Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe has opted to continue publishing its fortnightly freesheet Greenwich Info – even though a scrutiny panel of councillors threw out a £1.3m deal for its printing and distribution at the end of last year.
The three councillors have even been told they were wrong to say they did not receive the controversial freesheet.
Thorpe approved a report from Stuart Godfrey, the council’s assistant director of communications, rejecting the councillors’ criticisms, stating that “further analysis of the comments raised and that the evidence suggests it would not be appropriate to amend the proposals”.
One of the council’s reasons for continuing with the publication – described as “dull as ditchwater” by former council leader Denise Hyland – was that it was delivered to most homes in the borough. But the three councillors on the scrutiny panel – Labour chair Chris Lloyd, his party colleague Ivis Williams and Conservative Nigel Fletcher – said that they did not receive the freesheet at their homes.
“I live on an estate of 2,500 residents, and I guarantee you I’ve never seen Greenwich Info coming through my door,” Williams told the officers last month.
Godfrey even rejects the three councillors’ criticism, claiming that “GPS tracker maps showing where the [distributor’s] staff have visited have been sourced for the last six editions. The company has provided clear and compelling evidence that the last edition has been delivered to all the addresses concerned”.
The possibility that the councillors’ partners or family members may have found the freesheet less than compelling and binned it is not mentioned in the report, which was signed off by Godfrey’s boss, deputy chief executive Katrina Delaney. It complains that “none of the committee members had previously flagged with officers that they could not recall receiving Greenwich Info“.
The decision to continue with the three-year contract to print and distribute Greenwich Info was originally called in for scrutiny by Conservative leader Matt Hartley, who used the process to discover that Greenwich Info is actually due to cost £300,000 to produce next year – instead of making a surplus as Godfrey and Delaney originally claimed, by including internal council advertising in the accounts.
Godfrey and Delaney’s report is likely to further inflame tensions within the council’s Labour group, many of whom agree with their rivals in calling the freesheet a vanity publication – and will be unhappy to see their colleagues criticised in an officers’ report.
Councillors had also questioned the decision to spend £1.3m on printing and distributing Greenwich Info when the council is making steep cuts to the money it gives to voluntary groups.
Indeed, relations between the council leadership and the opposition have also been damaged. On Thursday, Hartley submitted a motion for this month’s council meeting – due to be held on Wednesday 30 January – calling on Thorpe to delay approving the contract. However, the contract had been approved the previous day, but was not published on the council website until a couple of hours after Hartley sent his motion to local media outlets.
“I am not sure that this is how democracy is supposed to work,” Hartley’s colleague Spencer Drury told Thorpe on Twitter. “You get senior officers to spend £1.3m on a Council paper, then inform councillors that you are ignoring their cross-party request to reconsider this decision. Surely the decision has to be published first?”
Thorpe called Hartley’s motion “retrospective interference” and “another attempt to grandstand and not talk about the real issues”
At last month’s meeting (video above), Hartley said the publication was a waste of resources and damaged other media outlets in the borough by competing with them for advertising. His call-in forced 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. This point was not addressed in Godfrey and Delaney’s report.
Greenwich is one of just a handful of councils to publish a fortnightly freesheet. Neighbouring Southwark, Lewisham and Bexley councils make do with quarterly publications. And last month, Labour Camden decided to drop the frequency of its own magazine from monthly to quarterly.
‘Dull as ditchwater’
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.
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. However, many residents say deliveries are sporadic or non-existent. The report says the council will now step up monitoring of the contract, which is held by London Letterbox Marketing.
Godfrey and Delaney’s report to the scrutiny panel is almost worthy of a new scrutiny meeting to examine its claims. At last year’s meeting, they were criticised for repeating old claims about council publications – and their response continues the pattern.
It reports that the last residents’ survey “also showed that nearly two thirds of residents interviewed felt fairly or very well communicated with by the council”. “Our publication has undoubtedly contributed towards those ratings,” it adds, however, no survey was brought up in last month’s meetings and no date for the survey was given in the report. Central government dropped a requirement for councils to carry out residents’ surveys in 2010, six years before Greenwich Info launched.
And when it tried to answer councillors’ requests to consider alternative means of distribution, the report says the council used to pay a local newspaper group to deliver “its publication” along with that title. Again, this is undated, but this refers to Greenwich Info‘s predecessor, Greenwich Time, which used to be delivered with the Mercury more than a decade ago. Local newspaper groups have since largely ceased door-to-door deliveries.
‘Evading public scrutiny’
Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe said: “Following the call-in over the Christmas period, officers have been considering the issues and preparing the report.
“The report was signed on 16 January, so unfortunately Cllr Hartley has missed the boat. He is also fully aware that the constitution of the council is clear; this is an officer decision following on from the scrutiny process.”
Matt Hartley responded: “Danny Thorpe has been given two opportunities to pause the signing of these £1.3 million contracts, so that the matter can be properly debated by councillors.
“On both occasions he instructed officers to proceed regardless. This is shocking behaviour – and reveals a council leader desperate to evade public scrutiny over his waste of more than £300,000 a year on a pointless magazine that isn’t even effective.”
Additional reporting by Tom Bull, Local Democracy Reporter.
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