Your Croydon is the council-funded “Town Hall Pravda” (copyright 2010, Big Eric Pickles) which is now down to four issues a year, since the Communities Secretary moved last month to limit local authorities across the country on such freebie papers.
In this era of political coalitions, there can be few stranger alliances than that of Pickles, a former Tory local councilor in Yorkshire, and Croydon’s Tony Newman, the leader of the opposition Labour group at the Town Hall.
Newman says that the £500,000 a year spent on Your Croydon is a waste of Council Tax-payers’ money. Clearly, he suspects that council cash is being used to further the ruling Conservative group’s policies, just as Pickles is trying to prevent Labour-controlled councils from publicising their policies. They are both right, of course.
Pickles’ actions have the backing of local newspaper publishers, including the multi-million operation that is the Daily Mail & General Trust, the ultimate owners of the Croydon Sadvertiser, and Newsquest, operators of the Croydon Guardian. They know what side their bread is buttered, and big business resents the idea that they might miss out on local authorities spending cash on advertising with them.
They also see publications such as the subsidised Your Croydon as potential rivals for advertising. With its guaranteed circulation to every household in the borough, Croydon’s latest issue offers “competitive advertising” at £1,260 per page.
Inside Croydon takes a different view, on a couple of counts.
First, a regular council paper is a relatively efficient means of communicating information about local services. It’s certainly cheaper than lining the pockets of local newspaper owners by taking out ads in rags like the Sadvertiser, with its declining weekly sales.
As Roy Greenslade, journalism professor at City University, wrote recently of Pickles’ plan: “A sledgehammer has been used to crack a nut. By outlawing the publication by councils of any kind of communication, except on a quarterly basis, the government is in danger of preventing councils from carrying out their responsibility to keep their residents informed of local services.”
Another reason is that, even in 2011, not everyone in Croydon is wired up to high-speed broadband. The occasional information sheet through the door can help to keep the elderly, the vulnerable, the poor and the otherwise disenfranchised in touch with the services available to them.
One unintended consequence of Pickles’ ban is that the staff in Croydon’s press office are now spending their time dissembling on Twitter.
Back in December, it was all about the council doing a bang-up job on keeping roads clear of snow and ice. There are many drivers who were caught in jams in the borough who might take another view.
Then in January, it was back-slaps all round in their office in Taberner House when they managed to “hijack” the hashtag #thatissocroydon. Or at least they thought they had.
When online wags began to promote the #thatissocroydon to highlight the negative aspects of the borough, the borough’s press office started to use it on their own @yourcroydon Tweets to promote a “more positive” outlook.
The intentions are entirely admirable: “Just a sense of loyalty and belief in something worth doing”, one press officer explained. But does Big Eric know? And is this appropriate use of public money?
We’ve never been too sure about the description of Your Croydon as being a “Town Hall Pravda”. Given the disinformation coming from the council’s press office, we reckon it is more akin to an Orwellian Ministry of Truth.
Take the latest issue of Your Croydon, in which council leader Mike Fisher states: “With local council cutbacks across the country, we felt it was important to reduce the money we spend on publicising the council’s work.” So it was his and his mates’ idea to reduce publication, and nothing to do with them acting under orders from above by Oberfuhrer Pickles.
It has all the hallmarks of another false economy. As it is, the savings made by reducing Your Croydon’s publication are fairly piddling: a mere £120,000 a year.
That’s just 55 per cent of the annual salary of council CEO Jon Rouse. Or just 0.003 per cent of the total accumulated £40 million uncollected Council Tax in the borough.
And it is a minuscule fraction of the amount being spent on the council’s £450 million Croydon headquarters “hub”.
Your Croydon’s latest issue even features local Twitter coverage. As you’d expect, outlets which are critical of the council are not included.
Here at Inside Croydon (@InsideCroydon if you fancy following – we know that the Croydon Council press office does), we like to think that we are broadminded enough to consider a variety of views. So we’d encourage our regular reader to make sure that they do not miss the regular Tweeted musings of:
After all, you’re probably paying for some portion of it.
UPDATE (Mar 14): The ever-busy press office at Croydon Council has been in touch to state that Your Croydon “has never cost £500,000”, as the former leader of the council, Tony Newman, says.
Your Croydon was taken monthly three years ago, under the current Conservative administration.
According to Croydon Council, through a recent FOI request, “net expenditure” – an interesting phrase which is undefined in the response – “on Your Croydon in 2009-10 was £222,000. This sum included the cost of production, printing and delivery for 12 monthly
issues in a tabloid newspaper format.”
That spend does not include the cost of staff – including the council’s press office – who actually provide much of the content for Your Croydon. One press officer has in the past been listed as deputy editor of Your Croydon.
The council’s FOI response states: “The production of Your Croydon is a bi-product of the council’s multi-channel communications team output.”
Ahhh. Don’t you love it? “The council’s multi-channel communications team output”.
They continue: “Editorial contributions throughout 2009-10 also came from the Local Strategic Partnership partners, whose representatives sat on an editorial board controlling
content. There are no Council staff whose work is dedicated to the publication.
“However, in 2009-10 the staffing budget for the wider communications team, with responsibilities for press office, publicity, public relations, consultation and communications was £441,234. The service is also currently exploring ways to reduce the staffing budget
further in 2011-12.”
So: Your Croydon + Council Press Office = £222,000 + £441,234 = £663,234.