Monday, 20 January 2014

Cuts, Carmarthenshire News and Creative Accountancy

The latest edition of Carmarthenshire News is now dropping onto doormats across the county. Most will probably go unopened into our blue recycling sacks, while others shred them for use as free hamster bedding.

The subject of what this unloved propaganda sheet actually costs cropped up in this week's Carmarthen Journal as part of a lengthy article supplied courtesy of County Hall, and reprinted word for word by our local paper. The article is "the Council's" response to Plaid Cymru's alternative budget proposals for the county council.

"Council" in inverted commas because, of course, councils cannot actually write articles for newspapers; only people can. And when it comes to people, there are only two varieties in councils: elected political representatives and unelected and supposedly politically neutral officers. 

The Journal does not tell us who wrote this piece, which takes up almost an entire page, but we can take it for granted that it was written by council officers rather than Kevin Madge or any of his fellow Executive Board members.

The phrasing of the article and some of the arguments deployed will be familiar to anyone who has
studied council press releases and statements made by the chief executive who also, as it happens, takes a very close interest in the content of Carmarthenshire News.

When the Plaid group published its proposals it noted that it was very difficult for anyone outside the inner sanctum to get a grip on the details of the council's finances. They also requested a peer group meeting with senior Labour and Independent councillors to discuss the upcoming budget as elected representatives, rather than with the council's officers who had already published their own proposals. As we know, that meeting was refused.

To illustrate just how hard it is to get to the truth of the council's finances, it is worth recalling a visit by a group of armchair auditors to County Hall a couple of years back. They were exercising the right which all citizens have to inspect the council's annual accounts, and they included in their number a real life auditor.

What they were presented with was a collection of files containing codes and numbers with very little in the way of wording to explain what the numbers actually related to. The group was particularly interested in the council's spending on its newspaper and the press and PR departments, and they got nowhere.

Items of expenditure would appear in the files, only to be zeroed out in a huge thicket of cross charges. An item which appeared frequently turned out to be the time spent by officers on particular projects, and that was invariably zeroed out and cross charged to something else.

When the group asked to see the documents which these numbers and codes referred to, the request was instantly refused. The public may have a right to inspect the accounts, but only the bits which they can make no sense of.

Here is what the council press release has to say about the Carmarthenshire News in this week's Journal:

Carmarthenshire News is a Local Service Board publication, the council is just one partner and cannot control frequency without consent of all partners. For the next financial year there is a budget of just £12,000 for Carmarthenshire News. If the council pulled out of this partnership and distributed one annual sheet as suggested by Plaid that would cost more than the £12,000 budget.

Got that? Just £12,000 for the year.

If you go to the council's website (here), you will be told that distribution of each edition alone costs £17,000, while printing costs just under £6,000. Revenue from advertising and sponsorship averages £18,000 per edition, we are asked to believe, reducing the net cost to just £5,000 per edition. There are currently 6 editions per year.

Missing from these figures are the costs of actually writing and translating the paper, and the costs of churning out almost 40 pages of garbage will be considerable. Presumably that has all been lost in the thicket of cross charges. Employing the wordsmiths in the press office doesn't actually cost us a penny!

A freedom of information request made last year asked for copies of invoices for advertising and sponsorship in edition 11 of the paper. The reply produced just 4 invoices with a total value of £1,400.

That's some way short of £18,000, and as readers of the rag will be aware, a very high proportion of the "advertisements" in it are placed by council departments and services or other taxpayer funded bodies. Lots more cross charging. Until recently there was almost no advertising from the private sector, and in response to questions, the council said it did not distinguish between internal and external advertising.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas described this as "creative accountancy".

Carmarthenshire News itself is a replacement for what used to be "Community News" and is now a publication of the Local Service Board, rather than just the county council. The Local Service Board includes bodies such as Hywel Dda Health Board, Dyfed Powys Police, Coleg Sir Gâr, Trinity St Davids, the fire authority, etc. 

Each of these partners is understood to pay a one-off fee each year for the right to put in whatever they like, but the mathematics suggest that Carmarthenshire County Council is footing around half of the entire annual cost.

Rather oddly, the recent budget consultation proposed reducing the frequency of Carmarthenshire News to four editions per year. Now we are being told that it cannot do this without the consent of all the other partners.

You would think that given they are all under pressure to make savings and reduce costs, scrapping Carmarthenshire News would be an easy and painless target. Or perhaps they now all find themselves locked into a partnership with County Hall which they cannot back out of.

Whatever the truth of the numbers, of one thing we can be sure: the claim that producing a single A4 annual information sheet for council residents would be more expensive than the all-colour Carmarthenshire News, complete with its own kiddies' page and puzzles, is b******s.

And if they can feed us such obvious rubbish about the cost of Carmarthenshire News, what does that say about the truth and accuracy of the rest of the council's press release in this week's Journal?


Anonymous said...

Excellent blog Cneifiwr. It says a lot about CCC's integrity and their eagerness to put their rag above employees, people and vital services.

Anonymous said...

I'm not even getting my copy! Dunno if I'm blacklisted, or deliverers can't be arsed to find my door and letterbox. So the pet rat has to crap onto the Carmarthen Journal only.