Eric Pickles, the Tory Secretary of State for Local Government, is forcing councils to waste millions of pounds that could be spent on frontline services. He recently approved frontloaded cuts that will see one in every three pounds cut from services in Lambeth. He tried to create political cover for this by pretending that senior pay cuts could somehow make up for the £90,000,000 this will remove from Lambeth’s budget – even though the total pay for all Lambeth’s senior directors amounts to less than half of one percent of this sum.
Then, adding insult to the injury he’s already doing to local people, he issued a diktat forcing councils to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds in subsidies to local newspapers while services for the elderly, disabled, schools and street cleaning all face cuts.
Pickles’ publicity code continues the perverse Government requirement that councils must pay local newspapers to print what are called ‘statutory notices’ – the small adverts that inform residents about things like planning applications and road closures. In Lambeth local papers charge us around £200,000 a year to print these notices. We told Mr Pickles we could put the information online instead where it’s easier for residents to find it and the costs would be close to zero. But Mr Pickles decided to ignore us and instead insisted we put the adverts in print.
In an attempt to try and reduce the cost to the public purse, we set up our own newspaper – Lambeth Life – and put our notices in that. The advantage is that we could attract other advertising to offset the costs of publishing the paper making it cheaper, overall, than paying an existing paper to print them. Lambeth Life was so successful that the net cost of publishing our notices in print reduced from £200,000 to around £50,000 – freeing up around £150,000 to be spent on protecting frontline services.
But Mr Pickles stepped in again. He forced us to close Lambeth Life intending to use our money to subsidise a local newspaper instead. Why would he do this? In my view, to try and buy favourable coverage in the local press for the Tories and Lib Dems. Another example of the corruptly cosy relationship between national politicians and the press that has led to the scandal currently engulfing Rupert Murdoch’s News International.
Lambeth however is not prepared to let Mr Pickles waste money that could be saved to fund local services. So, instead of meekly handing over taxpayers’ cash to a local paper we set up a tendering process inviting local newspaper publishers to compete to get our advertising in their paper. The winners were the publishers of the Lambeth Weekender. The bidding process saw the costs for carrying council advertising slashed from £24 per column centimetre – the amount they used to charge us – down to below £10. As a result, we are now saving around £100,000. Not as good as the £150,000 we saved before the Government interfered, but better than we would have got otherwise.
So what are Lambeth’s Tories and Lib Dems saying about these savings and their Government’s behaviour? Unbelievably they are demanding that we scrap the deal and put the advertising back in another paper at higher cost. And they are refusing to join Labour in demanding the right to put council notices online where we could save even more money. They are more interested in cosying up to self-serving journalists to try and grab a few headlines than in protecting the services local people rely on.