George Osborne should take the chance to do for local news what Gordon Brown did for breweries

George Osborne (pictured, Reuters) has the opportunity in this Parliament to do for the local news industry what Gordon Brown did for brewing.

Back in 2001 industry consolidation was threatening to make small, independent breweries a thing of the past.

Richly flavoured local brews were in danger of being replaced by bland, homogenised national brands.

The tax break Gordon Brown brought in as chancellor (still in place) means breweries making up to 50,000 litres of beer per week pay only half the duty.

The result has been an astonishing revival in local brewing which means that today, according to the Campaign for Real Ale, Britain has more breweries per head of population than anywhere else in the world – 1,285.

You can’t throw a stone out the window of Press Gazette’s Farringdon office without hitting a ‘craft beer’ pub or bar (or at least one of their bearded patrons).

What if George Osborne could do the same for local media?

The Conservatives have made a manifesto commitment to consult on business rates relief for local newspapers in England.

As business rates are based on buildings the effect of this move is likely to be minimal on local media start-ups – many of which don’t have offices at all.

But for established regional newspapers with substantial premises this could provide a useful cash injection at a time when many are continuing to struggle.

The challenge for Osborne will be to ensure the cash returned to these businesses stays local.

You don’t have to be Ed Miliband to see that any extra cash returned to regional press giants such as Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror is likely to returned to shareholders or used to pay down debt.

Meanwhile, hopefully the consultation will open the way to the Government thinking more widely about the future of local news.

Thousands of jobs have gone from the regional press over the last decade – perhaps as many as one in three.

Since 2005, around 300 local newspapers have closed – with around 100 launched.

The big four owners which dominate regional news have cut costs to survive by sacking staff, closing local officers, creating national print and web design templates and in some cases producing newspapers and websites from centralised hubs far distant from the communities they serve.

Hundreds of local blogs and websites have also launched in that time, but hardly any of these new online-only players are making any money.

So professional reporting remains very much under threat at a local level.

Local media is the foundation stone of our democracy and of our national media – because it is where most news originates.

So Osborne should use the business rates relief consultation as a starting block for finding other ways to encourage a rich and diverse local news media – perhaps by looking at more targeted tax breaks for local news businesses below a certain turnover cap.

Gordon Brown showed that progressive taxation can be an enormous source of good.

And while the array of speciality local beers adorning the bars of pubs and supermarkets compared to a decade ago has undoubtedly contributed to the gaity of the nation, using the tax system to revive the local news industry would be a far greater prize.

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