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Newcastle Central Station. Photo by Devon Saccante on Unsplash

Watchdog raps government and North East newspaper over levelling-up ad

The government and the publishers of a leading North East newspaper have been censured by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) over an advertorial promoting levelling up.

The ASA ruled that advertorials placed in the Newcastle Chronicle and six other regional papers published by Reach plc by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) were not obviously identifiable as marketing communications.

It ruled that they breached the Committees of Advertising Practise (CAP) code and must not appear again in their current form.

‘We told the DLUHC and Reach plc to ensure that all future marketing communications were prominently and clearly identifiable as such’, said the ASA.

The seven newspaper advertorials appeared on the websites of newspapers published by Reach plc in the north of England, Midlands, Wales and Cornwall on 13 March 2022.

The advertorial on the Newcastle Chronicle website had the headline: “Levelling Up! What is it and what does it mean for Newcastle?” It carried a byline by a commercial writer and an infographic including a HM Government logo.

The DLUHC told the ASA they believed the advertorial labelling was both visible and prominent and Reach plc said they considered all of the ads to be obviously identifiable as marketing communications for the Department.

During a debate on the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund (LUF) in the House of Commons this week, Labour spokesman Alex Norris said: ‘The Government’s levelling-up plans have made so little impact that they have had to resort to paying local newspapers to carry positive stories. That is right: they are paying for positive coverage… This is a risible episode.’

Levelling Up Secretary, Simon Clarke, said: ‘With regard to these seven adverts, we have apologised. They all bore the HMG logo very clearly and were marked as advertorials.

‘We accept the ASA’s decision, but we fundamentally believe it was appropriate for us to try to spread the message that levelling up has applicability across this country and is doing real good. Colleagues on both sides of the House have spoken about the projects they want to see delivered, which shows the appetite for this programme to succeed.’

Mr Clarke told the Commons on Monday that round 1 of the LUF saw a total £1.7bn awarded to 85 lead applicants across 105 bids from the UK. Of this, the DLUHC had awarded £1.24bn, with £187 million paid out to date. ‘We expect that figure to increase significantly as these projects move through the delivery phase’ he added. ‘I expect to announce the outcome of round 2 by the end of this year.’

Newcastle received two LUF grants under round 1 – £20m for the regeneration of the Grainger Market, Old Eldon Square and Blackett Street and £19.8m for a sport and well-being hub at West Denton.

Mr Clarke also made explicit what this website has argued for months to be the case – that levelling up is not a regional policy for places like the North East but is about helping areas of need wherever they may be. He said:

‘Levelling up is all about pockets of need, wherever they occur in this country. I know that there are many pockets in the south of England that are deprived, and it is vital to get the message out across the House that levelling up is a Union-wide concept with benefits for every corner of the country from London to Leeds right up to the north of Scotland and to the west of Wales. It is a concept with applicability wherever there is need.’

He also made explicit what is obvious, given a moment’s thought: that inflation – which he blamed on ‘Putin’s war’ – will erode the real value of the LUF and result in projects being ‘resized’. He said: Neither central government nor local government can expect to buck inflation, or to accommodate the cost of inflation in our settlements. There is therefore a mechanism within the LUF to allow bids to be resized for inflation.’