Bins not spin: local authority spending on speeches and press officers

Introduction

Council tax rose at an average of 4.5 per cent in England, and in every local authority in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in April 2019. It is often claimed that local services are being squeezed, so the amount spent on press officers could be considered a low priority for local authorities. Councils are employing an average of four press officers each. Several councils are then further spending taxpayers’ money on speeches and presentations with outside bodies, on top of employing press officers.

It is necessary for a council to communicate news about services to residents. But many might consider just how many press officers are necessary to carry out that function. Of course, there is also spending on Facebook advertising, taxpayers’ money spent on advertising through private companies, and the doubling of taxpayers’ money spent on outside legal advice.

When services are being squeezed, it is important that councils prioritise them – especially so at a time when council tax is increasing. Budgets have arguably been used for political means, for instance bemoaning a lack of central government funding, fawning press releases and council run newspapers.

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Key findings

  • In 2018-19, at least 1,370 people were employed as press officers in local councils throughout the UK. This was 26 more than in 2016-17.
  • 24 councils employed 10 or more press officers in 2018-19.
  • Sheffield city council had 24 press officers in 2018-19, the highest of any council in the UK. This is one less than the Department for Exiting the European Union during the same period. This council recently advertised for a press role which required an “experienced communications professional to join the council’s award-winning communication team and deliver fantastic campaigns to audiences in Sheffield and beyond.
  • In total, £1,228,185 was spent on outside bodies by all councils 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19. Richmond upon Thames borough council was by far the biggest spender on outside bodies, spending a total of £1,194,000, or £398,000 per annum in each of 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19.
  • Seven councils spent taxpayers’ money on outside bodies. These councils had an average of 5.41 press employees, compared to a national average of 4.01 press employees nationally over three years.
  • Fife council is the only council to feature high in both employees and spending, being the third highest spender on outside bodies while simultaneously being the twenty-second highest employer of press staff in 2018-19.

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