October 22 2009

Over a barrel

In an attempt to save money on county council advertising, Cllr Tony Wilcox (Lab) put down a Notice of Motion (NoM) calling for the council to book one complete page of the Western Telegraph each week for the purpose of publishing pubic notices.
Cllr Wilcox estimated that this would cost £50,000 a year - a saving of some £200,000 annually.
The matter was debated at yesterday's meeting of full council.
As the officer's report to members argues, Cllr Wilcox's proposal is totally impractical because the flow of public notices/job ads/etc is not constant and while in some weeks it would be difficult to fill a complete page , in others, two or three might be required.
In addition, the report points out, a grand a week doesn't buy anything like a full page in Wales' biggest selling weekly newspaper.
Indeed, at £11.30 per column centimetre (306 col cms per page) a full page spread in the public notices' section costs the princely sum £3,457.
For instance, the bilingual advert for the St Dogmaels bye-election at the bottom of page 80 in this week's paper (9 cms x 7 cols) will have set the taxpayer back by over £700.
Interestingly, the report also says that adverts in the property section such as the regular "Choice Homes" feature cost a mere £7.50 per col cm and I know from my own researches into this subject that an ad for council's Theatr Gwaun in the entertainments section can be had for less than a fiver per c.c.
Now, you might wonder why an ad in the public notices' section costs 50% more than one in property.
Well, as the report explains: "the Western Telegraph is the only newspaper circulating across the whole county", and, "All newspapers charge differential rates for different types of advertising and it has always been the case that the most expensive rate is for public notices. Newspaper proprietors are aware that all local authorities have a statutory duty to publish Public Notices. The law of supply and demand prevails and there tends to be a premium of around 50% for Public Notices."
I particularly liked the bit about the law of supply and demand.
What the report describes is a classic case of monopoly pricing power - which, in my opinion, is the very antithesis of the laws of supply and demand that drive the free market.
Unfortunately I was unable to attend yesterday's meeting but had I been present I would have suggested that the council is being ripped off. Indeed, I will be putting down a NoM at the December meeting calling for the matter to be referred to the Monopolies Commission.
If that is voted down by the massed ranks of the Independent Political Group I might even make a complaint myself.
It seems I might be pushing on an open door because the commission seems to be fully aware of the threat to competition of local press monopolies.
In 2003 it ruled against the takeover of ten titles in Kent by the WT's parent company Newsquest Ltd on the grounds that it would create a local monopoly that would be against the public interest because "it might be expected to result in higher advertising rates and/or reduced discounts for some or all advertisers in the areas affected."
Indeed, given that the county council seems to be aware that the WT has it over a barrel with regard to pubic notices, it is surprising that it hasn't approached the competition commission before now.
Some other facts about the WT's advertising rates might interest you.
1. Adverts are charged by the col cm. If you look in your WT you will notice that, while the news' pages have five or six columns, the ads section has nine.
i.e. another 50%. A stratagem not unlike that of the publican who waters the whisky.
2. Public Notices are not the most expensive form of advertising. Until recently the council placed job adverts in the WT through an agency Euro RSCG Riley
This was done in the name of economy and efficiency, though,with the ads charged at £18 per col cm it is debatable whether this is the most apt description.
It is heartening to see that the county council has turned off this particular tap and it now runs a small general ad directing job seekers to its website.
3. It is true that newspapers charge differential rates which are determined by the law of supply and demand. For instance there is a keen demand for ads on the front page where they will be noticed even as the paper sits on the news stand. There is a finite supply of such space resulting in it being twice as expensive as what is known as "run of paper".
Early right hand pages: three, five, seven, and, if you can get away with it, nine, also attract a premium because they are the pages readers notice when they open the paper. Clearly, page 80 doesn't qualify under this heading.
Indeed the only limits to the supply of advertising space on page 80 and the like is the availability of paper and ink.

Own goal


I have been sent a clipping from the WT's sister paper the Cardigan and Tivyside Advertiser headlined "" 'Undemocratic' county council".
You might expect this to be about Ceredigion County Council in whose area the paper circulates but in fact it concerns our own dear PCC.
Even more surprising is that the description 'Undemocratic' comes from the lips of Paul Davies, the Tory AM who represents Preseli Pembrokeshire.
So you might wonder why didn't this article appear in the WT which shares a publisher with the Tivyside.
While you're wondering about that, I should mention that what is exercising Mr Davies is that 97% of planning applications in Pembrokeshire are decided by "unlected planning officers" rather than the planning committee.
"This trend away from openness and transparency is a real concern." Mr Davies says. "Councillors are answerable to their constituents very four years, planning officers are not."
Old Grumpy has form on this issue because as long ago as 2002 I pointed out that the new constitution that accompanied the advent of the Cabinet system delegated far more matters to officers than had hitherto been the case.
One key change was the abolition of the right of local members to have applications in their ward taken out of the delegation scheme for determination by the planning committee.
After I became an elected member, I put down a Notice of Motion calling for this right to be restored.
Surprise, surprise, this fell victim to the synchronised voters of Independent Political Group's which, considering the number of card-carrying and closet Tories in the IPG ranks, is rather strange in view of what Paul Davies AM now has to say about the issue.
Even more recently, Grumpette put forward another NoM seeking to redemocratise the planning system which was swiftly kicked into the long grass by IPG Leader Cllr John Davies.
I do not recollect the five official Tories, who were elected to the council in 2007, leaping up to support the lady's cause.
Perhaps Mr Davies should have a word with his own troops before sounding off about his own area's shortcomings in foreign newspapers.

Of lies and liars

A little over two years ago, I wrote about the unfortunate Cllr Brian Thomas of Blaenau Gwent county council who was suspended for three months by the Adjudication Panel for Wales for breaching paragraph 4(b) of the Code of Conduct: "You must show respect and consideration for others." (Mind your tongue).
A full report on the case can be found on the Adjudication Panel's website http://www.adjudicationpanelwales.org.uk/ . Click on register of tribunals/previous tribunals and scroll down to 25/1/07.
For those indolent readers who prefer the easy life, the essence of the case is to be found at paras 4.3.1. - 4.3.3.
4.3.1 That Councillor Thomas attended a Planning Sub-Committee site meeting on 28 June 2005. The meeting involved a number of councillors, officers of the council and members of the public. The meeting was to consider a planning application, which had been recommended for approval by the Highways Department and the Planning Department. Councillor Thomas stated to planning officer Mr Smith that it would not have been approved if it were in Abertillery. This was a statement that questioned the professional integrity of Mr Smith.
4.3.2 The Tribunal found that Councillor Thomas did make a telephone call to Mr Smith on the day after the site meeting. He did not fully apologise for his disrespectful remarks made the previous day.
4.3.3. The Tribunal found that Councillor Thomas’ words at the site meeting were careless and/or reckless (but not malicious) and failed to show respect to the professional integrity of Mr Smith.
For this Cllr Thomas was suspended for three months without pay, which, if he had been a Pembrokeshire County Councillor (member's allowance circa £13,000), would have amounted to a 'fine' of over £2,500.
So, it pays members to watch their Ps and Qs.
Two events this week reminded me of this case.
First we had Barry Sheerman MP, chairman of the Children, Families and Schools Parliamentary Select Committee publicly accusing Education Minister Ed Balls of being a bully after the minister appointed Dr Maggie Atkinson as Children's Commissioner for England in spite of his committee's refusal to endorse her.
Calling someone a bully is about as disrespectful as it gets, so will Mr Sheerman be called to account by the Parliamentary Standards Committee or is this yet another case of MPs making rules for the rest of us that don't apply to themselves?
The other thing that caught my eye was a newspaper cutting that Grumpette had saved - old habits die hard - which was headlined Town Clerk branded a "liar".
This involved a spat at Neyland Town Council between Cllr Maureen Molyneux and the town clerk, the details of which need not detain us.
Suffice it to say that the two of them had different recollections of a phone conversation between them.
The WT reports that "Mrs Molyneux then called Mr Klotzer a 'liar' and made reference to his religious beliefs before telling the council she had recorded the telephone conversation."
Now calling someone a liar is, on the face of it, disrespectful in the extreme.
Indeed, I raised this very point at one of the Code of Conduct training sessions I attended.
What the monitoring officer said was that a distinction had to be drawn between calling someone a liar, which implies a course of conduct, and accusing them of lying in a particular situation.
In the latter case it would not be disrespectful if you could prove the truth of the allegation.
As for making references to someone's religion, which, given the context, were unlikely to be complimentary, I would have thought that of itself was disrespectful and inconsiderate.
It will be interesting to see if this results one or more of her fellow town councillors reporting her to the Ombudsman as seems to be required by 6(1)(c) of the Code which provides that "You must (my emphasis) report to the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales and to your authority's monitoring officer any conduct by another member which you reasonably believe breaches this code of conduct."
Interestingly, when the Code was reviewed a couple of years ago this clause was dropped from the English version but the Welsh Assembly opted to retain it for councillors in Wales.
Presumably the Assembly thought it important to keep this safeguard against the danger of members 'going native' and covering each other's backs as seems to have happened in the case of Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority (Minute by minute).

back to home page