Andrew Gilligan: Taxing Times
January 28, 2009 by Andrew Gilligan
AM I SE10's Max Mosley? Just to make clear, I do not live in a basement being whipped by whores - but I am surely the only person in the entire London Borough of Greenwich who actively seeks out our dear council's ludicrous parody newspaper, Greenwich Time.
Most of us, of course, have as much choice about receiving this publication as we have about paying for it - it is thrust through our doors whether we want it or not, just as the money it costs is taken from us through the council tax. But my street isn't assured of a reliable supply (it's pretty rough down Hyde Vale, where even the milkmen fear to tread) - so most weeks, with a sick feeling of guilt, shame yet also secret, forbidden pleasure, I make the trip to West Greenwich library.
Furtively, hating myself, I enter the building, blow the dust off that week's thick, virgin pile of Greenwich Times and - trying to ignore the staff's incredulity and contempt at my actions - slip a copy, perhaps two, into a brown paper bag. I tell myself it doesn't do any real harm - surely everyone involved must be over 18 - but that ignores the terrible price paid by all those vulnerable young trees, whose innocence has been quite literally pulped to print this ghastly perversion of natural, healthy journalism.
I get it to find out what the council wants us to believe it is doing - from which, through a simple formula (assuming exactly the opposite), you can usually work out what it is actually doing. It looks like a real newspaper. Quite intentionally, I'm sure, there's no mention that it's an official municipal propaganda sheet on the front cover. There are even bylines. Someone called "Peter Cordwell" seems to write most of the stories - surely this must be a pseudonym? Would anyone with any professional pride at all want to be associated with this stuff?
Because the front-page news story on the latest edition is just about the closest you can come to taxpayer-funded political propaganda without actually putting "Vote Labour" as the headline. "It's not just freezing outside!" starts 'Cordwell' (who has a regrettable weakness for the exclamation mark - another sign that he cannot be a real person.) "Council leader Chris Roberts intends to bring the chill into the council chamber next month when he proposes to freeze the council tax."
Goodness me - as recently as last October, Greenwich was one of 16 London councils which rejected a council-tax freeze proposed by the shadow chancellor, George Osborne. Could there possibly be an election coming up?
Anyway, back to Greenwich Time: "Chris told GT: 'For the past ten years Greenwich has established a record which is all but unparalleled across London for rigorous and efficient management of its budgets. While continuing to levy what is almost the lowest cumulative Council Tax increase in London, we have seen Greenwich go from having the second-highest Council Tax in London to being 22nd of 32 boroughs.'"
Both these latter claims are in fact misleading, since they relate to council tax in the current financial year, 2008/9 - not next year, when the freeze Greenwich Time trumpets comes into effect. We don't actually know how Greenwich will compare to other London councils next year yet, because not all have yet announced their 2009/10 council tax levels. It seems likely that many other boroughs will also freeze, or even reduce, their council tax, which might make Greenwich one of the more expensive authorities again.
And as for that "all but unparalleled" efficiency, the truth - which Greenwich Time somehow forgets to mention - is that our current council tax is in fact the fourth highest in inner London, the class of councils in which we are included, and almost precisely the average for London as a whole.
It's true that the level of any authority's council tax depends on factors other than its own efficiency - such as Government grants. But since the level of the council tax is the ground on which Greenwich Time has chosen to blow its PR bugles, a more accurate claim would therefore be that the council tax shows our efficiency is, at best, average.
No doubt the purpose of all this, and all the other Greenwich Time bullshit, is to persuade us to love the council, and to re-elect the wise and beneficient leader who features so constantly in its pages. But I feel increasingly sure that it is having precisely the opposite effect.
I never used to have all that many quarrels with the people who run Greenwich. I've even voted for some of them. It isn't one of the more outrageously useless authorities - it was quite good over Greenwich Market, for instance.
But I, and other people I know, feel insulted by the sheer stupidity and relentlessness of Greenwich Time - now published, incredibly, every single week. We feel angry at the simply improper way that our money is being used to promote politically-motivated distortions. And with non-council related feature material alongside all the Town Hall happy-news, I feel concerned that the clear intention is to undermine independent local newspapers which can paint the full picture.
They no longer have a state-controlled press in East Germany, Poland or the Czech Republic. But below the radar, and in keeping with our new status as a country where freedom is being nibbled away, we are getting one in Britain.