Greenwich Time: Eric Pickles turns up the heat on Greenwich Council’s weekly paper

Greenwich Time

Greenwich Council has been given 14 days to respond to a demand from Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to close its weekly newspaper Greenwich Time, MPs have been told.

A written statement from junior minister Kris Hopkins says the council has been told it’ll be directed to close the controversial freesheet by 31 March.

Greenwich Time is one of only two weekly council newspapers in the country, along with Tower Hamlets’ title East End Life.

Pickles has long been trying to clamp down on such papers, demanding that councils publish newssheets no more than four times per year. Neighbouring Lewisham cut its Lewisham Life magazine from monthly to quarterly some years ago.

The council was first warned in September 2014, but it has argued that by using Greenwich Time to publish local information, it is saving taxpayers money.

The true costs of Greenwich Time have been notoriously difficult to quantify. While the paper relies on a lot of freelance labour, quoted costs do not include the time spent by council staff and officers in producing it. In 2013 this website found out that GT cost £124,000 per year to produce, without counting the work put in by the council’s paid staff.

Its opponents say GT, which is signed off by the council leader and chief executive each issue, stifles debate while local newspaper publishers argue it competes unfairly for advertising revenue. A move by the owners of the South London Press to buy the title was rebuffed in 2011.

Last November, Greenwich Council put its advertising contract out for tender – the £400,000 annual fee roughly matching GT’s distribution costs. But council leader Denise Hyland later called this a “Plan B”. Last night, she told Conservative leader Spencer Drury it was “business as usual” at the paper.

You can see the exchange at 1 minute 29 minutes into this video:

The role of the paper in pushing the council’s line was highlighted this week in the bizarre row over the council’s proposals to incentivise local business to pay the London Living Wage.

Despite the scheme first being publicly proposed by Conservative councillors, Greenwich Time placed the story on its front page and credited it to Labour leader Denise Hyland.

Greenwich Time, 27 January 2015

This week’s paper also contains a two-page spread boasting about the council’s plans for the future of Eltham. Promoting improvements in Eltham are a regular feature of Greenwich Time, and few other areas of the borough have had plans publicised in this manner.

It’s widely believed the council is using GT to boost the chances of the marginal seat’s Labour MP Clive Efford being re-elected.

Whether Pickles’ threat will mean the end of GT is a moot point – the closure deadline of 31 March runs so close to the general election that any legal response from Greenwich may mean it can simply carry on through the campaign and leave the issue to whatever government is elected in May.

32 comments

  1. I’ve lived in the Borough for 2 years and have received GT every single month.
    It’s shocking how out of touch the Greenwich council with residents.
    This sort of activity makes we wish that council were non political.

  2. Another year,another election,another letter from Eric Pickles. Important to read the small print. This is not a demand but a threat, I suspect sent without civil servant approval. This is a similar letter to the one sent last year. Why is it appropriate to print GT once a quarter,as suggested and not print whenever the Council decides! Bizarre in the extreme. Government ignores Localism when it chooses to do so. Worth remembering that local residents voted for the Labour Party last year with an increased majority.

    The 853 Blog has provided some interesting stories in the past and long may that continue. We must be open,transparent and accountable. However it is in danger of losing its credibility if it continues to lack objectivity. For instance linking the Pickles letter passed on by the Tories to the suggestion that the the Tories were instrumental in pushing the London Living Wage is laughable. The suggestion that we sit on our hands waiting for the Conservatives to slip a letter through the letterbox supporting increasing help for the low paid is ridiculous. Thirty one Councils across the Country supports the LLW. Guess what only one Conservative Council supports. This is not the Party based on fact that is,at all interested in the low paid. Clearly there are those who do not share the Party view. If this is the case they are in the wrong Party.

  3. John Fahy –

    Why does Greenwich Labour group never do any campaigning on local issues, as its neighbours in Lewisham, Southwark and Lambeth do?

    Why can every other Labour council in the UK do without a weekly newspaper?

    Why is a weekly council newspaper unacceptable to Labour in Tower Hamlets – http://www.towerhamletslabour.org.uk/new_statistics_reveal_worsening_east_end_life_bias – but essential for the 43 Labour councillors in Greenwich, only one of whom has publicly been associated with campaigns for the living wage?

  4. This is going to be a bit long but it needs saying. There is a trap here.
    I have always had a lot of issues with Greenwich Time. I never have liked it, I don’t think it speaks to the residents I used to represent, it is patronising, and I am really angry at the way it treated me (so keen on never mentioning back benchers that it once never even acknowledged my copyright in something)
    BUT what I do think is that Councils should use all and every means of communicating with their residents – and I very much don’t like the Tories attempts to stop them. Why – shouldn’t we ask why the Tories don’t want Councils talking to their voters??? Asking why other Council’s don’t produce papers is simply a red herring – in my view they should? Why pillory Greenwich for at least trying to do the right thing? You go on about propaganda – but none of you seem to be able to provide a definition of what in Greenwich Time is propaganda and what not? Come on – pictures of school kids?? Info about cycle marking? Lets hear what shouldn’t be in there?
    Why is the Council web site not ‘propaganda’ and apparently ok??
    What I think – sorry about this Darryl, think you do a good job, but you need a challenge sometimes) why on one hand you go on about the need for MORE communication and pillory the Council for not providing streaming, etc etc etc and then go on about the need for LESS (abolish Greenwich Time),
    Now I know – or I think I know – the answer to that one, but I would like a bit of an explaination first.

    – and as for not campaigning on local issues – sigh – that is what I thought I had been doing for the past fourteen years, and look where that got me.

  5. John Fahy, the architect of the Alfegegate cover-up, talks about loss of credibility!
    Satire is dead in Greenwich!

  6. Cllr Fahy, in the spirit of being open,transparent and accountable (your words), why has the council has not written to local residents or explained why in Greenwich Time it wants to spend £37m of taxpayers’ money on a faith school on the Peninsula, when there is a CofE school sitting empty in Blackheath? In the age of transparency and ‘citizen engagement’ why has it only published one notice at the back pages of Greenwich at the beginning of the consultation period)? Why is there no mention of this proposal on RGB’s website? What else are these communications channels meant for?

    This is after I personally asked you to ensure Peninsula residents were notified in writing, in practice with statutory consultations. Particularly given Peninsula Residents were not even made aware of the ‘informal consultation.’

    Kind regards
    Shivanee, GMVA Secretary
    Peninsula Forum Secretary

  7. Cabinet has considered its School Place Planning strategy recently and details are on the Council website. Very happy to send a copy if you have not already seen it.

  8. From my own experience local Councillors spend much of their time engaged with their local communities and activity campaign with residents on the important issues that affect their neighbourhoods. I could provide a lengthy list in respect of both my colleagues and myself in Woolwich Riverside. Local surgery activity provides a focal point for many activities in respective areas.

    We will have to agree to differ on the position of GT. It provides a focus for residents on what is happening across the Borough and the inclusion of choice based lettings helps many people to look at available Council properties which change week by week. Each Local Authority determines its own policies in respect of communication and rightly so under the Localism Act.

  9. Thank you John. My point is that while surgeries and one-on-one contact is very well, Greenwich Labour councillors hold no joint campaigns, and have nothing to speak for them that’s independent of the council. There’s next to no ongoing communication with residents from the party’s councillors. Here’s an example – Denise Hyland is lobbying for the Overground to come to Abbey Wood. Where’s the Greenwich Labour campaign to support that?

    Nobody knows what Greenwich Labour stands for, but everybody knows what Greenwich Council stands for. How many snide little “I’m glad you read Greenwich Time” comments do we get aimed at the opposition in council meetings? Which former cabinet member once credited Greenwich Time with Labour’s strong performances in council elections? I’m much more familiar with what Lewisham’s Labour group stands for than Greenwich’s Labour group simply because they communicate this information – in Greenwich, it gets left to GT, where things that show the council in a good light are emphasised and other things are dumped. Show me a Greenwich Labour group website, Twitter account or Facebook page and I’ll change my mind.

    In the long run continuation of GT is rotting politics in this borough from the head down. Let’s say Pickles wins this battle and GT goes, then Labour wins a majority in May’s general election but it all goes horribly wrong and there’s a backlash against the party. After having relied on GT for so long, does Greenwich Labour group even know how to campaign without it? Scrapping it might do you some good in the long run.

  10. You raise a number of very interesting points which I will certainly discuss with colleagues. There is always scope for doing things better and should not be adverse to looking seriously at practical suggestions. We certainly do not have all the answers.

  11. So -ok Darryl – you’ve chosen to ignore my questions above. And I never asked you the really important one. Now, however – what I was anyway going to ask is what people thing about how we should all communicate these days – not just the Council or the Labour Group although that is a good start. That fits in quite well with what you have said to John, above – and I do have a very good reason for asking. There are lots of people out there with ideas – (many of them from the US) but what would fit South East London? Using blogs and stuff is easy and cheap – but it is a limited audience (I won’t ask about your hit rate) and we are largely all talking to each other. Leaflets get put in dustbins, people don’t go to pubs much anymore, increasingly communal life is going and we all live in our own little cells – and in any case the questions people are asking are not always what is being answered (see Shivanee above – ). So – – – this is for everyone.
    I really would appreciate this

  12. Mary, I’ve chronicling GT’s propaganda on here for years. So please don’t make yourself look silly by asking “what is propaganda”, because you’re better than that.

    If leaflets get put in dustbins, then what do you think people are doing with a weekly leaflet from the council?

  13. I’m trying to move this on from GT – I think you once said ‘it didn’t used to be too bad’????

  14. Cllr Fahy, please provide a link to the Cabinet’s decision on why a CofE school is most suitable to meet projected demand in secondary places for the increasing populations of Peninsula and East Greenwich? The School Places briefs do not address this and having previously scoured RBG’s website, I’ve not found it and have no idea when this Public (?) meeting took place. The consultation doesn’t appear on the council’s website (despite RBG funding it) or St. Mary Magdalene Primary. A website with the most obscure URL is given (almost unGoogleable) a resident noted on our forum that they found it randomly via the church:
    linkhttp://www.education.southwark.anglican.org/download/St%20Mary%20Magdalene%20Statutory%20Consultation.pdf

    If a local resident hasn’t even been informed that a school is planned opposite them, how would they know to go to Southwark Diocese’s website? Odd since council papers suggest Greenwich council is footing the bill – not even the wealthy developer. Though I cannot find any information about what the public gets from the Diocese of Southwark for building them a new school? People on this side of Greenwich Borough are genuinely interested to know, given some have only just found the ‘seperate consultation’ on Admissions criteria which puts local ‘home to distance’ children at the back of the queue.

    Further to Mary and Darryl’s points, I only learnt about these proposals by incident when a Ward Cllr let slip – they admitted ‘it wasn’t announced yet.’ I emailed ward cllrs several times and was rebuffed with a line to take (I can easily spot those) and silence. Only one Cllr has made the effort to go to two community association meetings on the Peninsula since May. In fairness she is enthusiastic in person. We are told our meetings clash with Labour Party group but are we supposed to ask our busy residents to organise their lives around Cllr’s political meetings?

  15. I think I might object to being accused of ‘making it up’. You’ve clearly given up on the sort of analyses of the situation you once did. You could perhaps take some notice of the things Shivanee is saying, above.

  16. Incidentally, as the post is about Greenwich Time, and not me, here is this week’s Greenwich Time – the latest news on the peninsula is not about its school, but yet another feature about hi-tech businesses. 6 Mitre Passage, pictured, is actually mostly empty.

  17. Mary, I will offer my view on what constitutes as propaganda with my experience of public communication and propriety, as I used to answer media queries on this.

    Of course, the cute schoolkids and human stories are nice, particularly if the local media are not interested. It would be fine if local leaders wrote columns etc though one would expect the articles to be of substance; ie. around budgets, expenditure and large scale projects etc. The Tory Cllr in my previous borough used to do this in the very glossy magazine and he cheekily claimed the previous Govt’s BSF program as a local success, when the Tories had vowed to scrap it. So propaganda can be less than straightforward but at least the information was there. What is concerning is when issues of debate or that concern residents are omitted. How much GT coverage has there been of Ikea’s planning application? I don’t care but the fact is many residents do. Have the SE rail changes been regularly reported? If GT is going to be weekly/fortnightly, local residents would rather be updated on planning and development there rather than Evening Standard. One would expect any large project that directly affects residents to be openly discussed. Omitting potentially thorny issues is propaganda.

    The council website is a corporate channel where anyone – resident, researcher or journalist should be able to find information. Should be no different from the NHS website or British Gas etc. It should be easy and accessible for anyone to find public documents and decisions. Good old fashion letters and notices go a long way and what is the point of Cllrs if they don’t answer people’s questions and attend community meet-ups? All communication channels are appropriate if any council genuinely wants to engage with it’s residents.

  18. Yes generally I agree and thank you – although I think there are legal problems about reporting current planning and licensing applications. Clearly there are a lot of issues and there is no way you can please everyone. I suppose it could be called propaganda if the paper puts forward a view about anything, and that’s very difficult to avoid. I suppose you are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
    There are also issues around the size and diversity of the Borough – and how you address some sectional issues without excluding others. Your comment on SE trains is a good example of that – it is passengers from only four stations who are badly affected by the current changes and passengers from the other (10 ??) stations might resent a lot of discussion on it.
    But I just wish all the critics would put forward something positive. Moaning is easy but not useful. It would be refreshing to read something new about all this. Although I have absolutely no influence on it – I do think that positive ideas for change are more likely to be listened to.

    I can’t comment on the lack of councillors at events – but only to say that councillors can find themselves down for two or three meetings every night – and also need to find time to eat and do the clerical work. Its a bit of a shock at first and you just have to find a way of coping.

    Hope GMVA is doing ok

  19. Mary, its a reasonable point that it is easier to criticise than create but equally just because other options are difficult does not justify continuing to do the wrong thing. Incidentally some people might suggest that as councillers have willing put themselves up for election and are remunerated for doing so the ball is sort of in their court to come up with effective ways of communicating with RBG residents. From my perspective GT could still be part of the answer but it would need to change considerably. This isn’t particuarly deeply thought through but for a start:

    – reduce the frequency, Mr Pickles quarterly seems a bit arbitary but weekly is too frequent and does seem to have stiflied other local press through diversion of advertising revenue. Perhaps monthly would be enough

    – it needs to be, and appear to be far more impartial than it is now. It should be reporting on RBG council not Greenwich Labour group. The reporting of the introduction of reduced rates for LLW payers is a case in point. GT should have told the actual story not the Labour party spin. It should at least be clear whether articles are straight factual or oppinion pieces.

    – it should invite at least some challenge. I do not think i have ever seen a genuinely critical letter in GT (and complaints about dog poo do not count).

    – While its true that reporting on the changes to rail services would not necesarily interest all readers it is also true that most RBG residents do not live in Eltham yet that mertied a 2 page spread. Its is a big and diverse borough so some issues may not be universal but its hard to fathom why GT choses to focus on the sectional issues it does. i’d also note that, as a rail user, the impact is being felt far beyond the 4 most heavily impacted stations.

    During and after the elections last year a lot of nosie was made about Greenwich council changing its approach and becomming more receptive to listening to residents (frankly a change from the previous council leader style) but i’ve certanly not seen this reflected in GT. The comments above about schools on GMV are an interesting observation of how difficult it still is for residents to interact with the council. For my own aprt i have tried to interact with my local councillers going along to surgeries and ‘coffee with your councillers’ events but have sadly come away feeling it is all a bit of a waste of my time.

  20. thanks JJ – yes of course. I did try very hard when I was on the Council to find ways of communicating with residents – even at the obscure and limited level I had to operate at – I had hoped people would take notice, but I don’t think they did – in fact rather the opposite.
    I also – in these comments – wanted to move this all on to something more constructive. Posts on Greenwich Time had got to re-iterate the same thing, all agree its a bad thing – and apparently praising Pickles’ policies (rather than analyse them).
    Anyway Darryl’s latest post on the Freedom of Information judgement is infinitely more important and very much about the future of a huge chunk of our area and the people who live here – read it!! Greenwich Time is a tiny side show compared to this..

  21. Darryl – thanks for highlighting ‘Peninsula news’ in GT, Curiously this week’s GT is er….not on time here!
    Have heard that RBG have moved in, perhaps they are celebrating that with a 2 page spread? The ‘digital peninsula businesses’ is also mentioned in this ropey school consultation, though here we all know that’s actually Cisco’s data centre (big box of wires) and Huwaeii the Chinese IT security firm.

    Mary – before we move onto FOI tribunals, Darryl’s ‘Digital Peninsula’ is a good example. Agree with you that it’s much easier to criticise than create public comms. I personally know how much time and energy publications take up (far too much). However, there are professionals paid to know the balance between impartiality, bias and human interest and how to maintain tone, language and style. As RBG publicly advertised it’s Head of Communications position at £70k last year, I would expect that person at least to be able to arbitrate this.

    Many people will not believe but Whitehall takes this seriously and there are codes and guidelines. Though not always perfect (and interpretation is fun), govt press officers have to be careful about language and tone. Knuckles get rapped on minor errors such as political references or ‘this Government’ rather than ‘the Government.’ There is a Head of Propriety & Ethics who keeps watch. She had a reputation which preceded her and I saw junior ministers shrink into their chair at her presence.

    These ethics are meant to extend to any public authority. Frankly, I’ve seen many articles in GT that fail the ethics test. If RBG’s staff are unable to handle the sensitivities of producing good effective but impartial public comms, then it must go. Actually not hard. If there was any substance incorporating different viewpoints, next to the smiling kids and invaluable community initiatives, then GT would actually be outstanding! Interesting to see what RBG will do during the election Purdah period…….Now, onto how to mishandle FOIs.

  22. Shivanee – Greenwich Council have been in Mitre Passage for about four years, and have been sub-letting space to digital business since the start, with varying degrees of success.

  23. Stuart – don’t understand. I don’t think I mentioned the Peninsula issue – like everyone else I guess, I didn’t know the report had come out until late yesterday. All I said was that it was a majorly important issue and it was Darryl who commented about Greenwich Time.

  24. Thanks Darryl, I’d heard they moved staff in now. don’t know if true. So then what exactly is the story in Greenwich Time?!

  25. […] This tactic could be considered a cunning ruse to avoid scrutiny of the decisions they actually do take if it wasn’t for the fact that these meetings aren’t filmed, the local press rarely turn up and the number of spectators by the end of the evening rarely reaches double figures. They can’t even publish the fact they’ve had them in Greenwich Time these days. […]

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