The saga of the Town Hall Pravda

Across the country, councils are complaining about vicious ‘government cuts’ that have stripped local services to the bone. That's despite the clear evidence (from research like our own Town Hall Rich List) that councils are still wasting money hand over foot. 

London councils are some of the worst offenders. Londoners are inundated with apocalyptic warnings about austerity – often written up in glossy council newsletters, stuffed into every letterbox in the borough. Back in 2010, local government minister Eric Pickles rightly kicked off his crackdown on these expensive ‘Town Hall Pravdas.’ This culminated in a national Publicity Code, put into force in March 2011, which conclusively cut these back to four issues a year. A pretty decent start.

But once again, London councils have been letting the side down. A series of them have continued to publish regularly and several, from Enfield to Hillingdon, have been given a slap on the wrist. But two, namely Waltham Forest and Hackney, seem to have declared all-out war on the new restrictions. Now their revolutionary struggle has reached new heights, as they take on the government in the courts for their right to waste taxpayers’ money telling residents what a great council they are.

These councils have suggested that, due to advertising revenues raised by these publications, the newsletters are good value for money. Combined with the need to push out statutory notices to residents, they argue, the publications are the cheapest and most efficient way to communicate. So we decided to take an in depth look at these newsletters and see if they were right.

 

Costs to the taxpayer

Waltham Forest Council produce their newsletter, ‘Waltham Forest News’. Over in Hackney, the council produce the newsletter ‘Hackney Today’. Between 2016 and 2018, the stated costs for producing these were the following:

2016-17

 

Newsletter costs

External & Misc income

Total costs

Hackney Today

£512,601.00

£114,716.00

£397,884.00

Waltham Forest News

£361,651.68

£26,080.33

£25.00

£335,546.35

 

2017-18

 

Newsletter costs

External & Misc income

Total costs

Hackney Today

£500,265.00

£54,123.00

£446,142.00

Waltham Forest News

£345,889.41

£22,922.83

£4,205.72

£318,760.86

 

At first glance, the numbers seemed pretty high. These two boroughs could have had an extra dozen policemen between them for that money (based on the reliable figure of £60,000 a year per police officer, which includes on-costs).  

But are these numbers telling the whole story? A chunk of cash is supposedly recouped by ‘external income’ (ie commercial advertising). But those numbers are falling. And as anybody who’s picked up one of these Pravdas will know, they are usually plastered cover-to-cover with advertising for council owned services, paid for by the taxpayer. So what about this ‘internal income’ of taxpayers’ cash? We asked both councils for a breakdown.

Hackney Council decided to play dumb. They provided two different answers to the same question on internal advertising, with the figure fluctuating wildly from £0.00 to £10,913.83. Strange.  

Waltham Forest were much more open. They gave us a breakdown of their costs compared to their internal and external income. Between 2016-18, these were:

 

2016-17

2017-18

Costs

£361,651.68

£345,889.41

Misc income

£25.00

£4,205.72

Internal income

£554,160.17

£633,345.02

External income

£26,080.33

£22,922.83

Net costs (Costs + Internal income minus External income + Misc)

£889,706.52

£952,105.88

 

As we can see, these levels of internal advertising are incredibly high - dwarfing external income streams - and have risen annually for no obvious reason. It seems this internal advertising has included items which the council have no statutory requirement to advertise, including promoting their bins app, advertising their online newsletter and even running a campaign calling for more police funding.

We see then, that if accounting for this wasteful internal advertising paid for by taxpayers’ cash, this newsletter is actually massively loss making. In fact, these figures reveal that the total hidden taxpayer subsidy is far larger than the councils want to admit - and growing in size.

It seems council cabinets have significantly underreported the actual cost of producing these newsletters, with nominal revenues being generated by advertising other council services at the taxpayers’ expense. This internal advertising essentially masks the huge costs of these state-funded Town Hall Pravdas.

 

Legal action

So what are they playing at? Despite being told to stop, these councils have remained determined to publish these regular newsletters. To maintain the charade, they have undertaken expensive legal action against the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Challenging the government in courts has resulted in even more unnecessary costs. Waltham Forest Council budgeted £25,000 for this in 2018. Hackney Council budgeted £50,000 to £100,000 (noting that they do not take account of potential cost-sharing with Waltham Forest).

As a result, taxpayers’ money has been spent on legal action by the government too. Though we don’t know the precise figures, latest stats from MHCLG transparency data show an average of £21,656.37 for each legal fees entry over the last six months.

Added together, and even taking the lower estimates, around £96,000 of taxpayers’ money could be wasted in legal costs alone on the sad saga of these two Town Hall Pravdas.  

  

Conclusion

It's worth saying, the Publicity Code was absolutely right to cut these back these Town Hall Pravdas. A full eight years on, the levels of waste of taxpayers’ money on pointless and self-indulgent council newsletters is still clear to see.  

However, this legal action has exposed a bigger problem. The alarming growth in ‘internal income’ has masked the true costs of these newsletters, quarterly or otherwise. Council taxpayers have been left paying huge hidden subsidies, at a time when councils complain of reduced funding and are whacking up council tax bills. Something has to change. 

To prevent any further money being wasted on these newsletters, and given the diminishing genuine advertising revenue to keep them afloat, internal advertising should be stopped altogether and these newsletters should simply be abolished. Town Hall Pravdas are simply not good value for money.

If these two councils had acknowledged that from the start and cut back, like most others did, local taxpayers in Hackney and Waltham Forest would have thanked them for it.