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Dishonest reporting from the Local Government Chronicle

The Local Government Chronicle is rapidly deteriorating into a Labour Party propaganda sheet. Their "Chief Reporter" Allister Hayman writes as if he was a Labour press officer rather than a journalist.

I wonder how much Council Taxpayers money ends up in the LGC's coffers. I pay for a sub out of my own pocket but I doubt many others do. Councils would mostly pick up the tab - plus recruitment advertising, sponsorship of awards junkets, etc. North of £1 million a year I suspect.

If each sub is treated as an individual item it may appear below the £500 radar on Council's spending transparency data but that doesn't mean the total isn't a significant sum. Although sometimes payments go above the threshold. I see, for instance, Grant Shapps's council of Welwyn Hatfield paid  £1,760 last May, for reasons of their own. I expect there could also be any economy drive on subs to the Municipal Journal (for which I write an occaisional column) - but at least the MJ isn't a Labour fanzine.

The current issue of the LGC has a particularly dishonest attack on Eric Pickles concerning spending at the DCLG.

It claims that "Eric Pickles has spent millions on consultants since he took the reins in the Department for Communities and Local Government reflecting the cost of the reorganisation under way at Eland House."

This assertion is based on a factually inaccurate analysis of the spending over £500 that the Department now publishes as part of its commitment to transparency.

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said:

"It is completely untrue to suggest that millions have been spent on consultants since the change in administration. Several of the figures quoted are incorrect, refer to spending under the previous
administration or have been incorrectly entered as consultancy. The Department is implementing a programme to reduce this year's running costs by £50 million, as part of an overall budget reduction of £780 million for the department announced in May last year."

The Local Government Chronicle makes a series of claims based on spending items. These are taken in turn and refuted or explained below.

LGC claims:

Spending data published by DCLG for the period from May-December 2010 shows a sharp spike in spending on finance consultancy, up from just £1,678 in May-June and £839 in July-August to £704k in the in final quarter of 2010. This compares to a total spend of £868k over the whole of 2009-10.

The reality is:

The spike in spending of £704k in the last quarter of 2010 can be attributed to a payment of £700,000 made to HM Treasury, which had been incorrectly coded as Finance Consultancy.

LGC claims:

The Communities Secretary has also overseen a nearly £1m bill for Human Resource consultancy over the period May-Dec, compared to a total spend of just £110k in all of 2009-10.

The reality is:

This figure bears no relation to the published data. Entries listed as HR consultancy on the departments spending tables totals around £150k for the period May - Dec 2010.

LGC claims:

The cost of IT consultancy has also risen since May, up from £240k in May-June to £674k in July-Aug, followed by a huge bill of £2.8m in the final quarter.

The reality:

The spend in the final quarter of £2.8m can be mainly attributed to two areas. £1.5m was paid to the Tenant Services Authority in November, this was not for IT consultancy and this information has been incorrectly coded. Approximately £1m of the remaining spend can be attributed to spend with Mott MacDonald, who provide Technical support and project Management to the Firelink project and FireControl
- an overbudget and now terminated programme from the last administration.

LGC claims:

Legal costs have also risen steadily since Mr Pickles entered Eland House, with a £404k bill in May-June rising to £545k in July-Aug, which rose again to £747k in Oct-Dec.

The reality:

The new Government inherited over 200 ongoing legal issues from the last administration and the legal spend compares to a comparable spend of £4.8 million in 2009-10.
Hansard, 15 Dec 2010 : Column 809W

LGC claims:

And despite housing minister Grant Shapps criticising the Audit Commission for spending £53k on office chairs, DCLG has spent £73k on office furniture since May, including £40k on luxury Herman Miller desks and chairs.

The reality is:

These are costs associated with the refurbishment of the Department following a rationalisation of buildings from 2 to 1 that was overseen and implemented in the period of the previous administration. These particular chairs were ordered before May with payments being made at a later date.

LGC claims:

The Department has also spent £9,198 on excess fares since May, charged against travel on trains without a valid ticket.

The reality is:

This spending entry does not relate to travelling without a valid ticket.

In other areas Mr Pickles has overseen sharp decreases in spending, including advertising and publicity, down from £563k in July-August to £72k in Oct-Dec, while the department's mobile phone bills have fallen
from £28k in May-June to just £1,159 in Oct- Dec.

These reductions in spending are part of a much wider effort right across the department to drive down costs.  To cut in-year running costs the DCLG have:

  • implemented a recruitment freeze, reduced bonuses and used fewer agency and interim staff, delivering £3.9 million savings reduced spending on accommodation, IT and training - delivering £2.8 million savings
  • cut down the number of external conferences, as well the cost of consultants and other corporate running costs - delivering £3.7 million savings.
  • saved £18 million from the Department's central programme budgets - by bearing down on marketing and research budgets - and their QUANGOs are delivering savings of £23 million.

So, taken together what the figures actually show is that the claim:

"Eric Pickles has spent millions on consultants since he took the reins in the Department for Communities & Local Government reflecting the cost of the reorganisation underway at Eland House." completely untrue.


PING. An email arrives from the LGC informing me that: "Councils win BSF High Court challenge." This may have given readers the impression that the councils had won - when they lost on the substantive points. In a few cases there needs to be some extra consultation and equalities impact assessments. But the judge said:

 “The final decision on any given school or project still rests with Michael Gove.  He may save all, some, a few, or none. No one should gain false hope from this decision.”

A pretty relevant quote that is made available to readers of the Spectator Coffee House blog - but not to readers of the LGC. all the councils legal challenge really achieved was to had over some more public money to lawyers.

The email also has this link to a response from LGC on the DCLG story. Their editor, Emma Maier, says there was an "honest mistake" by their "chief reporter" Allister Hayman and adds:

 We hope to engage more fully with DCLG.

If that means checking stories and allowing a realistic deadline for responses that is a welcome innovation. But she is fooling herself if she thinks  the LGC only has a problem with Ministers. Conservative councils (which is to say the majority of councils) can have no confidence in getting fair treatment if they are even midly aware of the output of Mr Hayman. For that matter I can't imagine a Conservative opposition leader on a council seeing him as a worthwhile person to contact about exposing waste or inefficiency. Those defending her by saying that ConservativeHome is also partisan are not exactly helping her protestations of impartiality.

In the comments below she complains of a "personal attack." I've never met Mr Hayman and I have no ill will for him personally. It is simply that he is in the wrong job. He would make an energetic recruit for Tom Baldwin's team of spinners at the Labour Party. Or perhaps Unison could give him a role. I think he would  be much happier.



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