To read Eric Pickles attacking tax-funded lobbying and council-funded newspapers is a welcome change from his recent disgraceful rant about so-called ‘non-jobs’. Imagine how demoralising the latter must be for those people who work hard to improve provisions in their communities, and are labelled as if they are not working at all.
But on to the present. Although I’d rather PR firms and quangos were the target of his bumbling rhetoric, as opposed to jobs, that’s not to say that his proposals themselves are welcome. I can think of far better barometers of virtue than the best of Eric Pickles, after all. The best of Boris Johnson, perhaps, and that’s saying something! On the surface it might seem sensible to cut back on such lobbying in an age of austerity, especially as most of it is going to on the salaries of PR types who have spent so much time bigging-up other people that they don’t know what to do in the real world. I rather think this is what’s happening with David Cameron and his foreign policy gaffes: wherever he goes he wants to impress his hosts, whether that’s India, Turkey – you name it, he sucks up to them. And plus, they often speak in language so full of jargon – consumers, touchpoints, supply chains, partnerships between agencies are the ones I hear the most – that George Orwell would never have reached his modest 46 years of life if he were living today .
[PR and Lobbying firms are only needed to] help to navigate their way through the bureaucratic maze of Whitehall to get things done. Securing long-term investment for local manufacturing, the delivery of vital transport links and improvements to infrastructure are examples of where it is often appropriate for councils to campaign on behalf of their areas. The delivery of these projects, and the resulting increase in jobs and investment, far outstrips the costs of employing these agencies.
Before engaging with these points seriously, I do wish he had said that in plain English.
I can see that it might be true that councils might want a little help along the way when they are hoping for funding. It does bother me, however, that a good deal of this money ends up financing private profits. But Ransford continues - “Specialist companies working over a fixed-term period also often provide better value for money than employing permanent staff.” Well, we should ask the question – how often? As yet, the matter is unresolved for me.
But let’s take one public sector body which has decided it will employ a full time member of staff to lobby the government. And this one really has no excuse. Yes, it’s the Tories’ beloved Westminster City Council, and they’ve appointed a ‘Head of Government Relations’ at a salary of £66,000, more than either of Westminster’s MPs, the very able Mark Field and Karen Buck (Tory and Labour respectively).
So at least for the local councils, Paul Dimoldenberg, leader of Westminster Labour, may have the answer. Surely, he argues, it is the job of the directly-accountable MPs to lobby the government for their local areas – not that of PR executives or overpaid specially-appointed civil servants. If Eric really wants to declare war on ‘unnecessary’ jobs, Thatcher flagship Westminster’s unaccountable wannabe-MP (I think the Tories must still be producing sour grapes at Karen Buck having held on to Westminster North against the odds) should be his target.
A quick note on Pickles’s other matter – council ‘pravdas’ masquerading as local journalism. Couldn’t agree more on this one. But really, he should lead by example and get Cameron’s favourite council, nearby Hammersmith and Fulham, to bin their disgraceful H&F News, from which you would think the Tory administration were our guardian angels. And shame too on Labour-run Tower Hamlets for producing its own weekly ‘paper’. I hope some of those campaigning to be Labour’s mayoral candidate for the borough will commit to the abolition of this. We’ve led the way in Camden with YourCamden, the not-so-bad (as it’s monthly) magazine, which was one of Labourite Nash Ali’s first victims as he led his party to take back control of our borough.
Often councils justify their self-congratulating copy on the basis that genuine local journalism is too negative or biased against the local administration. In that case councils should consider other options, such as offering loans to real initiatives of journalism, perhaps promoting some competition, which will be genuinely independent.