Greenwich Council's weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time, will continue after moves by local Conservatives to have its future reconsidered were rejected.
The Tories used their powers to 'call-in' the council's decision to carry on publishing the newspaper but the three-member Overview & Scrutiny Call-In Sub-Committee voted last night not to refer the decision back to cabinet.
The decision to press on with Greenwich Time comes despite doubt being cast on the council’s claim that it saves up to £2 million each year by printing the paper each week.
Conservative opposition leader Spencer Drury told the committee meeting at the town hall in Woolwich that neighbouring Bexley only spent £15,000 annually on placing public notices in a local newspaper.
He was challenging a decision by the council’s cabinet to continue publishing GT weekly, defying a government code designed to restrict local authority publications.
It was also revealed at the meeting that a community publisher is threatening to bring a case against the council for alleged damage to its business.
Greenwich Council has long said that it saves money by using Greenwich Time to publish the notices - which detail planning applications and other formal matters - instead of paying a local newspaper to run them.
A report presented to the council cabinet in July said the council was saving £2.3 million a year by publishing the notices in Greenwich Time - but Cllr Drury said Bexley’s deal with the News Shopper proved the council’s cabinet had “given little consideration to doing anything different”.
“If Greenwich could get a similar deal with News Shopper and let us assume the Mercury, the same could be done for £30,000 for two years. This seems very different to the one to two million pounds randomly inserted in the report,” he said.
But council chief executive Mary Ney said the council’s estimates had been checked, and a comparison with Bexley was invalid because that borough issued far fewer public notices.
“Our volume of council advertising is quite considerable, and doesn’t bear any relation to Bexley, which hasn’t got a regeneration agenda, and doesn’t produce the same volume of housing applications, or licensing applications because of the different entertainment and tourism offers of the boroughs,” she said. “They’re at a very different level of activity.”
Council leader Chris Roberts was on leave and did not attend the meeting, and nor did any members of the cabinet who took the decision, despite being invited, leaving council officers to explain the authority’s position.
The publisher and editor of of Eltham-based community magazine SE Nine said they would be making a detailed complaint to the district auditor about Greenwich Time, “seeking financial redress for the damage to our business” since the code was introduced on 31 March.
In a statement handed to the panel, Mark Wall and John Webb accused the council of unfairly competing against their monthly, and of having an “in-house bunker mentality sponsored by the existence of Greenwich Time”.
Assistant chief executive Katrina Delaney, whose communications portfolio includes GT, admitted to there being “one or two issues” with SE Nine but said she was satisfied GT’s sales team had not set out to poach the monthly’s advertisers.
Ms Delaney said when the council had discussed working with existing newspaper operators, they freely admitted to not delivering to parts of the borough that did not fit in with their desired target audience.
“One of them told me that essentially, they were looking for people who don’t live in the inner cities and who were Land of Leather buyers,” she said.
“The Mercury sold ads for GT for six or seven months, but pulled out of the deal because it was too labour-intensive to chase advertising in Greenwich,” she said, claiming newspaper groups were less interested in the kinds of small businesses who promote themselves in GT.
“The News Shopper in Bexley carries the same car ads as in Greenwich,” she added.
“I’m not convinced the ads in Greenwich Time would appear anywhere else.”
Locally-based journalist and 853 blogger Darryl Chamberlain also addressed the meeting, claiming that recent coverage in Greenwich Time of the aftermath of Woolwich’s riot was not “objective and even-handed”, as demanded by the government in its code.
He cited an opinion column from leader Chris Roberts criticising media coverage of the riots. “If he wants to rant about the media, he could always start a blog,” he said, adding that it appeared checks and balances designed to ensure Greenwich Time was unbiased were failing.
But Ms Delaney said readers knew what to expect from a council publication.
“The paper covers the council’s view,” she continued.
“If you get a Marks & Spencer card, you’ll get Marks & Spencer’s magazine and it’ll cover Marks & Spencer’s view. The same with the gas board or BT or whoever. I think people understand it represents the views of the organisation.
“Greenwich Time represents the views that come from the decision makers at Greenwich Council.”
The three-member panel split on party lines over the issue, with Conservative Eileen Glover (Eltham South) backing the call for the cabinet to reconsider the decision.
“When other people question our decisions, there should be evidence that we’ve gone out and based the decisions we do make on firm evidence,” she said.
“We should contact other councils who have changed their distribution - ask them how they’re doing, and if they’ve got a better idea that’s more cost-effective, then we should be doing that.”
But Allan MacCarthy (Labour, Charlton) said the cabinet “must be at liberty to do what it considers to be appropriate”, and said there was no evidence that GT had affected the local advertising market.
Chairman Mick Hayes (Labour, Eltham West) said that it seemed to him that most people had already made their minds up about GT and “I’m not sure any evidence would sway people one way or the other”.
He said GT should be judged on its “effectiveness”, and no other paper could reach the number of households it did.
“Is it effective in doing what we as a local council should be doing, and telling people what’s going on in planning, licensing, and lettings? My understanding is that it has been proven to be effective. Have other means been proven to be effective? I’m not so sure they have.”
The panel decided by two votes to one to let the cabinet’s decision stand.
A Greenwich Council spokesperson said "The Council's Overview and Scrutiny Panel voted to note the decision of the Cabinet taken on 19 July 2011, with regard to the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity and take no further action.
"Greenwich Council will continue to publish GT on a weekly basis in order to keep residents informed about local services, to advertise statutory notices such as planning applications and to promote social housing available through our Choise Based Lettings scheme."