Evening Star

A newspaper and the non-story of a council’s travel expenses

Because some spending details are available as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request does not mean they are scandalous. Take the Evening Star’s latest revelation under the headline “Suffolk: County Council staff takes 175 trips abroad — at a cost of £98,000″.

That is in a period of six years making the cost of foreign travel less than £16,500 a year. The average cost of a trip is £560.

That looks to me like careful control of expenses. I doubt if many organisations of similar size would appear so frugal if their travel expenses were exposed to scrutiny.

The figures suggest budget airlines and far from luxurious hotels.

The newspaper reports a county spokesman saying that one trip to Africa, which cost £16,000 was mainly funded through the children partaking in the trip raising money. He said that the reason was to take eight children in care to visit orphanages in Africa.

That sounds like a commendable project.

And “almost £500 was forked out” to visit an exhibition in Amsterdam to consider the best speed cameras for the county. It lasted three days which hardly suggests an official living the high life.

We need our officials to get out and talk to people, to hear the experiences of others so that they are better able to advise councillors.

One employee had £2,000 to attend a five day course in Boston as a part of a masters degree. This kind of spending is clearly not common and providing development opportunities to staff is important in recruiting and retaining the able people we need working for us.

Wordblog in its earlier incarnation was about the media, and it is the decision that this story was worth running that worries me.

It is the job of the press to hold public bodies to account. Enquiring into all aspects of spending is an important part of this. And the Evening Star has produced some important stories including the revelation of the money spent on photographs of chief executive Andrea Hill.

The chief executive’s spending on hotel stays in Suffolk, now a part of the investigation into her conduct, is another.

But this story about travel expenses undermines the good work. It enables those who should be held to account to turn on the media with valid complaints. “Just another example of the press pursuing a vendetta,” they can say with credibility.

I fear that FoI requests have given regional newspapers, hit by declining sales, reduced advertising revenue, and the resulting loss of reporters, a cheap semblance of investigative reporting.

The in-depth analysis of what the county council is really doing is expensive, demanding staff time which is no longer available. But that is what we need.

The challenge to our regional media is how to respond the the challenges of changes which are much more long-term than the current economic low. The internet has changed everything but I believe print will be with us for a long time.

I will return to this subject to look at ways in which our regional press could operate in a world of hyperlocal web news and social media to better serve its print readers.

Is Suffolk failing to look after the pennies…

Evening Star front pageThe front page of the Evening Star yesterday was dominated by a picture of a kettle with the single word headline Steaming above it. The story was about the County Council spending £59,095 on tea and coffee for employees in its offices.

Today in the East Anglian Daily Times there is a report, based on figures from the Taxpayer’s Alliance (TPA), saying that Suffolk County Council’s bill for mileage is the seventh highest in the country at £6.3m.

First, the bill for tea. Probably about half the employers in Britain pay for tea and coffee at work and across all the employees who benefit it is going to be a very small perk.

The council says it it is financed from the £3 a day employees pay for car parking. That is sophistry. Many people have to pay for public car parks when they go to work and an all day ticket for the Portman Road car park around the corner from Endeavour house is £4.50.

In the normal scheme of things such spending on drinks would go unremarked, but the council appeared mean-minded when it cut school crossing patrols across the county to save little more than twice the tea and coffee bills.

Many business do cut small perks when they have the need to make savings, although they can be counter-productive if they further damage already low employee morale. However, it often has to be done partly because of the message it sends to the customers/taxpayers.

Cutting back on mileage can also hurt morale especially if managers are forced into questioning every mile on an expenses claim. Trust can be seriously damaged.

Suffolk is a large, rural area and mileage is naturally going to be relatively high. A note on the figures given by the Taxpayer’s alliance suggests that some action has been taken with the stopping of lump sum payments at the end of October last year.

The more significant thing to emerge from the TPA figures for 2008/09 and 2009/10 is that some authorities cut mileage spending while others did not.

In Suffolk county we see a rise of £168,000 which would almost have paid for the school crossing patrols for a year.

Forest Heath, Ipswich Borough, Mid Suffolk and Waveney councils all managed to reduce their mileage payments in the same period between them cutting their bills by around £87,000.

Both stories cast further doubt on Suffolk’s spurious claim to be one of the most cost-efficient councils in the country. While both can be delicate labour relations matters (does Suffolk County Council have the skills to manage such issues well?) the overwhelming impression is that the council is failing to look after the pennies….

And that leaves us worrying about their ability to manage the pounds.

Denying the unsaid: a mystery inside an enigma

Denying something you have not been accused of is mind-bending public relations technique. The only reason I can see for Suffolk County Council to use it in the matter of Evening Star reporter Paul Geater was to confuse the issue.

To recap, Geater is the local government reporter on the Star who on Monday was told by a SCC press officer that all his questions would be met with “no comment”. The paper then splashed the story on it’s front page.

For a journalist to be sent to Coventry by a council press office is a serious matter which makes it much harder to keep the readers informed. By its nature, the relationship is sometimes difficult, but it is a cornerstone of democracy.

I read the original story and noted that they had not tried to ban Geater from meeting or receiving council papers. Sensible, on the part of the council, because that would have been illegal. We all have a statutory right to enter Endeavour House and attend meetings.

But in response to the ensuing storm, the council denies that Geater had been banned from entering Endeavour House. As Geater said, that had not been a part of his complaint.

But, in a letter to the Evening Star, council leader Jeremy Pembroke said:

It has never been suggested that Mr Geater is banned from Endeavour House or, for that matter, any other Council building.

The communications team will deal with enquiries from Mr Geater as appropriate, as they have always done.

This was not some mistake, denying the unsaid, because the same approach was used by the council’s head of communications, Simon Higgins, who also said there was no ban on entering Endeavour House. He had been asked ten questions by the Star, one of which asked if the chief executive, Andrea Hill, knew of the ban (on answering questions) before it was made. His reply: “No because there is no ban.”

It is little more than a month ago that the council scored another spectacular PR own goal by removing a petition for the chief executive, Andrea Hill, to have her pay cut from it’s web site.

Behaviour inside Endeavour House is daily looking more and more dysfunctional. And that leads to questions about the rationality of decision making.

East Anglians still reading newspapers

Media commentator Roy Greenslade finds a bright spot among the latest sales figures for regional newspapers. While some have sales falls of 10% and more compared with a year ago, those in Suffolk and Norfolk are doing pretty well.

Roy reports:

There were just three risers – the Dundee Evening Telegraph (publisher: DC Thomson), up 3.4%, and Archant’s two Norwich titles, the Eastern Daily Press and its evening partner, which each put on 0.5%. Their Ipswich titles  [East Anglian Daily Times and Evening Star] were not too bad either, down about 3% apiece. So well done to Archant.

Archant is based in Norwich. I am not sure whether it is a reflection of quite how poor many regionals have become, or that in East Anglia we are slower to loose the newspaper reading habit.

Ipswich Evening Star’s robust and thoughtful journalism

Front page of Evening StarThe Evening Star in Ipswich yesterday had a powerful editorial urging Suffolk County Council not to go ahead with its cuts. The heading was simply “YOU’RE WRONG!

It starts on the front page and continued on two inside pages. Unfortunately, I can’t find it on their website, but if anyone can provide the link, please put it in the comments below.

The editorial begins:

On the day a savage package of cuts is rubber-stamped at Endeavour House, The Evening Star urges out decision-makers to think again.

We say the drastic axing of crucial services — many of which cater for the most vulnerable in society — is avoidable.

Then follows a cogent examination of the budget which argues for the use of reserves to “ease the pressure”.

The reserves are crucial because they include £3.4 million put aside for “business transformation” and £4 million put aside for “management of change”.

Part of the budget that was approved yesterday, is £3.6 million to be spent on “management of change”.

As the Evening Star says there are echoes of the New Strategic Direction running through the budget. The NSD is a policy to make Suffolk CC and “enabling authority” which outsources its services to charities, social enterprises, charities and voluntary groups. (During the budget debate, the Lib Dem leader, Kathy Pollard described it as the New Sadistic Direction.)

One of the most significant things in the editorial is not in the main text. In the front page image (above) there are two circular pictures and a caption which reads: “THINK AGAIN: Our message to county decision-makers Jeremy Pembroke, top, and Andrea Hill.”

Jeremy Pembroke is the council leader, a Conservative, while Andrea Hill is the Chief Executive, who should not be a decision-maker. This treatment in the paper, neatly reflects the suspicions in Suffolk that Ms Hill, unelected and highly paid, is usurping democracy by driving the New Strategic Direction poicy.

Nigel Pickover, the editor of the Evening Star, and his team are — in this post I am returning to my media blogging mode — providing a great example of the kind of robust and thoughtful journalism of which much more is needed in the regions.

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