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Councils spend £1 million each on PR

Mark_wallace_2 Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers Alliance has been compiling some interesting comparisons on how Councils spend our money.

Last year, the TaxPayers' Alliance's Council Spending Uncovered campaign caused ructions across local government by digging deeper than ever before into the realities of local council expenditure. Using official accounts and Freedom of Information requests, we were able to generate national figures for expenditure on areas such as publicity, middle management and pensions and provide individual figures for almost every council in the country.

The campaign was aimed at not simply arguing that councils should be cutting taxes, but also demonstrating that savings are achievable in practice. Having turned the spotlight on councils in great detail 12 months ago, the campaign is back and the figures have been updated, so it's time to see how they are doing.

The first paper in the new Council Spending Uncovered series addresses publicity spending. Publicity, it should be noted, encompasses more than just PR. Whilst press officers are included, so is advertising (both statutory and job adverts as well as other campaigns) and those glossy newsletters that seem to drop through one's letter box with growing frequency just to be discarded, unread.

The total figure for publicity spending across the whole of local government in the financial year 2007-08 was £430 million. This, it should be noted, is down on the previous year's total but only because over a dozen councils who responded last year have not yet made their accounts accessible. The average expenditure per council is, unfortunately, up to a shocking £965,986. As an average which not only includes the relatively small number of large authorities but also the mass of smaller districts, that is a high figure.

Birmingham once again tops the list of big spenders, racking up a whopping spend of £9.2 million. Whilst it's true that they are one of the most populous authorities, this is clearly an excessive amount. Contrary to their claims, Birmingham are in fact a smaller authority than Kent, who by contrast seem modest at 5th in the table thanks to their still huge bill of £5.7 million. Amazingly, not only are there 6 local authorities spending more than £5 million a year on publicity, there are 133 which spend over £1 million.

Whilst the big ticket councils rightly grab attention first, it is instructive to delve a little deeper into the report's findings. Comparing the figures with last year's report allows us to assess what direction councils are travelling in – have they responded to the economic conditions and the scrutiny we brought on them last year by reducing their costs?

Encouragingly, 218 councils have reduced their spending, cutting £25 million from their collective budgets with publicity savings alone. They are to be congratulated for their efforts and for doing the right thing. Particular praise should go to councils such as Liverpool City Council, who reduced spending by £1.8 million (19.8% of the 2006-07 budget), Bolton, who saved £1.1 million in a remarkable 42.3% reduction and – notably – Birmingham who, whilst they still have a long way to go, managed an 11.5% cut, saving taxpayers £1.2 million.

These 218 councils have shown that reducing publicity is possible – on a grand scale, if you put your mind to it. In this budget area at least they are setting a good example.

Unfortunately, it is an example that 224 councils have failed to follow, in fact they have increased their spending.

It is only right that these councils are named and shamed. Leeds City Council managed to top the list of sinners, increasing publicity spending a staggering 79.8% in one year – a jump of £1.9 million to a total expenditure of £4.4 million. They are followed by Surrey County Council, who went from spending £5.1 million to splashing £6.2 million in 07-08. Sadly, there are plenty of others who continue to increase the bill taxpayers have to bear – Lincolnshire, Brent, Norfolk, Croydon, Gloucestershire, the notorious Haringey, the list goes on.

The crucial function of the Council Spending Uncovered series is to inform the public how their taxes are spent and to make the case that there is plenty of fat to be trimmed from councils' budgets.

Whilst there will always be some communications function at councils, and some advertising will probably always be required by law, we should all make clear to our local authorities that we do not pay our council tax for glossy leaflets that verge on propaganda, or for press officers to tell us how grateful we ought to be. The best kind of publicity, after all, is free and is obtained by providing a good service.

One year on from its inception, the Council Spending Uncovered series can celebrate 218 successes where councils have reacted to public pressure and have cut some flab from their publicity spending. The fact that 224 councils are still increasing their spending, and the fact that the local government publicity industry is now worth almost half a billion pounds, though, are signs that there is still much to do.

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