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
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

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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