Andrew Gilligan

Andrew Gilligan: Taxing Times

January 28, 2009 by  

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.

Comments

25 Responses to “Andrew Gilligan: Taxing Times”

  1. Tom on January 28th, 2009 11:49 am

    The wretched Greenwich Time is one of the reasons I despise Greenwich Council in a way I never despised Lewisham council when I lived in that borough.

  2. Jim on January 28th, 2009 10:43 pm

    Oh Andrew – you do make me laugh.

    You write for the Standard – the freebie version of which is shoved down our throats whether we want it or not at every central London station possible.

    Its shoved down our throats in many establishments like gyms where the Standard ship it out to claim higher readership figures than they would have if they didnt send out bulk copies to venues. But how many people actually pick them up? And what are the true readership figures as everyone knows they are well and truly a shadow of what they used to be. There are after all much better papers out there.

    It puts up our council tax as these papers are regularly blown all over london – as who wants them anyway? – and do the Standard pick up the costs. Do they hell.

    Further more you talk about propaganda. Are you really claiming the Standard doesnt have an agenda? Political or otherwise – and has never shoved its own propaganda down our throats?

    So much for the free press eh…

  3. Andrew Gilligan on January 28th, 2009 11:06 pm

    Dear Jim,

    I think the point is that the Standard is not paid for out of public money. (The extra street-cleaning costs caused by discarded copies of the free version do not “put up” your council tax – councils in the areas where the frees are distributed, which do not in any case include Greenwich, charge us an agreed sum to cover the cost of clearing them up.)

    If you dislike the Standard, you have the right not to pay for it. We have no such right with Greenwich Time.

  4. Jim on January 29th, 2009 8:16 pm

    No Andrew – I think you miss the point.

    I dont believe every word I read in Greenwich Time – but then again I dont believe every word (very few in fact when it comes to their editorial) in the Standard.

    The difference between the two is as follows.

    Greenwich Time serves a purpose in so much as it keeps us informed about what the council is doing on our behalf. Yes it just tells us about the positive things – but it keeps me informed of what they are doing on my behalf with my money.

    The main purpose the Standard serves, as a private concern, is to make a profit for its owners – and its not even managing to do that at the moment should recent press reports be believed. It focuses heavily on the negative things – and perhaps if it promoted many more of the positive things that councils did there wouldn’t be so much of a need for them to promote their own activities in their own council newspapers.

    Indeed – can you even remember when you last posted a positive piece about the work a London council, let alone Greenwich Council is doing?

    Shock me….

    And lets not forget – Councils are accountable. They have a duty to keep us informed of what they doing in our name.

    If they didnt who would be on their case – yes, you guessed it papers like the Standard and journalists like you Andrew…

    Moving on to your other points, you conveniently forgot that your own paper is no longer just a pay to receive paper.

    As I previously stated, with a dwindling readership, the Standard pushes free copies into my face every time I try and get passed the long line of Standard pushers in Victoria.

    Why has the Standard resorted to giving free copies away – which end up as litter on our streets. Simple. With readership fingers dwindling, advertisers are taking their cash elsewhere.

    So now I cant go to the gym without seeing a forelorn, unwanted bundle of Standards in the foyer.I cant get to my train without being hassled by Standard hawkers on the street pushing a product that very few people want.

    And why – as I say – the only reason the Standard exists is to make a profit and these unwanted c opies make it look more popular than it actually is….

  5. Andrew Gilligan on January 30th, 2009 1:07 am

    Jim,

    I’m afraid Greenwich Time does not keep you informed about what the council is doing. It misleads you about what the council is doing, as in the example I cited. That article directly claimed that the council tax level proves Greenwich’s efficiency is “all but unparalled.” That simply isn’t true – as I said, the council tax in Greenwich is almost exactly the Greater London average, far higher than the inner London average and almost three times as high as the lowest borough’s.

    You say councils are accountable – but accountability depends on the truth being known. Greenwich Time is in fact an attempt to spin the truth and to frustrate accountability, not promote it.

    The last time I said anything positive about Greenwich Council was, in fact, in this very article – that “it was quite good over Greenwich Market.” But I have to admit that I can find very little positive to say about Greenwich Time.

    And I repeat – whether you like the Standard or not, however much of a desperate hardship it may be to look at a pile of papers when you enter your gym, the Standard is entirely irrelevant to this argument. This article is about Greenwich Time, and the blatant abuse of public money it represents.

  6. Fat Cat on January 30th, 2009 8:05 am

    Jim, what positive things does Greenwich Council get up to? In my experience seems to be focussing its activities on providing less services for each pound of taxes collected, annoying residents with petty rules and parking fines whilst bending over to make large developers lives extremely easy.

    As for my copy of Greenwich Time, straight to the black bin liner. I gave up recycling as it appears to be a bit of con.

  7. Tom on January 30th, 2009 3:53 pm

    Jim… you say you don’t believe every word in Greenwich Time and yet you have no problem with paying for it through your Council Tax and you don’t feel that the Council shouldn’t be misinforming you?

    If you think paying people to tell you things that aren’t true is a good thing, I’ll happily tell you that your arguments are watertight and intelligently written in exchange for a tenner.

  8. Glen on January 30th, 2009 6:25 pm

    Yep, my copy goes straight into the bin liner aswell Fat Cat, dont even get me started on the recycling…I am sure the residents of some unfortunate Indian City are enjoying our copies…then again maybe enjoy is he wrong word to use, at least it is something to start up a fire……

  9. Andrew Gilligan on January 30th, 2009 6:52 pm

    Quick propaganda update: in the new issue of GT, most of page 5 is devoted to a Labour minister visiting Greenwich to, in Chris Roberts’ words, “celebrate the proposed freezing of the council tax.” As in the original article, pretty much every word would not look out of place on an election campaign leaflet.

  10. Andrew Gilligan on January 30th, 2009 7:13 pm

    …And on page 11, by spooky coincidence, there’s a piece about a crackdown on scam junk mail!

    “Locals can help catch conmen who scam the public,” says GT. “Residents are asked to collect any potential scam mailings and drop them in designated ‘Scamnesty’ bins in local libraries and community venues.”

    Citizens of Greenwich – our next move is clear…

  11. Political Animal on February 2nd, 2009 3:25 pm

    Andrew writes: “our current council tax is in fact the fourth highest in inner London, the class of councils in which we are included.”
    Not that simple, I’m afraid. Greenwich is, for statistical purposes, an outer London borough. Whilst the Local Government Act 1963 made us part of inner London, the Office of National Statistics now has Greenwich classified as being ‘outer’. It hardly matters since the abolition of the ILEA, but for statistical comparisons it is where we are, formally. As far as I’m concerned, inner London ends at the end of my East Greenwich back garden. Beyond, there be monsters…

    Of course, the council newspaper thing isn’t that simple, either. I’m not a great fan of GT, but it does provide a modicum of local news reporting, albeit slanted, that the useless local press fails to do. However, one of the main reason that so many councils publish such newspapers/magazines (a genuine inner South London borough is likely to start a fortnightly publication later this year) is to cut their advertising costs. Councils have to place large numbers of official planning, traffic and by-law notices in a frequently published newspaper or magazine, and the local press knows this full well. It therefore charges astronomical rates for publishing these notices, believing it has a monopoly. At some councils (I haven’t seen Greenwich’s figures) the savings from this more than cover the costs of the publication. In London, they council can also pick up a lucrative market from the official notices that TfL has to publish as well. Of course, you could argue that this is simply helping to destroy the local press, but when it is as poor as it is in Greenwich, I wouldn’t shed too many tears.

  12. TJB on February 2nd, 2009 7:16 pm

    Thanks Political Animal, very informative comment. So Greenwich is actually saving money by printing GT. Maybe you should get a column on this portal too!

  13. Andrew Gilligan on February 2nd, 2009 8:03 pm

    Animal – sorry to intrude a small note of reality into the proceedings, but the cost of writing, printing and distributing an entire 24-page newspaper to 150,000 households every single week is far greater than the cost of taking out a few ads in the Mercury. Other councils fulfil their obligations with smaller free newspapers, published less frequently, and less obviously propagandistic in nature. Greenwich is classed as an inner London borough by London Councils, which produces the council tax comparison figures I used.

  14. Political Animal on February 3rd, 2009 10:06 am

    Well if Greenwich was alone in making this claim, then I’d probably have been inclined to your way of thinking, but it certainly isn’t by itself: quite a lot of urban authorities (built up areas obviously generating more in the way of planning and traffic notices) already do or are considering moving in the same direction. If the Mercury is anything like other local papers, it won’t be charging the standard rate they would charge you or I for ‘taking out a few ads’ when it comes to public notices.

    The costs of producing GT aren’t that huge (I’d put ‘that’ in italics if I could) – just under £298k in 08/09, parially offset by £64k of direct income (Source: http://www.greenwich.gov.uk/NR/rdonlyres/FBF84487-478C-46FD-A5C0-C9CFE47FCD0A/0/ChiefExecutivesObjective.pdf – see page 106). I work for a local authority (not, I hasten to add, Greenwich) and can assure you that is chicken feed compared to most budget headings. I have no idea how the net figure compares to pre-GT spend on public notices, but I’m sure they would make the net expenditure a bit smaller. Some of that money would presumably be spent on publicity anyway – on things that I’m sure we would both agree a local authority should be publicising – such as electoral registration, youth services, the listing of available council homes, encouraging benefit takeup: some of this previous spending will probably have been rolled in to the GT budget.

    All this will become a bit academic if the government accepts the recomendations of the Killian Pretty Review into the planning application process, published in November 08, which proposes removing the requirement for planning notices to be published in a regular publication. However, Ed Balls spoke out against this proposal last month, so it doesn’t look likely.

    For the record, I don’t have a huge problem with local authorities publishing newspapers – I consider a well informed populus to be one of the key goals of any society, and when the private sector fails it is probably right for government to step in. GT only very occasionally fufills this goal – I’d like to see a publication much more indpendent of the Executive and ruling group, perhaps with a cross-party editorial board and columns from the Leader of the Opposition and the Chair of Scrutiny.

    On inner/outer London – there are a myriad of definitions, none of which agree. I think we ought to be an inner borough, but central government disagrees. London Councils is evidently using the old ILEA definition.

  15. Andrew Gilligan on February 3rd, 2009 3:43 pm

    Animal – thank you for proving my case. I take it you are not claiming that a few ads in the Mercury cost £298,000 a year?

    The £298k figure for FY 08/9 is in any case a substantial underestimate for the current cost of Greenwich Time. For at least the first quarter of FY 08/9, possibly longer, GT was only published fortnightly, rather than weekly as now.

    Nor does it include staff, who come under another budget heading, or overheads such as telephones and the like. Greenwich Time appears to have four staff – an editor, assistant editor, designer and chief reporter – plus a further four contributors. At an ultra-conservative estimate, even if not all staff work on the publication full-time, staff and overhead costs must add at least £100k, perhaps as much as £200k, to your figure.

    I might add that even the sanitised cost of GT given by the council appears to be greater than the amount it spends on household public health, pest control, road safety, school crossing attendants, premises licensing, the community safety team, emergency planning and other such trivia.

    I note from your website that you are a member of the Labour Party. Could this explain why you feel Greenwich Time is such a good idea?

  16. Andrew Gilligan on February 3rd, 2009 3:56 pm

    I think I would also question the claim of £64k in “direct income”. This can only be from advertising – but in the 20 January edition I write about, all but two small adverts (of 18) seem to be either from the council itself or from organisations that it funds. So most of the £64k “income” is essentially also council tax money being recycled.

  17. Tom on February 3rd, 2009 4:12 pm

    “I note from your website that you are a member of the Labour Party. Could this explain why you feel Greenwich Time is such a good idea?”

    Low blow perhaps Andrew? I have no time for Greenwich Time but Political Animal seems to make some interesting points that can be debated on their merits as actually you have done above, without the cheap shots.

    Enjoying the discussion…

  18. Andrew Gilligan on February 3rd, 2009 4:18 pm

    Tom, part of the problem with Greenwich Time is that it is essentially political propaganda in favour of the ruling party – Animal’s party. So it is relevant.

  19. Political Animal on February 3rd, 2009 4:51 pm

    Er, yes, I am a member of the Labour Party, Andrew, and I make no secret of that fact. However, I wasn’t aware that meant I had signed away all rights to having an opinion. The points I was making apply to all councils, regardless of political control: in suggesting that there might be some logic behind councils publishing their own ‘newspapers’, I am providing as much of a defence for Conservative-controlled Hammersmith & Fulham and Havering or for Lab-Lib Dem run Waltham Forest as I am for Greenwich.

    You claim that I ‘feel Greenwich Time is such a good idea’ – except if you read my posts, you’ll find I don’t: the principle is probably defensible on a financial and public information grounds, but Greenwich’s execution is poor – too overtly partisan and propagandist.

    Basically, we’re two bald men squabbling over a comb: neither of us has the full set of figures. We don’t know what Greenwich was paying the Mercury for public notice advertising before GT started, we don’t know how much of existing publicity budgets has now been rolled into the GT budget and would have been spent anyway, likewise with the GT staff (would they be employed anyway?). As you’ll notice, I never claimed GT necessarily saved the council money, I simply sought to point out that for many councils the public notices issue is one of the key drivers in setting up their own publications.

  20. Andrew Gilligan on February 3rd, 2009 6:02 pm

    Animal, the 2003-4 budget suggests that at that time the council was spending around £75,000 a year on all forms of advertising, not just in the Mercury and not just on official notices. But that is not the point.

    The central point is that unlike Greenwich Time I believe in the full declaration of relevant interests. Greenwich Time presents itself as a factual chronicler of the doings of the council, while in reality it is operated, at public expense, in the interests of the ruling party. It should declare that interest. You are a member of that party, so when you are writing about GT you should declare your interest, too.

    I’ve seen the newspapers of other councils, Labour and Tory-controlled, and they are both less frequent and far less overtly propagandistic than Greenwich Time.

    GT, which has been in existence for at least six years, started out like that as well. But it has since been bumped up, first from monthly to fortnightly and now to weekly, and has taken on a distinctly more propagandist tone. The need to publish official notices cannot explain this. The only explanation I can think of is that Labour has for some time been doing rather badly in the polls – and there are local elections coming up next year.

  21. Political Animal on February 3rd, 2009 10:51 pm

    So linking to a website that makes it clear that I am a member of the Labour Party isn’t enough of a declaration of interest? Would you like me to put a red rosette on each of my comments, Senator McCarthy? I’m just checking my conscience as to what else I should declare. Shamefully, I had a flick through the copy of GT that was on my doormat when I got in from uni just now. Corrupt individual that I am, I quite enjoyed Tony Lord’s column about the experiences of a student nurse in 1946. As you’ve looked at my blog, I’m surprised you haven’t noticed the worst conflict of interest going, however. As a guinea pig owner/slave, I benefit financially from the provision of 6 sheets of council tax payer funded unstapled newspaper through my door each week. Saves me buying the Evening Standard. There you go, full disclosure.

    If I’m going to be portrayed as an uncritical defender of GT, I’ll play the role. This week’s paper contains two and a half pages of planning notices, a bit over a page worth of traffic and licensing notices and a page worth of council job adverts, all of which would have to be paid to be published somewhere else at some cost. Then there’s five page of council house listings, which do need to be available weekly, so would need to be printed anyway. There are three private sector adverts, and some of the money for the PCT’s supplement on busting MMR myths will have come from outside the borough, although obviously it will be public money from somewhere else. I’d have thought that lot would go at least a little way towards covering the cost of publication, especially at today’s advertising rates rather than 2003’s. Am now switching off uncritical support for GT mode – thanks for the bung, Cllr Roberts.

    I’ll admit to only having read Hammersmith and Tower Hamlet’s comparable publications, but I’m afraid I’d disagree that they are any less Pravda-esque than GT. A paper published by a council’s executive (of whatever colour) simply isn’t going to carry critical news, hence my suggestion for cross-party, backbench editorial overview. I’m pretty new to Greenwich, so if you say GT used to be better then I’ll take your word for it. If it has the potential to be a genuine local newspaper, then that is definitely a point in its favour: maybe it can one day regain that potential.

    Anyway, time to curl up with GT for a proper read. You might be interested to know that, coincidentally, your name came up in my uni lecture tonight, discussing the Osmotherly Rules. I felt positively star struck.

  22. A spot of Greenwich Timing « 853 on February 3rd, 2009 11:53 pm

    [...] » Slightly late to this, but if you’ve enjoyed watching snowball fights, here’s Andrew Gilligan picking up a yellowing lump and lobbing it at Greenwich Time, Greenwich Council’s laughable weekly propaganda sheet [...]

  23. Paul T on February 12th, 2009 12:25 pm

    Andrew’s point that Greenwich TIme achieves precisely the opposite of what it sets out to do, is spot on.

    i can’t imagine anyone who’s not on the payroll actually reading the thing, and from what I can tell, as propaganda it’s completely counter-productive. And, as mentioned earlier, that £298k is nothing like the total of the costs it incurs.

  24. Tony Norwell on March 9th, 2009 5:51 pm

    What a pity Greenwich Council has given the go-ahead for a fairly high rise development on Kings Highway. This very dense housing plan is virtually on Plumstead Common. Its design is inappropriate and had been variously described as ‘soulless’ and a ‘concrete monster’. Some lessons of history, it seems, are not learned. The number of failures of dense and high rise estates in the past should alert us all – and especially planners and architects – to the dangers of rushing into ‘quick-fix’ solutions.

    Of course, homes that are decent places to live in are needed. But the number of empty homes how standing empty in England stands at nearly a million. Were we not so city obsessed, we could all have a home and garden. There is in excess of 50m acres of cultivatable land in the UK – that’s approximately enough for 2 acres or so for each family/home.

    The green spaces, commons, woods and parks are what make Greenwich a lovely to place to live in. These spaces – especially the Commons – have been preserved largely because of pressure from generations of working people throughout the Borough and sometimes even elsewhere. The Plumstead Common Act was pivotal in ensuring the continuance of Common Land and the rights of people to enjoy them.

    So many Local Authorities have made the mistake of allowing development on green spaces, playing fields and other areas of natural interest and they and their communities are now paying the price. Perhaps we should vigorously oppose encroachment onto Common Land and be aware of the upcoming plans for building on what open spaces are left around us.

  25. Margaret Dinkeldein on February 15th, 2011 4:51 pm

    We have heard this week that Greenwich Council is planning to completely axe its annual grant of £73K to the Blackheath Halls, a wonderful, vibrant local amenity that provides for hundreds of people of all ages and tastes in music, and the arts generally. This cut would severely threaten the viability of the Blackheath Halls as a community enterprise.
    When I read that the wretched propaganda weekly, Greenwich Time, is probably costing in excess of four times this amount, it makes my blood boil.