Greenwich Council has been given 14 days to respond to a demand from Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to close its weekly newspaper Greenwich Time, MPs have been told.
A written statement from junior minister Kris Hopkins says the council has been told it’ll be directed to close the controversial freesheet by 31 March.
Greenwich Time is one of only two weekly council newspapers in the country, along with Tower Hamlets’ title East End Life.
Pickles has long been trying to clamp down on such papers, demanding that councils publish newssheets no more than four times per year. Neighbouring Lewisham cut its Lewisham Life magazine from monthly to quarterly some years ago.
The council was first warned in September 2014, but it has argued that by using Greenwich Time to publish local information, it is saving taxpayers money.
The true costs of Greenwich Time have been notoriously difficult to quantify. While the paper relies on a lot of freelance labour, quoted costs do not include the time spent by council staff and officers in producing it. In 2013 this website found out that GT cost £124,000 per year to produce, without counting the work put in by the council’s paid staff.
Its opponents say GT, which is signed off by the council leader and chief executive each issue, stifles debate while local newspaper publishers argue it competes unfairly for advertising revenue. A move by the owners of the South London Press to buy the title was rebuffed in 2011.
Last November, Greenwich Council put its advertising contract out for tender – the £400,000 annual fee roughly matching GT’s distribution costs. But council leader Denise Hyland later called this a “Plan B”. Last night, she told Conservative leader Spencer Drury it was “business as usual” at the paper.
You can see the exchange at 1 minute 29 minutes into this video:
The role of the paper in pushing the council’s line was highlighted this week in the bizarre row over the council’s proposals to incentivise local business to pay the London Living Wage.
Despite the scheme first being publicly proposed by Conservative councillors, Greenwich Time placed the story on its front page and credited it to Labour leader Denise Hyland.
This week’s paper also contains a two-page spread boasting about the council’s plans for the future of Eltham. Promoting improvements in Eltham are a regular feature of Greenwich Time, and few other areas of the borough have had plans publicised in this manner.
It’s widely believed the council is using GT to boost the chances of the marginal seat’s Labour MP Clive Efford being re-elected.
Whether Pickles’ threat will mean the end of GT is a moot point – the closure deadline of 31 March runs so close to the general election that any legal response from Greenwich may mean it can simply carry on through the campaign and leave the issue to whatever government is elected in May.