AN abrupt instruction from Northumberland County Council’s chief executive Steven Mason to all his senior staff appears to be at the root of a council decision to halt the publication of statutory notices in the Hexham Courant.
The 50-word email, which dates back to November, was uncovered after a Freedom of Information (FOI) request and made no reference to any opinion sought on the legality of the move.
Instead, the brief message issued on behalf of Mr Mason informed heads of department across the council that all public notices, regarding planning issues and road closures, should be placed in the Northumberland Gazette.
The message wrongly stated that the Gazette covered the Hexham area.
In fact, the Alnwick-based paper has a negligible circulation in Tynedale, and for the last five months the negative impact on the decision to deny communities in the west of the county access to information in their local newspaper has been demonstrated time and time again.
County councillor for Hexham West, Coun. Derek Kennedy, lodged the FOI request and has branded the response the “smoking gun” in the long-running saga.
“This appears to be nothing more than a unilateral decision taken in a fit of pique,” said Coun. Kennedy, referring to the documents released by the council, which amount to just 10 emails.
They date back as far as November when the authority, and its leisure arm Active Northumberland, were at the centre of a public backlash over changes to the pricing structure at leisure centres.
Coun. Kennedy said he was surprised that there were only a handful of emails behind the decision.
“I had expected that a meeting would have taken place with proper governance and minutes of decisions.
“No councillors were involved in any of the email exchanges. I cannot see any legal opinion, cost benefit analysis, risk appraisal or other strategic judgements which would lend itself to a safe decision.”
Among the emails is correspondence from Courant staff dating back to December, querying whether any public notices were likely to be placed.
Staff in the council’s democratic services and communications departments considered how best to respond in an email exchange on December 12, before another directive from Mr Mason simply stated: “The answer is just no at this stage”.
It was not until February that the messages began to refer to a “pilot exercise looking at alternative ways of displaying and advertising.”