853 exclusive: Greenwich Council has put its advertising contract out to tender – spelling the end for council newspaper Greenwich Time in its current format.
A tender notice has been placed on the council website and on the official journal of the European Union seeking a provider that can “exclusively host our statutory notices and other Council advertising as required (non-exclusive) in a borough wide, weekly publication at a favourable rate”.
The decision to put planning notices and other council information out to tender appears to mean the council has ducked a legal battle with the Government over the controversial paper, which was outlawed earlier this year.
As well as being weekly, the publication must have an audited distribution to at least 95% of homes in the borough, along with pick-up bins and a digital edition.
The tender is said to be worth £400,000 per year for three years, with a possible two-year extension.
While considerably less than the £2.3m/year former council leader Chris Roberts and ex-chief executive Mary Ney – who retired last week – claimed the council would have to fork out if Greenwich Time was axed, the low sum is likely to only attract major publishers such as Mercury owner Tindle Newspapers and News Shopper proprietor Newsquest.
Indeed, that sum is likely to just cover the cost of distributing the paper each year. Last year, Greenwich spent £372,000 on distributing Greenwich Time, and charged council departments £404,000 for advertising in it.
This summer, it emerged that Tindle Newspapers had offered to take over Greenwich Time. However, Tindle’s policy of accepting ads from escort agencies and prostitutes is likely to count against any offer.
Another likely contender is council leisure and libraries provider GLL, which has previously been mooted as a home for Greenwich Time.
But does this mean the death of Greenwich Time? As a council-owned publication, it’s certainly the end – but there’s nothing to stop a publisher taking the title on.
And another line in the tender suggests Greenwich may take a closer interest in the editorial than some publishers would be comfortable with.
“The contractor will also be expected to ensure that the advertisements are published in the context of engaging local editorial content which helps to positively inform local residents about the measures that their neighbours and local service providers are undertaking to make the borough a great place to live, work, learn and visit,” the tender reads.
With a clause like that in an advertising contract, any editor may pause before commissioning any investigation into council services.
Greenwich is one of only two councils to publish a weekly newspaper – the other is Tower Hamlets, which today was accused of having a “culture of cronyism” by communities secretary Eric Pickles after a report into allegations of corruption was published.
It’s unlikely Greenwich’s Labour leadership relished the idea of being in court alongside the publishers of East End Life, dubbed by the party’s Hilary Benn in Parliament today as “little more than a vehicle of promotion” for Tower Hamlets’ independent mayor Lutfur Rahman.
Similarly, Greenwich Time was regularly lampooned for its regular appearances by Roberts, who made the paper weekly in 2008. Last year, it was admitted that he had the final say over the paper’s content.
Eric Pickles makes his front page debut in this week’s edition of Greenwich Time, pictured with new leader Denise Hyland in a story trumpeting success in health and social care services.
The change of policy on Greenwich Time comes alongside a second major change at the top of the council, with Mary Ney’s former deputy John Comber set to be confirmed as its new chief executive at Wednesday night’s council meeting.
9.10pm update: Greenwich’s deputy leader John Fahy seems adamant that Greenwich Time will continue – suggesting the council might well want to keep a close eye on editorial in wherever its ads end up going. After Tory leader Spencer Drury tweeted “hopefully this is the end”, Fahy replied: “Wishful thinking on your part.” Greenwich Time was “widely welcomed by the majority of residents”, he insisted.
Update 11 November, 10.05am: For the benefit of those arriving from Roy Greenslade’s Media Guardian blog.... After this piece was published, Greenwich Council told the News ShopperI that the tender was “a contingency”, while at 5 November’s council meeting, Denise Hyland called the tender a “Plan B” and said she would fight closure – Conservative councillor Matt Hartley touches upon this.
The prospect of a legal fight over the future of Greenwich Time has got closer after the Government sent Greenwich Council a final warning to stop printing its weekly newspaper.
Greenwich is one of 11 councils – also including Tower Hamlets, Newham, Waltham Forest, Hackney and Conservative-controlled Hillingdon – that have been warned they will face legal action to shut down their council publications to “defend the independent free press”.
Only Greenwich and Tower Hamlets produce weekly newspapers. Greenwich now has two weeks to show communities secretary Eric Pickles why he shouldn’t take legal action against the council – essentially, it’s an order to shut it down or face legal action.
The Government believes it has outlawed councils publishing newssheets more than four times a year. Greenwich believes it is still operating within the law by publishing Greenwich Time – see its full submission to the Government here, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act – and is vehemently opposed to any attempt to end its publication. Despite the fact that it is one of just two councils that publish a weekly paper, it claims criticism of Greenwich Time is politically-motivated.
Last month, it was revealed the council had refused an offer from the publisher of the Mercury and South London Press to take over Greenwich Time.
It’s long been rumoured Greenwich may try to spin off Greenwich Time to try to avoid the wrath of Pickles – with Greenwich Leisure Ltd mooted as a possible publisher. But there’s never been anything on the record to substantiate these rumours.
In truth, the squabbling over Greenwich Time has been going on for so long, residents may have just become resigned to the paper’s continued existence.
But after many false starts, the fight may now really be about to begin.
Campaigners against Ikea’s proposed store in east Greenwich have launched an appeal for funds as they look to begin a judicial review into the Government’s decision not to overturn planning permission for the scheme.
Greenwich Council gave outline permission for the store, on the site of the “eco-friendly” Sainsbury’s store in Peartree Way, in March. Planning officers ignored concerns about increased traffic and air pollution, a decision later backed by London mayor Boris Johnson.
Communities secretary Eric Pickles put the scheme on hold, but later opted not to intervene in the scheme. Current Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland was among the councillors to back the scheme in March, along with then-leader Chris Roberts, then-chief whip Ray Walker, Steve Offord and Clive Mardner; ignoring over an hour of public criticism of the proposals.
More recently, English Heritage turned down a request from the Twentieth Century Society to list the Sainsbury’s store, which opened in September 1999 and was shortlisted for the following year’s Stirling Prize for architecture. Construction work is now well under way on a replacement Sainsbury’s store at Gallions Road, Charlton.
Now the No Ikea Greenwich group needs to raise £2,000 to take the case to solicitors for an initial opinion on a judicial review. Payments can be made via this PayPal page. Judicial reviews need to be launched within three months of the decision they seek to challenge, so the money will need to be raised quickly.
A new petition has also been launched to persuade Sainsbury’s to lift the restrictive covenant on the old store which prevents its use as a supermarket.
The architect behind the Sainsbury’s store, Paul Hinkin, died earlier this month at the age of 49.
“Paul was a very gifted and principled architect with a passion for true sustainability and he will be desperately missed,” his firm, Black Architecture, said in a statement.
Hinkin spoke at the Greenwich Council meeting that approved Ikea’s plans, and earlier this year wrote that Ikea should “do the right thing” and rethink its plans.
“Develop a proposition that meets the needs of the many people of London by developing a store directly served by train or tube and built with the same care, craftsmanship and environmental stewardship that you demand from you furniture,” he wrote.
Ikea certainly has changed its business model in other parts of Europe – a new store in Hamburg is in an inner-city, pedestrianised area.
But there’s been no sign of Ikea announcing any changes to its model for its Greenwich store (indeed, no sign of Ikea representatives for some months, according to Greenwich Millennium Village residents), nor any sign of pressure from Greenwich Council on the flat-pack furniture giant to amend its plans.
Greenwich Council refused an approach from the owner of the Mercury and South London Press newspapers to take over its controversial weekly freesheet Greenwich Time, it’s emerged – and is being accused of misleading its own councillors about the offer.
The offer, made three years ago, is at the centre of a row between the publisher and the council over figures used by Greenwich leader Denise Hyland to justify continuing with the newspaper, one of only two in the country that are published weekly.
It comes as Greenwich Council is defending the paper against new laws brought in by the coalition government, with communities secretary Eric Pickles calling it “propaganda on the rates”.
Before GT went weekly, it had a long-standing distribution arrangement with the Mercury, which is London’s oldest local paper and is run as a sister paper to its Tindle Newspapers stablemate, the South London Press.
Greenwich claims it saves money by publishing GT weekly as it can place public notices – for planning, road closures, and the like – there without having to pay a third party for advertising.
But a letter from SLP managing director Peter Edwards to Hyland, sent earlier this month, claims the council presented “inaccurate data” when justifying this in a council debate in June, which saw councillors vote down an anti-GT motion from the Conservatives.
Greenwich claimed advertising in the Mercury would cost it £1.37m per year – but Edwards says he told council officers in a presentation that the council would only pay 55% of that sum, while the Mercury would also increase its distribution to 90% of the borough.
“We would also establish a channel on the Mercury website to carry notices, online videos and interviews, plus video streaming of open council meetings, all of this within the price quoted,” he added.
“In short, we would ensure every Greenwich resident had full and unfettered access to council messages.
“I am certain that if your meeting on 25th June were in full possession of all the facts it may have reached a different conclusion.”
In response, Hyland claims councillors already had “access to the full range of information you have provided”. But this information was only shared with cabinet members at the time, and not with the full council. While the council admitted in July 2011 that talks had been held with publishers, the details were not shared beyond the cabinet.
She added that the SLP/Mercury package would have “cost the council more for less” and would have still resulted “in an increase in expenditure”.
In addition, Hyland said the SLP’s offer would not have matched GT’s distribution, and could leave the council open to “a potential reputational risk as our adverts may appear alongside those for adult service providers and chat lines”.
(The sex trade ads are an Achilles heel for the SLP when it comes to dealing with local councils – some years ago, Lambeth withdrew its ads from the SLP in protest. After a spell running a GT-style fortnightly, Lambeth Life, Lambeth took its ads to an independent, Southwark Newspaper, which now produces a weekly Lambeth Weekender featuring four pages of council news plus public notices.)
After the Mercury/SLP offer was rebuffed in 2011, Tindle Newspapers took on a different strategy to push the Mercury, de-emphasising free deliveries in Greenwich borough in favour of creating paid-for micro-editions on sale in newsagents in west Greenwich, Charlton and Blackheath – the first paid-for papers to serve the areas for three decades.
More recently, Greenwich Council has come out fighting to defend Greenwich Time, which the Government believes it has now outlawed.
“I do not understand on what basis the Secretary of State considers that the council’s publicity is not even-handed or objective,” chief executive Mary Ney, whose job is supposed to be politically-neutral, wrote on 29 April in response to a warning from Pickles that he was considering action.
“This is a serious allegation and I am entitled to understand on what basis it is being made.”
Greenwich Council’s full response, obtained by this website under the Freedom of Information Act, lays into critics of Greenwich Time, essentially implying they do not represent the views of the people of the borough as “half are active in local politics”. “The objectiveness of their submissions has to be questioned,” it adds.
If Greenwich Time is axed, it claims, it will be “on the decision of a single minister, based upon the representations of 8 people out of a borough population of 264,000″.
It also claims that Greenwich Time supports the local newspaper industry as it is printed at Trinity Mirror’s presses in Watford, that Greenwich borough has “a strong local newspaper market”, and that it has “given extensive coverage to the Mayor of London”, and lists the (rare) occasions that opposition councillors are featured in it.
But it misses out the fact that its “rigorous sign-off process” includes the sign-off from the council leader, as admitted by Mary Ney last year, while the council’s sums still don’t take into account the time council staff spend on Greenwich Time.
The council’s response also included a dossier of notes of support from various figures, including a bizarre letter from someone at the Greenwich Islamic Centre in Plumstead which hopes the Government will change its mind so “the residents of the borough can enjoy their favourite weekly newspaper”.
Another respondent claims “it is a very balanced publication which does not demonstrate political bias in any way”, while the council response quotes another individual as claiming it runs “fact-based community editorial”.
One response backing GT comes from Steve Nelson of the South East London Chamber of Commerce, who’s regularly invited to the council’s mayor-making jollies at the Royal Naval College and is a trustee of council charity Greenwich Starting Blocks, which features regularly in the paper.
Looking through the responses, with names redacted, it seems that those who appear in Greenwich Time support it, and those who don’t are against it.
Which, in a nutshell, is the problem with Greenwich Time. Just as the Evening Standard has ceased to be a reliable news source because it contains little criticism of mayor Boris Johnson, Greenwich Time is similarly unreliable because it contains little criticism of Greenwich Council. And only one of those two titles is paid for by council taxpayers.
Whatever the failings of this area’s local media, the fact that we’re paying for a weekly paper which delivers just one side of the story is a big problem. And after six years of it, it’s far from certain that a weekly propaganda rag is even an effective communication strategy for the council anyway – how many go straight in the recycling? Simply barking out instructions on a dead bit of tree simply doesn’t cut it these days.
If Greenwich Time goes, the council’s communications and engagement policy will have to be rethought. And a deal with someone will have to be done, be it with the Mercury/SLP or a competitor, for those public notices.
Like alcoholics contemplating a future off the booze, a future without Greenwich Time is one the council leadership simply doesn’t want to contemplate.
Will Eric Pickles take the bottle off them? We’ll have to wait and see.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has confirmed he won’t intervene in Greenwich Council’s decision to allow a huge new Ikea superstore in east Greenwich.
Greenwich Council gave outline permission for the store, on the site of the “eco-friendly” Sainsbury’s store in Peartree Way, in March. Planning officers ignored concerns about increased traffic and air pollution, a decision later backed by London mayor Boris Johnson.
The process was halted by Pickles in May, leading campaigners to hope the decision could go to a public inquiry.
Now Pickles’ decision means it’s back in the hands of Greenwich Council, which now needs to hammer out what concessions Ikea needs to make to make any store work, before a detailed planning application goes in.
Of course, the biggest worry is traffic and pollution. The development’s bound to be a draw for flat-pack furniture fans from across London and Kent, yet it’s to be placed in an area which can’t cope with any more traffic. The only real proposal from Ikea to solve this was to route traffic away from the notorious Woolwich Road roundabout, sending traffic in the direction of the Millennium Village.
Any ideas? If you do, contact your local councillors – it’s time for them to earn their corn and try to ameliorate the damage their colleagues have caused.
The Government has stepped in to halt the outline planning permission for a new Ikea in east Greenwich after complaints from local protesters.
Greenwich Council gave outline permission for Ikea to build a store on the site of the “eco-friendly” Sainsbury’s store in Peartree Way earlier this year, with planning officers ignoring concerns about increased traffic and air pollution, a decision later backed by London mayor Boris Johnson.
The five Labour members on the planning board – including council leader Chris Roberts, chief whip Ray Walker and regeneration member Denise Hyland – backed the scheme, with two Conservatives voting against.
This was despite every speaker at the planning board meeting – including local outgoing Labour councillors Mary Mills and Alex Grant – voicing objections to the scheme.
Since then, a local campaign has sprung up, gathering cross-party support to call for the decision to be overturned and handed to a public inquiry.
Now Pickles has issued a directive telling Greenwich Council to put final approval on hold while he reviews Greenwich’s process.
Government policy is not to interfere on local matters, so for Pickles to overturn the decision, campaigners have to show that the Ikea decision is of more than local importance.
There’s no timescale for the decision, but those who want to make a representation to Pickles on the issue can email Muredach Diamond at the Department for Communities and Local Government: muredach.diamond[at]communities.gsi.gov.uk, quoting reference NPCU/RTI/E5330/73828.
Separately, English Heritage is considering an application to list the 1999 Sainsbury’s store that’s already on the site, which was lauded at the time for its ecologically-friendly innovations. Work has already started on a replacement store half a mile away in Charlton.
Update 9pm: I’m told by that an Ikea representative was meant to attend a meeting of residents in Greenwich Millennium Village on Wednesday evening, but failed to show.
Greenwich Council’s propaganda weekly got an unlikely airing in the Midlands at the end of last week as Prime Minister David Cameron took aim at Greenwich Time when he launched the Conservatives’ local election campaign.
London boroughs won’t see an election for another year yet, but seats in English county councils are up for grabs on 2 May.
“And what about all those Labour councils shamelessly spending your money on their propaganda?
Greenwich – whose town-hall newspaper is about as balanced as Pravda. And about as interesting to read as well!
Tee-hee! Dave did a funny!
Lambeth – which scare-mongers about cuts – but funnily enough still has cash for posters all over the borough attacking the Government.
These people: when it comes to spending your money, they just cannot help themselves.”
Interestingly enough, I spend a fair bit of time near Shepherd’s Bush Green, where the lamp posts are covered in posters boasting about council tax cuts in Hammersmith & Fulham – a Conservative borough.
That aside, David Cameron’s speech shows how Greenwich Time has become an exposed target for opponents to kick – despite the fact that his government has failed to kill it off after promising to once already.
A recently-introduced code on council publicity was meant to put an end to the likes of GT – but it doesn’t have the force of law, and Greenwich has blithely continued publishing, and is likely to do so up to the next council election.
Now communities secretary Eric Pickles has launched a consultation on making that code law.
“Some councils are undermining the free press and wasting taxpayers’ money which should be spent carefully on the front line services that make a real difference to quality of life. It should not, under any circumstances, be used to fund political propaganda and town hall Pravdas and yet a hardcore minority of councils continue to ignore the rules despite public concern.”
Greenwich Council has always maintained that Greenwich Time covers its own costs and that scrapping it would divert money away from frontline services. This is because the council would have to place its public notices (planning permission, consultations, that kind of thing) in the News Shopper or the Mercury.
Let’s deal with the value for money question first. The finances of Greenwich Time are difficult to quantify, since they don’t account for the involvement of the council’s seven-strong press office, which is as involved with GT as the freelancers whose names appear in the paper.
With Greenwich Time the central plank of all council communications – unlike other boroughs, Greenwich doesn’t have advertising space on bus shelters, for example – it’s nigh-on impossible to split it out from the schmoozing, scheming, talking and influencing press officers do. Without GT, Greenwich would have to completely reshape its press operation.
Yet most other councils manage without producing their own weekly newspaper – the only other one is Tower Hamlets’ East End Life. Hillingdon Council’s communications manager Charlotte Stamper says by using the law, “Pickles is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut” – adding that local councils effectively subsidise local papers by placing public notices in them.
If Pickles removed the need for councils to place so many public notices, the justification for Greenwich Time would vanish overnight.
“The line in the sand is clear, publicity material straying into propaganda clearly crosses that line, and this legislation will stop this disgraceful misuse of public money, which damages local democracy and threatens an independent, free and vibrant local press.”
Greenwich Time certainly gets in the way of honest reporting. On a financial level, it’s believed to undercut the ad rates demanded by traditional local papers (and making life hard for potential new entrants – remember Games Extra, the Olympics clone of the Greenwich Visitor?); while on a practical level, council news stories tend to be held so GT gets the exclusive and its rivals are left chasing.
But the problem in Greenwich is that there wasn’t an independent, free and vibrant local press to start with. Despite the work of talented reporters, the owners of the Mercury and the News Shopper have squeezed budgets to such an extent that their papers are barely able to cover the basics. Indeed, distribution is so poor that the only paper many residents will see is… Greenwich Time.
A good case study is Greenwich Council’s scheme to give jobs to residents hit by social security cuts. This has been known about since the end of January, and was launched last Monday with a press conference at the Woolwich Centre – as usual, too late for coverage in the print versions of the Mercury or News Shopper, but guaranteeing oodles of uncritical coverage in Greenwich Time.
On the left, Greenwich Time in September 2009, announcing a scheme to employ people in temporary jobs. On the right, Greenwich Time in April 2013, announcing a scheme to… yep, you got it.
But was the initial scheme a success? Did the people given “green jobs” in 2009 get back into work? We don’t know. An “independent, free and vibrant local press” would have scrutinised this and asked difficult questions. But it hasn’t. It’s a worthy-looking scheme, but we’ve no idea if it’s really going to do something to improve people’s lives for the long term.
So the only coverage most people will see is what they’ll read in Greenwich Time – not just because the council’s trying to smother the market, but because the traditional local press won’t invest to free reporters up to do any real, in-depth reporting. Greenwich Time undercutting their ad rates won’t help them do that, of course, but it’s the editors and proprietors who ceded the space to the council in the first place.
But there’s one other consideration – has Greenwich Time naturally had its day? Are people now seeing through the propaganda after five long years of weekly papers? Does anyone actually read it any more?
Essentially, GT stories tend to associate the council with community initiatives, good deeds with children, and regeneration schemes – this week’s issue sucks up to the developers of (The Heart of East) Greenwich Square. Its favoured worldview also promotes Chris Roberts’ pet projects and people – this week’s features an embarrassing photo of his deputy (and his preferred successor) Peter Brooks with swimmers and Duncan Goodhew at Charlton Lido. Expect to see a bit more of Brooksy over the next year. It’s all getting a bit samey.
Councillors and council officers might think they’ve got people’s attention when they tick off the box marked “get article in Greenwich Time”, but that’s no good if half your taxpayers are binning the thing, and you’ve no other publicity options. I was intrigued that the council’s Bridge The Gap campaign on river crossings only had 795 online pledges of support out of the 84,000 households Greenwich Time is delivered to, despite seven consecutive weeks of promotion there. I’m waiting to find out how many of those pledges actually came from within Greenwich borough.
Yet sometimes it’s best when other people do your publicity for you. Take a look at new-ish blogs The Only Way Is Woolwich and Seen In Greenwich talking about the council’s Environment Champions scheme. This stuff is far better than anything you’ll read in GT – and far more valuable because it removes the “well, they would say that anyway” factor you’d get from a council publication. Sometimes you just have to do the right thing and trust other people to be your messengers, be they journalists, bloggers or residents (or all three at once) instead of trying to force it down people’s throats.
Or maybe we could just gang together and use another Pickles innovation, the community right to challenge, to bid to run Greenwich Time and take it off the council’s hands altogether. Who’s got a few quid spare?
So, sledgehammer or not, I’ll be responding to the government’s consultation. I’m sorry for the other local councils that don’t break the rules – but this one’s screwed it up for the rest of you. Not out of nostalgia for a golden era of local journalism, but because it’s an abuse of power that’s increasingly looking anachronistic. If you’ve got a strong view on GT either way, you might like to do the same.