Tabloids, “Town Hall Fat Cats”, and the vacuum of local newspapers

“Fat cat town hall bosses” are an annual jamboree for the tabloid press – but the real problem is hidden by a lack of further scrutiny.

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There was an almost comfortingly classic front page on the Express this morning: “COUNCIL FAT CATS COSTING YOU MILLIONS”.

Like soggy town hall tinsel, it comes around once a year.

Deploying that unique tone of rage reserved in right-wing tabloids for well-remunerated public servants or charity bosses (sorry, “POVERTY BARONS!!!”), the newspaper is having its regular pop at high-earning council staff across Britain – as if running a council is nothing like a private sector job.

According to figures from the Taxpayers’ Alliance, a pressure group for lower taxes that compiles an annual “Town Hall Rich List”, a scandalous 2,454 council employees have salaries above £100,000. A record high since, erm, 2013/14.

It’s not exactly a shocking exposé. While there is of course a tension between cash-strapped councils and big pay packets for those running them (a harder job than ever after nine years of austerity, you could argue), this isn’t the real problem in town halls.

With the decline of local newspapers, there’s a fear that press scrutiny of councils will be increasingly limited to occasional (and meagre) revelations in national tabloids like the Express’s splash today.

“Town hall ‘fat cat’ stories are an easy hit for the tabloids and probably do damage the public’s perception of the sector,” says Jessica Studdert, deputy director of the New Local Government Network. “The less convenient truth is that councils grapple with some of the most intractable challenges our society faces… Why wouldn’t we want to ensure those running these complex organisations have the skillsets and experience needed to do the best job possible in highly pressurised circumstances?”

According to analysis by Press Gazette, from 2005 to the end of 2018, the UK lost 245 local newspapers. And that’s just the net closures. Shrinking staff, constant layoffs and unpopular buyouts mean many titles are missing the resources and morale required to cover their beats like they used to.

The BBC set up its Local Democracy Reporting Service at the beginning of last year, funding 150 new reporting roles across the country to try and plug this reporting gap. But compared with the number of vanishing newspapers, there is still a big vacuum.

And there’s an awful lot more going on in some councils than awarding big salaries. I’ve heard from a councillor claiming “corruption” in his own party that runs the council, awarding building contracts for superfluous cosmetic work on the town centre to companies run by family, friends or business associates, for example. The press isn’t there to expose it to voters, so it’s up to local politicians to try and work around it. This is not unique among councils run by the same party for decades.

The Enfield Council “coup” is an example of an unusual and under-covered story. Five members of the same family were elected last year to join a sixth on the council in north London – after numerous sitting councillors were deselected. Though it was covered in a Sunday Times report and a handful of independent blogs, there simply wasn’t the local press in Enfield to doggedly follow the story from the start, and questions about nepotism have gone unanswered.

When Northamptonshire County Council collapsed last year, one previous worker told me it had “passed the point of no return” over three years ago. Still, it got away with buying its £53m shiny new HQ in 2017, a year before it went bankrupt. Then there are the countless stories of locally opposed luxury housing developments, and the sale of public land and property, as recently exposed by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism and HuffPost.

Would these decisions have been less likely to go ahead, or less prevalent, if we still had as many town hall reporters hammering their beat? While there have always been stories about disgraced councils and councillors, they are now less likely to come to light, warn some in the industry.

“It’s not so much that councils are more dodgy than they used to be, it’s that councils are not being covered as effectively as they were 15, 20 years ago,” says James Cracknell, editor of community newspapers the Waltham Forest Echo, which was founded in 2014, and Enfield Dispatch, which arrived six months ago.

“This makes them more remote from people who elect them. When you’re a voter, you need to be well-informed; it’s a fundamental pillar of democracy that the electorate are well-informed.”

The decline of local journalism is causing a “democratic problem”, says Cracknell, and papers like his, which are run not-for-profit by a social enterprise called Social Spider, feel a “moral obligation” to try and save it. “We’re trying to provide a solution or eventually there’ll be nothing left, and a big gaping hole where local journalism should be.”

He gives another example of councils currently refusing to play by the rules: Waltham Forest and Hackney councils in northeast London both produce their own council-funded publications – against government guidelines to protect local news media from “unfair competition”.

Many local journalists have found their publications expanding to serve more than one area, thereby diluting the content. “They merge and become less localised,” says Cracknell, who worked as a local reporter for corporate-owned newspapers for a decade. “They become less specific, and so less relevant to those communities.”

Local government representatives argue this void has been somewhat filled by other forms of media, like hyper-local websites and so-called citizen journalism on social media.

“The decline of local newspapers has weakened one particular way in which councils can be scrutinised, but at the same time other forms of accountability have grown in prominence,” says Studdert. “Social media such as Twitter has created more direct routes for residents to engage with their council and leading personnel… Local government is certainly not short of scrutiny – although many in the sector will certainly mourn the decline of local newspapers as a healthy part of any democracy.”

Others argue that local elections ultimately hold councils to account, not the news media alone. A spokesperson for the Local Government Association says: “Unlike other services, councils are held to account through the ballot box as well as by the local and national press.”

However, this all means a reliance on under-informed voters and unregulated social media stories for accountability. And while that’s not a town hall scandal in itself, it’s certainly a recipe for one.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.