Hayley Lewis, the trained psychologist who Croydon employs as its “Head of customer communications and strategy”, once suggested that a council communications department is “an unnecessary burden”. How prescient.
On her personal blog, Lewis added a convenient “?” to present her thought as a question which, on her watch at Croydon, she has answered emphatically. Because we know now that Croydon’s “unnecessary burden” will cost Council Tax-payers record amounts this year.
Despite cutting front-line staff and reducing services to Council Tax-payers across the borough, Croydon Council’s spending on employees and expensive “consultants” in its Ministry of Truth, the communication department in Taberner House, has already exceeded £500,000 for the financial year 2012-2013.
According to an answer to a Freedom of Information request (based on figures to January 18 this year – giving the profligate comms team another 10 weeks to throw around our cash), a total of £503,711.14 has been spent on “the media relations team, the public relations team and the head of communications”.
The final figure for the year could yet exceed £650,000 – up by at least £200,000, or 45 per cent, on spending in similar areas as recently as 2009-2010.
Such a startling increase has occurred since Mike Fisher led the Conservatives to victory at the May 2010 local council elections.
There has been a constant churn among senior staff in the communications department in recent times – Croydon Council is currently on its third – or is it fourth? – “head of communications”, whether permanent or temporary, in just 18 months, since the departure of Matt Burrows in October 2011.
Since then, the charmless Danny Brierley was temporarily promoted far beyond his abilities, only to scuttle out of the council with great rapidity after his attempt to flog a story to a tabloid newspaper was outed by Inside Croydon. Brierley is now working as a mere press officer for the Independent Police Complaints Commission (oh, the irony).
Brierley’s replacement, at least initially on a temporary basis, has been the former Sadvertiser reporter, Helen Parrott, who council invoices suggest was being paid at a rate of £1,500 – every week. Nice work if you can get it. That works out at almost £80,000 per year, plus expenses. Cushty, and far removed from the modest pay “local” newspaper reporters receive in Redhill.
The FOI answer may not provide the whole picture of profligate spending on Taberner House’s seventh floor. It offers details only in four specifically requested areas – council-distributed leaflets and newsletters, and newspaper advertising; posters and billboards; online, radio and television advertising; and communications and public relations staff. It may be that the council opted not to report any other spending.
What is clear is though, is that even since Croydon was forced to abandon local authority newspaper/magazine Your Croydon, its version of the “Town Hall Pravda“, under cost-cutting orders from Whitehall by local government minister Eric Pickles, its propaganda spending has spiralled upwards, seemingly out of control.
The year’s communications spending by the middle of January 2013 had reached £644,000.
It could be that by the end of March, the financial year end, Croydon’s communications department spending does come in under the amount spent in 2011-2012. But this will be because in the previous financial year, despite spending “only” £393,706.79 on comms and PR staff, our council managed to spend £501,468.28 on leaflets and newsletters, much of this activity following the August 2011 riots.
In total, £919,499.65 was spent in the four specified communications categories in 2011-2012.
At a time of cuts and austerity, it is clear that for Croydon under council leader Fisher and his CEO, the departing Jon Rouse, the priorities have been less about value-for-money services to residents, and much more about spin and keeping up appearances.
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