they missed the original publicity. The Ove Arup report makes clear that newspapers are not working in terms of reaching the broader population let alone excluded groups.

The ideal solution for local authorities would be the integration of their on-line information on planning or other notices with digital news coverage. This would mean that residents could see details and respond directly to consultations easily from relevant items on their community portal. Neighbour Net feel that Councils should be considering ways in which they develop partnerships with independent community portals. Already in certain parts of London one in three households are registered with them and this proportion is likely to rise exponentially with the switch-off of the analogue TV signal meaning that digital communication will be in nearly every home. The potential for local authorities to work with community portals to effectively and cheaply communicate with residents is clear.

Independent local digital media companies have struggled against their competitors in the printed press partly because of their effective exclusion from revenues from the public sector. But with consolidation and decline in the latter likely to continue and these recent developments finally tipping the balance in favour of the local digital news media, the environment appears to be changing decisively.

July 16, 2004