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Councils face anti-HS2 campaign ‘gagging order’, warns Local Government Association

Councils face anti-HS2 campaign ‘gagging order’, warns Local Government Association

🕔07.Oct 2013

It’s being claimed that councils could lose their right to campaign against a range of contentious issues including high speed rail and green belt housing developments under Whitehall plans to curb town hall powers.

The Local Government Association has criticised proposals to give Communities Secretary Eric Pickles the right to enforce the local authority publicity code, which exists as a guidance document for local authorities.

Under the Local Audit and Accountability Bill, Mr Pickles would be able to impose a duty on councils to comply with the code, which advises against the issuing ofa political statement” or “a commentary on contentious areas of public policy”.

At the moment councils can issue publicity critical of planning and redevelopment proposals as long as they have “had regard to the code”.

The LGA fears that the proposed alteration will make it easy for Ministers, or senior civil servants, to step in and prevent high profile publicity campaigns against controversial Government policies of the type undertaken against HS2 by a number of county councils.

Sir Merick Cockell, LGA chairman, fears that councils may be barred from supporting local residents’ campaigns on a variety of issues including high speed rail, large housing developments, cuts to police and fire services, hospital closures and the proliferation of betting shops.

Mr Cockell said: “Councils have a proud history of campaigning on behalf of their residents who rightly look to them to unite communities and stand up for their best interests. That might often be inconvenient for central government, but a community being able to fight for or against unpopular or controversial proposals affecting their area is a key part of democracy.

“To simply make it easier for government to ignore the views of communities is unacceptable, sets a dangerous precedent and will mean local areas and residents will suffer as a result.

“The Government needs to see sense and withdraw these ill-thought out proposals. Councils must retain the ability to communicate its views to its residents and not be stifled from commenting on central government policy.”

He pointed to legal advice obtained by the LGA which Mr Cockell said “confirms our fears that a government could hand power to one individual in Whitehall to restrict councils from campaigning on important issues such as HS2 or hospital closures if they so wish”.

The Local Audit and Accountability Bill is waiting for its second reading in the House of Commons having passed through the House of Lords before the summer recess.

The LGA legal advice states: “If we take the example of HS2, a central government project of immense significance to the authorities affected by it (some who are strongly in favour and some who are strongly against), it is conceivable that the Secretary of State could use his direction making powers to require specifically named councils who oppose the scheme in principle to refrain from making any adverse comment about the scheme in their publicity, on the basis that it is ‘likely to be perceived as ……… being a commentary on contentious areas of public policy’.

“How can that possibly sit with the fact that as a matter of principle those same authorities can challenge the process behind HS2 in the courts – as they have done – and petition Parliament against the hybrid bill for HS2 – which they surely will do.

“Why should the authorities concerned not be able to make their opposition known or provide a commentary on the scheme by means of publicity, and provide information to their local residents about why the authorities are opposed to it, and explaining to their local residents how they can oppose it too?”

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