Towns and communities across the country are starting to grasp the true extent of the troubling democratic deficit that is opening up due to the decimation of regional and weekly newspapers and a dearth of local news reporting.

Many courts and council chambers rarely if ever see a journalist in attendance; there are fewer and fewer of the newspaper campaigns that once held local authorities to account; and that all important safety valve and community platform -- a page of letters to the editor – has disappeared or is a shadow of what it once was.

Having lived for fifty years in Barnet, the former Hertfordshire market town, that gave its name to one of London’s largest outer boroughs, I have seen how the strength of local news reporting has gone from feast to famine.

At the height of the boom in display advertising in the 1980s, Barnet was served by four local newspapers, three of which had journalists based in the town.

Way out in front was the Barnet Press, a formidable weekly, established in 1859 -- which printed twice-daily emergency editions during the 1926 General Strike -- but which finally ceased publication in 2017.

All that survives is a weekly free newspaper, the Barnet Borough Times (published by Newsquest at Watford) which aims to cover a wide swathe of north-west London (from Golders Green and Finchley to Barnet, and from Cricklewood to Hendon and Edgware).

Some weeks might go by without the town and immediate locality of High Barnet (population 47,000) meriting a story and when it does more often than not the illustration will be a photograph or image culled from Google.

When asked by the district history society to reflect on the disappearance of the town’s weekly papers – and explain why residents find it so hard to discover what is happening locally – I was amazed by the turnout, and also by the recognition, and even anger, over the lack of accountability.

Barnet Council, which Labour took control of last year, is now taking back in house a wide range of services which the previous Conservative administration had outsourced to Capita – a tale of broken promises, poor service, and vastly inflated fees.

Over the decade-long Capita contract, two dedicated local bloggers, Mrs Angry and Mr Reasonable, tried to hold the council to account. They estimate the deal will eventually cost Barnet a total of £607 million, £250 million more than the original contracted sum.

Both believe scrutiny of the outsourced services, and especially Capita’s dismal performance, went under reported because of the slow death of local news reporting.

By the start of the contract the Barnet Press and the Barnet Times had slimmed down their reporting staff to such an extent that they lacked the editorial resources to monitor Capita and then warn the public how costly outsourcing had become.

Unlike a vast but disparate outer borough like Barnet (population 395,000, second largest in size of area), some densely populated inner London boroughs maintain weekly papers with strong circulations.

Camden New Journal, the UK weekly newspaper of the year, has just declared victory in its campaign against Transport for London over bus service cuts, and its neighbour the Islington Tribune is fighting doggedly for the restoration of public lavatories. Another nearby newspaper, the Ham and High - the Hampstead and Highgate Express published by Archant – has an equally proud record. So campaigning journalism does still rule OK in some London boroughs.   

While there are other weekly newspapers across the country that have strong community roots, and which are managing to survive, the greatest danger from the dearth of local news reporting is without doubt a growing lack of accountability.

Those responsible for the administration of local services no longer face the intense scrutiny that I remember so well from my early years as a reporter in the 1960s when the work of all manner of public authorities was closely monitored and when questions were asked, and answers received.