I HAVE to declare a financial interest in reporting that Northumberland County Council has stopped publishing statutory and public notices in the Hexham Courant .

The decision is robbing this newspaper of income.

However, I have to declare a far more important public interest, which should be of concern to every voter, including the officers and elected members of the council.

The council has chosen, quite deliberately, to terminate the longstanding practice of publishing in the Courant public notices specifically relating to our circulation area.

In so doing, it is denying its 50,000-strong audience access to vital information affecting either themselves directly or their local communities.

Details of planning applications, which will have a significant impact on neighbourhoods, are going unseen.

Road closures, which will amount to a huge cost for individuals and businesses, are no longer known in advance.

Worryingly, the absence of such notices from the Courant is drastically diluting the level of transparency and accountability of the county council.

It is contrary to the very essence of local democracy.

Last week, a dozen notices in the Northumberland Gazette related specifically to the Courant’s core circulation area.

The notices were in relation to The Town and Country Planning Order 2015, The Planning (Listed Building and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, and The Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984.

The former two have specific provisions that the local authority shall publish a notice ‘in a newspaper circulating in the locality’ of the building and/or land in question.

The latter has a provision ‘to publish a notice in a local newspaper’.

Even the county council’s own website says planning applications requiring notices require publication in the newspaper for that local area.

How can the council claim the Northumberland Gazette , based in Alnwick, satisfies those fundamental criteria with its paltry readership in the Courant’s circulation area, with or without the provision of free copies in two locations in Hexham?

If the council wishes to save costs and maximise efficiencies, as its chief executive claims, why did it only enter discussions with the Northumberland Gazette , and not also with the Courant – the best selling and most read local newspaper in the county?

And surely the publication of notices relating to communities outside a newspaper’s circulation area amounts to a waste of public money, not a saving.

I can not overlook the possibility that savings and efficiencies are not the only motive for what amounts to the council punishing the Courant .

The county council has faced some challenging press coverage of late.

There has been the wave of objections to changes in pricing structures at leisure centres managed on its behalf by Active Northumberland.

There has been the strident local opposition to the closure of the fire station at Haydon Bridge.

There has been the ongoing crisis surrounding the fate of Haydon Bridge High School.

And most recently, there has been the county council’s U-turn over its decision to dispose of the East Centre, in Prudhoe.

In highlighting these issues, and reporting on them, the Courant has done the job expected of every local newspaper – to report the facts, to champion its communities, to give a voice to those who feel aggrieved and to hold public authorities to account.

In doing so, the Courant has upheld the virtues of local democracy.

I trust the public will not stand idly by while a local authority penalises a newspaper which is doing its job in a fit and proper manner.

In banning public notices from appearing in the Courant , Northumberland County Council is blatantly undemocratic in a way we expect only of regimes where the freedom of the press and the public’s right to know are relentlessly suppressed.

By Colin Tapping, Editor.