Harry Fone is grassroots campaign manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
What affects most people almost every day (or, at least, once a fortnight), and is one of the biggest costs on household budgets, but is something that virtually no one takes the slightest interest in?
Local councils are one of the biggest riddles in British politics. While politically interested folks are obsessed with Boris or Brexit, councils continue to impact most people’s lives in a way that a local MP for Dunny-on-the-Wold could only dream of. But many voters couldn’t name their councillors in a month of Sundays.
So it’s understandable that some local authorities feel the need to keep residents informed, reach out to their local papers and generally make a fuss about the things they are doing for their towns. Starting from that point, it’s somewhat reasonable to find out – as our research revealed this week – that councils across the UK employ an average of four press officers each.
But our paper also pulled up the drain covers and uncovered some startling truths about just how far some councils will go with their communications budgets. We found that, despite many local authorities claiming a lack of funding from central government, some councils employ more press officers than do government departments and national mega-quangos.
Across the UK, 24 councils employed 10 or more press officers last year. Sheffield City Council topped the list with 24 press officers, which is only one less than the Department for Exiting the European Union during the same period. Gloucestershire Council also had more press officers than the Department for International Trade. Bradford Council has ten times as many press officers as we do.
But they are big councils, I hear you say. Well that doesn’t explain Barnsley having more than 15 press officers for a population of around 245,199. Nor Swindon having more than 11 for a population of 221,996. North East Lincolnshire really take the biscuit though, with 13 press officers – or one for approximately every 13,000 residents. To put this in context, they had more press officers than even the PR behemoth that is HS2 Ltd. In fact, so did some of the councils affected by HS2, such as Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire.
So what on earth are all these press officers doing? As any councillor in a decent local authority will tell you, their press officers will be focused on keeping residents up to date with local matters. But our top offender, Sheffield, may have somewhat given the game away, with a recent job ad looking for candidates to “deliver fantastic campaigns to audiences in Sheffield… and beyond”.
Residents there will immediately wonder why their council is spending their hard-earned money campaigning on what is happening beyond Sheffield. Whether it is Brexit, or some random government policy they don’t like for party political reasons, many councils are simply too keen to run big communications campaigns on things that don’t even affect their residents. That might explain Sheffield’s willingness earlier this year to carp on about its motion to recognise the state of Palestine.
Frankly, many voters are sick of seeing councils spend so much time worrying and whining about things they have no control over, while doing nothing about the things they do have control over, like bin collections and potholes. And council tax.
At the same time as Councils are employing these huge press teams, 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. As James Frayne wrote recently on this site, tax isn’t yet at the top of the list, but it’s going up in the public’s mind – and particularly amongst working class voters. And Council Tax is one of the most regular and punishing taxes they face.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance thinks these bloated PR budgets could hold one key to the riddle of local councils having such an important role, with so little public interest. Instead of responding to perceived voter ignorance with reams of media managers and PR strategies, good local councils could be cutting their comms budgets and delivering the savings which can go some way to helping bring down their Council Tax. The truth is, taxpayers do recognise and remember the council administrations that improved services and kept tax down. After all, Wandsworth and other flagship Conservative councils didn’t stay Tory on the shoulders of spin doctors.
Instead of these huge Comms teams, councils should aim to be judged by what they do, not what they say. After all, as we at the TaxPayers’ Alliance know well, no amount of press releases or photo ops will help a Council explain a mega rise in Council Tax to their residents. In short, residents want low taxes and regular bin collections, not big PR budgets and regular spin. Some of these worst offending councils would do well to remember that.