Croydon’s Council Tax-payers could be facing hundreds of thousands of pounds of additional costs, on top of the six-figure salary for their new Blairite political spin-doctor, Julian Ellerby, if his track record at neighbouring Lambeth is anything to go by.
Former Labour HQ official Ellerby has been recruited from neighbouring Lambeth to act as a political commissar for Tony Newman, Croydon’s council leader, ahead of next year’s local elections.
But in Lambeth, Ellerby’s communications operation has been accused of being “a disgrace and a national scandal”, with the council accused of “using public money for political purposes”.
The recent council budget meetings at Brixton Town Hall revealed that Lambeth Communications, Ellerby’s in-house public relations trading service which was supposed to bring in extra dosh for the hard-pressed local authority, had made an operating loss of £190,000 last year.
Lambeth Communications was supposed to be making money for the council by providing its services to local authorities around the country.
Lambeth Comms was signed up, for example, by Derbyshire County Council, though only after a “thorough review” of that council’s communications team. The model is simple: make savings from your staff budgets by making many of the in-house press officers redundant, and let “expert” Ellerby, with no previous experience in local government, run your council PR campaigns from his office at Brixton Town Hall.
What recommended Ellerby and Lambeth to Derbyshire? Another former Labour Party official, of course.
Derbyshire CC’s “review” was conducted for them by The Campaign Company, the Croydon-based PR business founded by David Evans, the former assistant general secretary of the Labour Party who worked on Bliar’s 2001 General Election campaign.
Evans is a long-time associate of Alison Butler, Croydon Council’s deputy leader.
He “leads on our work on effective communication”, his company says.
You can tell Evans is from The Thick Of It school of media management bullshit when he says: “I particularly enjoy learning about what drives behaviour and working with clients to implement insight-based policies and practice.”
In 2014, soon after Butler and Newman took charge at Croydon Town Hall, Evans’ company was handed a £200,000 public-funded contract to manage the running of the council’s Opportunity and Fairness Commission. That seems a very fair and a really generous opportunity, for Evans.
Among The Campaign Company’s “initiatives” for the commission, which was chaired by the Bishop of Croydon with Woodside councillor Hamida Ali appointed as his Croydon Labour “minder”, was a youth “engagement” competition which attracted a whopping 10 entries. Is that what Evans means by “effective communication”?
In Lambeth, Ellerby’s communications department has seen south London Council Tax-payers subsidising the efforts of other, more marginal Labour-run authorities. Lambeth Communications’ accounts last year showed a £117,000 loss which Ellerby’s operation made on its account with Harrow Council.
The marginalised opposition Tories in Lambeth – all three of them – are furious with the “co-operative” Labour council and the growing Lambeth Communications operation, which was established when Steve Reed was the council leader. Former Progress deputy chair Reed is now, of course, the MP for Croydon North/Lambeth South [delete to distaste], who has been conducting an attempted “Lambethisation” of the Croydon Labour Party since his arrival in 2012.
Among Ellerby’s first tasks after Reed appointed him in Lambeth was the halving of staff numbers in the council’s media department – providing that initial big drop in the council’s salary budget. It appears that since then, the former Labour HQ official has been undertaking a spot of empire-building.
Tim Briggs, the leader of Lambeth Conservatives, unlike his dozy counterparts in Croydon, actually put together an alternative budget ahead of the Brixton Town Hall meeting. Ellerby’s communications department came in for particular criticism.
Lambeth’s Tory report said, “… the increased funding, increased staff and increased responsibilities for Policy and Communications has simply increased the mistrust between the Labour council and residents, as the council tries to spin resident approval for policies which were not included in any manifesto and have no mandate, such as demolishing people’s homes in order for the council to build on them and be able to say it has achieved its target, or taking away their secure tenancies.
“The staff costs for the communications team costs just over £1.15million… £305,000 of the ‘income’ for communications comes from other departments within the council, with just £50,000 coming from outside bodies, which means that the communications department wastes £1.4million of public money that could go on services.
“This is a disgrace and a national scandal that leaves the Labour administration open to accusations of using public money for political purposes.
“The Labour council also spends £350,000 a year on communications employees in political offices serving the Labour administration, yet all administrative and office support has been removed from opposition councillors, leaving the Labour administration open to accusations of being a ‘one-party state’.”
Lambeth Tories make two seemingly very sensible, cost-cutting recommendations: “Information from the council can be made available on the internet and in the remaining libraries without any political spin, or posted on estate notice boards. This should save at least £1.4million a year with no discernible difference to the functions of the council, but without the spin and misinformation that has created so much mistrust.”
And they say: “We would end the need for a head of Policy and Communications at Director level,” or Ellerby’s job, which amounts to a quick saving of around £200,000 a year, once pensions and other employer costs are factored in.
So maybe for Ellerby, the “opportunity” in Croydon has come along at just the right time.
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