COMMUNITIES across Tynedale are being kept in the dark over vital public information because of Northumberland County Council’s decision to stop statutory notices going in the Hexham Courant .

Instead the authority is spending money on publishing details of local planning applications and road closures in the Alnwick-based Northumberland Gazette , which has a negligible readership in the Courant’s core circulation area in the district.

Local councillors are furious at the decision, taken without their knowledge or support.

Coun. Peter Jackson, leader of the Conservative group on the county council, accused the Labour-led authority of press censorship.

Hexham’s MP Guy Opperman said local democracy was being undermined.

No public notices have been placed by the county council in the Courant since December 9. After that date notices relating to west Northumberland have only appeared in the Northumberland Gazette .

Council chief executive Steven Mason said the policy had been adopted on a trial basis to cut costs and maximise administrative efficiencies.

Pressed by the Courant on the legal obligation of all local authorities to publish planning application notices in a local newspaper circulating in the locality of the site in question, Mr Mason claimed the Northumberland Gazette had a healthy presence in the west of the county.

In fact, the Northumberland Gazette , does not even register itself as circulating in the Hexham postcode area.

But Mr Mason said further free copies of the Northumberland Gazette would, in future, be left in two prominent locations in Hexham, in addition to what he called its core circulation.

He contended these measures, plus the availability of the notices on the Northumberland Gazette’s website, satisfied legal requirements.

“While the authority has sought to make use of new and innovative ways of increasing its revenue base, which has attracted much criticism in recent times, the majority of which is unreasonable and unfounded in my opinion, there is still the need to consider what it can do to minimise spend wherever possible while at the same time acting wholly within the confines of prevailing legislation.

“As far as the placement of public and statutory notices are concerned the council is only too aware of the requirements it faces in this regard.”

Mr Opperman said: “I am very concerned by this shocking revelation. The county council must be transparent and accountable.

“I would remind the council’s leadership they are public servants, and as such accountable to the public.

“Local newspapers have a duty to inform people of what is happening in our government, in our local councils, in our schools, and on our streets.

“Even the perception they are being somehow punished for doing so by the council or anyone else is deeply worrying.

“Local independent newspapers are at the very heart of local democracy. Any attempt to subvert that would be unacceptable.”