THE cost of spin doctoring by Somerset County Council in a bid to persuade the public how good a job it has been doing has almost doubled in a decade, according to a shock report by a local government watchdog.The Liberal Democrat-run authority is one of the highest spending councils in the country when it comes to its publicity budget.
The report compiled by the TaxPayers’ Alliance showed that in the same decade as the County Hall Lib Dems doubled council tax bills, they also increased their publicity spend by more than 96 per cent to a staggering £4.211 million.
Somerset’s huge publicity bill was one of the highest of any council in the country - in fact, only 10 other local authorities spent more, and they included large cities such as Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, and Bradford.
The survey covered the years from 1996-97, when Somerset spent £2,016 million on publicising itself, to 2006-07.
It also looked at what happened the following year, 2007-08, when Somerset spent slightly less with a total publicity cost of £3.957 million but was still well within the highest-spending 20 councils in the nation.
Councils are required by law to ‘keep a separate account of expenditure on publicity’, which is defined as ‘any communication, in whatever form, addressed to the public at large or to a section of the public’.
Despite this, West Somerset Council was unable to produce its spending on publicity in 1996-97 and claimed to have only spent £21,000 in 2006-07 and just £4,000 in 2007-08 while at the same time employing a public relations officer on a salary of more than £21,000.
Neighbouring Sedgemoor District Council was one of a minority of authorities which actually reduced its publicity expenditure from £500,000 a decade ago to £482,000 in 2006-07 and cut it further in 2007-08 to £422,000.
However, in Taunton Deane, the borough council increased its publicity spend by nearly four-and-a-half times in the 10 years to 2006-07 from £124,844 to £644,000, and spent another £664,000 in 2007-08.
Mid Devon District Council more than doubled its budget for publicity from £41,000 in 1996-97 to £103,000 in 2006-07 but failed to produce a total for 2007-08.
In North Devon, the district council could not say how much was spent in 1996-97 but revealed £306,000 went on publicity in 2006-07, a figure which increased by more than £40,000 in 12 months to £349,000 for 2007-08.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance obtained its figures from the annual accounts of the 450-plus local authorities in the UK.
It found overall councils had doubled their spending on publicity, creating a £430 million publicity machine, at the same time as doubling council tax.
The average council now spends almost £1 million a year of council taxpayers’ money on publicity for itself, compared to £429,887 in 1996-97.
TaxPayers’ Alliance chief executive Matthew Elliott said: “It is incredibly disappointing that, despite the economic downturn and the loss of millions in Icelandic Banks, local authorities are still spending nearly half a billion pounds a year on publicity.
“While we salute the 218 councils who have cut spending on publicity, the 224 councils who have increased spending should hang their heads in shame.
“In the middle of a recession, councils need to cut back on propaganda and spin doctors and deliver savings to taxpayers.”
Local Government Association spokesman Nicholas Mann said: “To suggest that councils are employing armies of spin doctors and wasting money on publicity machines is absurd beyond belief.
“People need to know how to access the £100 billion worth of vital services that councils provide every year.
“Young mums need to know when they can take their kids to the swimming pool.
“Elderly people need to know the benefits they are eligible for to get the money to see them through the week.
“Drivers need to know when the roads are dangerously icy.
“Which part of this would the Taxpayers’ Alliance like to see cut?
“Lumped into advertising figures are statutory notices that councils by law have to advertise for, such as job adverts or site notices for planning applications.
“The amount makes up 0.0043 per cent of councils’ total spend.”