Archive | November, 2012

Easy come, easy go

29 Nov

A report in today’s Guardian says Newham council are “willing to increase their loan from £40 million to £70 million” as part of a funding package to convert the Olympic stadium to dual football and athletics use, thereby all-but-guaranteeing that West Ham United will move in as prime tenants.

Yes, that’s right. £70 million. Seven zero. Million.

When council considered the matter in March they agreed that they would “provide a loan of up to £40m” (my emphasis added). 

Was this “willingness” to agree to a significant increase in the loan – 75% more than the agreed maximum – discussed with any councillors beyond the mayor’s small ‘magic circle’ of sycophants and yes-men?

How do ordinary councillors feel about risking £70 million on an investment with no obvious business case – and few real benefits to ordinary Newham people – when the authority has just lost the £4 million it loaned to London Pleasure Gardens?

How do they propose to justify to their constituents spending £70 million on kitting out a new stadium for a Premier League football club owned by multi-millionaires when vital frontline public services are being cut?

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A backdoor subsidy for local newspapers

23 Nov

Last week I attended the GovDelivery Annual conference at the National Audit Office. The theme of the conference was digital government communications.

One of the speakers was Dr. Jonathan Carr-West, Director of Policy, at the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU), who shared some scary and alarming research on statutory notice publications.

He revealed that across the country councils spend up to £67.85m (or an average of £181,000 per authority) every year publishing public notices in local newspapers. This is not something they have any choice about: councils have a statutory duty.

Of course, local newspaper owners know this and exploit it to the full. There is evidence that the individual cost of publishing a notice can be upwards of three times that for a normal advert, reaching over £20 per column centimetre in some publications.

This is a lot of money, especially when councils are trying desperately to find savings. It is also an outdated system that has been left behind by technological advances. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that the audience – that’s local people like you and me –  is moving away from printed newspapers, to a varied digital media landscape.

Councils know this. They know that printed notices in local papers are inefficient and a waste of money. They know no-one reads them and they know that almost no-one ever responds to them.

I have submitted a Freedom of Information request to Newham council, asking how much they spend on these notices and how many responses they have generated. My aim isn’t to embarrass the council: for once they are wasting money and it’s not their fault! As a citizen it offends me that public money is being handed over as a back-door subsidy to newspaper proprietors. I want information I can give my local councillors to persuade them to lobby the mayor, and for him in turn to lobby central government to change the law on public notices.

The coalition government says it believes in localism and that it wants councils to deliver value for money. Well it could prove it by changing the law to free up councils to decide, based on their local online and offline ecosystem, where best to place public notices. They should de-jargonise the content of public notices so ordinary people can understand what the hell they’re about. And they should allow immediate online response – click a button, fill in a form!

Allowing councils to spend a little bit of money with hyperlocal news and community websites would provide a real boost to the sector and lead to significant growth in the number and quality of these sites, while still delivering large savings.

Taking it one step further forwards, the Department for Communities and Local Government should look at developing a central online portal for publication of statutory notices. You could sign-up for automatic email alerts for new notices from your local authority, or subscribe to an RSS feed. The Scottish Government has already partnered with local authorities to produce TellMeScotland, which would be easy to replicate.

You can see Jonathan Carr-West’s presentation online and download a full copy of the LGiU report on public notices.

 

View from Wanstead Park station

19 Nov

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From the westbound platform, looking across towards Sebert Road.

Talking to Jeff Jarvis about Tax

14 Nov

[View the story “Talking to Jeff Jarvis about tax” on Storify]