Wirral’s ruling Labour cabinet has been accused of "withholding vital evidence" at a meeting called to discuss their plan for a £240,000-a-year town hall newspaper.

It has been revealed the leader of the council was warned in a letter from Minister for Local Government Marcus Jones on June 28 not to break the rules governing town hall publications.

The minister specifically reminded the council the “Publicity Code” for all local authorities requires any such material not be published more than four times a year.

The Argus:

The letter from local government minister Marcus Jones to Cllr Phil Davies

Wirral is intending to publish 12 times a year - yet there was no mention of the warning when a scrutiny committee met to examine the proposal last week.

And in a further twist it is claimed the town hall has now created a new £30,000 post to oversee the paper.

An advertisement on the council website says the news and content officer's salary will be between £29,559 - £31,845 and is "a newly created role within an ambitious, outcome-driven local authority."

Apparently unconnected to the publication, a new "public affairs manager" pulling a pay packet of £40,000 a year is also being sought "to drive engagement around key initiatives, enhance the organisation’s reputation as well as to influence legislation."

Conservative group leader Cllr Jeff Green, who obtained the correspondence, said: “There was no mention of either the letter or this new content officer job at last week’s committee.

“Instead by concealing the existence of this letter from the committee, the cabinet has attempted to hoodwink the council and the taxpayers of Wirral into thinking all was going well this vanity project.

“At a time when Labour councillors and their leader Jeremy Corbyn never stop banging on about austerity, we have a project that is not only costing £270,000 but is also opening the council up to an expensive legal battle with the Government.”

Controversy was further fuelled at last week's meeting when the council’s head of legal Surjit Tour refused to reveal independent advice he had been given after commissioning a barrister to examine the proposal.

Conservative and Lib-Dem councillors argued there was significant public interest in seeing this guidance as it would help inform their decision. 

They also felt that as the public had paid for it - to the tune of £1,200 - they had a right to know.

But Mr Tour was adamant, explaining that parts of the QC’s review contained commercially sensitive information.

However he acknowledged there was "a risk" of the secretary of state intervening.

In his response to the minister's letter, council leader Cllr Phil Davies wrote: “Late last year Wirral Council commissioned extensive market research among its residents.

"This research provided us with some extremely valuable insight into what local people felt was most important to them, where they felt we should focus our energies and in what areas they felt we needed to improve.

“It was also debated and made clear that the council is attempting to address a very real issue in the borough and ensure all residents are able to be kept informed about local issues and public service information.

“It is important to note our publication would not attempt to emulate a newspaper in either style or content.

"The content would focus on council services, community events and activities, job opportunities and issues related to housing, social care and other areas of public services which would not traditionally be considered ‘news’."

He continued: “In addition the content of all communications, including the new publication, would continue to conform to the code in its entirety.

“We have robust governance system in place to ensure all content meets the principles of the code and our own local media guidelines.

“Content for the publication would also be sourced from our partner agencies – all of whom support the development of the publication as they too suffer from being unable to communicate easily with large portions of the most economically disadvantaged residents in our borough.

A council spokesman said: “Cabinet was already well aware of the guidance contained in the publicity code but agreed that, such was the need for the council to communicate more effectively with residents, a departure from the code in relation to the frequency of this publication was justified.

“The DCLG letter was referred to at the call-in meeting last week and the council has since written back to inform them of our position and invite further discussion.

“The news and content officer vacancy was identified as part of a wider restructure of the council’s communications function.

"While the scope of the role will be broad, it does have a distinct responsibility for supporting the local economy by promoting Wirral as a place to invest, live and do business.

“They will contribute to the publication along with other members of the team, but it is totally inaccurate to suggest that they are being employed to ‘oversee’ its production.”