Greenwich councillors have rejected a £1.3m contract to print and distribute the council’s fortnightly magazine Greenwich Info – with all three councillors on the panel declaring it was not delivered to their homes.
Council officers had planned to spend the money renewing a joint three-year deal alongside other boroughs for printing and delivery services, but have now been told to reconsider after the contract was called in for scrutiny by Conservative leader Matt Hartley.
Hartley said the publication was a waste of resources and damaged other media outlets in the borough by competing with them for advertising.
The surprise decision came after council officers – who had claimed Greenwich Info made a surplus – were forced to reveal figures that admitted the publication makes a loss when advertising for council services are removed from the accounts.
Cuts to voluntary groups in the borough – which also total £1.3m – were also highlighted as councillors agreed to tell officers to reconsider.
Greenwich Info – nicknamed Greenwich Binfo in some quarters after its most likely destination in residents’ homes – replaced the council’s own newspaper, Greenwich Time, in 2016. By the time it closed, Greenwich Time was the only weekly council paper left in England, while neighbouring Lewisham and Bexley were making do with quarterly magazines.
An out-of-court settlement with the Government allowed Greenwich to produce a publication so long as it did not have the appearance of being a newspaper. Former council leader Denise Hyland, who called the government’s curb on council newspapers “censorship”, called its replacement “dull as ditchwater” in a council meeting.
In theory, Greenwich Info is delivered once a fortnight to all 100,000 homes in the borough, with council officers declaring it is cheaper than producing leaflets to explain services such as recycling or advertising council homes to let.
‘I’ve never seen it come through my door’
But their argument fell apart when Woolwich Common councillor Ivis Williams – who 853 understands was drafted into the panel to replace fellow Labour representative John Fahy, who had been barred from the committee because he had also complained about Greenwich Info – said she never received a copy.
“I live on an estate of 2,500 residents, and I guarantee you I’ve never seen Greenwich Info coming through my door,” Williams.
“It’s really disturbing to hear that,” council deputy chief executive Katrina Delaney said. Senior council officer Stuart Godfrey offered to take the councillor’s address and investigate before panel chair Chris Lloyd (Peninsula, Labour) intervened: “You might want to take my address as well.”
“You can add mine as well,” the third member of the panel, Eltham South Conservative Nigel Fletcher said.
“When we do get Greenwich Info, living in a development of flats, it comes through the front door of the building, not the flat doors, along with all the other junk mail,” he said.
“If we’re talking about hard-to-reach residents, this does seem to be a method of communication that actively works against those residents. It’s very easy to put it through someone’s front door if they’re living in a nice detached house, they’ll see it on the mat when they come home. In flats where they reach a communal doormat, I’d suggest that’s part of the problem.”
Fletcher said the council officers had been “creative” in describing Greenwich Info as generating a surplus.
The net cost of Greenwich Info was £236,000 in the year to April, and is due to rise to £297,000 next year. These sums do not take into account internal council advertising such as choice-based lettings, much of which would have to be spent elsewhere in any case.
They also do not take into account the public notices published in Greenwich Weekender, which was told to stop covering news stories or face losing council advertising in 2017 after its coverage angered senior councillors.
Hartley praised the recent improvement in local media coverage of the borough (largely down to the BBC funding a local democracy reporter at the Petts Wood-based News Shopper, whose stories are also supplied to this website) but added that local outlets suffered because of competition for advertising from the council: “We must not forget that for years and years this borough was only served – and I’m not making it up here – by 853 as the only genuine local media outlet.
“There are excellent community publications, but for years, local media in Greenwich borough came close to not existing, were it not for 853.
“I think that demonstrates the adverse effect that this council’s policies, first through Greenwich Time and now Greenwich Info, have on the local media.”
Stumbling over the name of the borough’s oldest title – and one which carries a regular column from the council leader – Delaney, the councils communications boss, referred to evidence in a past call-in from 2016 that claimed that local advertisers “found it hard to access the News Shopper and Greenwich… whatever you call it – Mercury” because they were part of larger groups. (The Mercury is now independently-owned with the South London Press.)
Godfrey said Greenwich Info’s advertising of council homes also saved money because it enabled the borough to fill empty homes more quickly.
Committee chair Lloyd, who arrived late for the meeting after a diary mix-up, said he was unwilling to refer the decision back: “The growth in interest in local journalism in Greenwich hasn’t been stifled by this ‘dull as ditchwater’ ‘not newspaper’.”
‘Not value for money’
Fletcher backed the call-in, leaving Williams to tip the balance for rejecting the officers’ arguments: “I have to agree with Nigel. As a new councillor I’d have expected lessons to be learned from previous call-ins… it’s not value for money [and] the distribution costs are going up. There’s no guarantee we won’t be back here in four years time for the next contract.”
While the paper is unlikely to be scrapped, it is the first time Labour councillors have publicly voiced unhappiness with the council’s communications strategy, and the decision will be a symbolic blow to the council leadership.
Hartley told 853 after the meeting: “I’m pleased the committee, including backbench Labour councillors, referred this £1.3m folly back for reconsideration – with a request that alternatives to Greenwich Info are formally examined.
“As time goes on, the council’s already weak arguments for continuing this expensive, ineffective vanity magazine are collapsing one by one.
“Their claim that Greenwich Info delivers a budget surplus is demonstrably untrue. As the meeting heard, this is nothing more than accounting trickery – with the council’s own figures revealing the true net cost will hit nearly £300,000 this year and will continue to climb.
“For all that money, taxpayers get a pointless magazine that still unfairly competes for advertising with genuine local media outlets – and is not remotely effective in communicating the right information to the right residents at the right time.
“In light of the committee’s clear and cross-party decision, the council now needs to conduct a serious, fair and honest assessment of cheaper and more effective alternatives. The new Labour leadership then needs to listen to the evidence and scrap Greenwich Info for good.”
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