Council spends £200,000 on 'propaganda' paper as pupils have to pay £10 for school books

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THERE were growing calls today for the cash-strapped city council to axe its "propaganda" newspaper, which is estimated to cost taxpayers £200,000 a year.

The freesheet, which is delivered to homes across the city, has been compared to Pravda - the official organ of the Communist Party during the Cold War - for only featuring positive stories about council administration.

And opposition councillors have joined with community leaders to demand that the Outlook publication is scrapped altogether.

The city council today defended the costs and insisted that there were no plans to dump the title, despite the authority having to find savings of more than 90 million over the next three years, and growing opposition to local authority titles from the Westminster government, which has seen some councils in London drop similar freesheets.

The main Labour opposition group on the city council today announced that it would scrap Outlook if it entered office after the 2012 council elections.

SNP leaders - part of the ruling council coalition - also confirmed that they will look at whether to dump it after 2012 if they remain in power.

The 237,000 copies of the freesheet that are produced every three months cost 155,000 a year to design, print and distribute.

However, it is estimated that the cost of the time put into producing it by members of the council's 2-million-a-year communications team would push total costs above 200,000 a year. Edinburgh Central Labour MSP Sarah Boyack said today: "You really have to question the council's priorities when there is a squeeze on school budgets, home helps, sports facilities and deep cuts in the voluntary sector.

"I am especially conscious that the 155,000 they've spent on their controversial newspaper is more than the amount they gave to Citizens Advice Edinburgh last year, and they helped 34,000 people.

"I think people in Edinburgh will find it difficult to understand how the council can blow this amount of money when so many important services that people rely on are being cut."

Jenny MacKenzie, a member of the Edinburgh Association of Community Councils, agreed it was time the paper was pulped.

"I do not think this is the best way of communicating. The stories are far too positive and you do not get the feeling that you get clear information about the council.

"Outlook has just become an organ to promote the council's successes. We're all living in difficult times and we'd all rather have the truth. Delivering this to every household comes at a cost. With such a cost, I do not believe it is justified."

The 155,000 contract for design, printing and distribution of the 24-pages-an-edition Outlook is with Connect Communications, which has offices in Paisley and Leith. It commissions Newsquest in Glasgow to print the paper.

When Connect won the contract in 2008, the deal represented a 47,000 saving on the previous one. And the costs are partially offset by around 35,000 a year of advertising income. The current contract runs out at the end of next year, when it will need to be retendered. Critics say that would be a good time to axe it. While a senior member of the council's communication team is responsible for editing the newspaper, the work is spread amongst its 36-strong communications squad. Edinburgh's costs of 38,750 an edition are marginally lower than the 42,000 an edition that Glasgow City Council spends on its 16-page "Glasgow" magazine, although it has a much wider print run than Edinburgh's, at 301,000 copies.

Across all council publications, Edinburgh will spend 483,000 this year, although the figure has dropped considerably in recent years.

Former Lord Provost Lesley Hinds is among the most vocal opponents of Outlook, which she believes now costs 200,000-plus a year when staff time is factored in.

She said: "My concerns are, is it just a Pravda for the council, do people actually read it, do people get it delivered to them and is the content independent?

"We as a group have not discussed next year's budget but I will try to encourage the Labour group not to continue with Outlook, and also to look at all of the other glossy magazines that the council produces and whether they are necessary.

All of the councils in the Lothians produce a regular council newspaper or magazine. East Lothian Council spends around 30,000 on producing and distributing its 12-page "Living" newspaper, which comes out three times a year. It prints 45,000 copies every edition and delivers it to every household in East Lothian.

An East Lothian Council spokeswoman said that it is seen as "the most cost-effective way of advertising and informing residents of the range of services available". She said the council would "continue to review the cost effectiveness" of its communications.

West Lothian Council spends around 55,000 a year producing its "Bulletin" newspaper, which is sent to 77,000 homes four times a year. A council spokesman said it was "a relatively cheap and convenient way" of telling taxpayers how their money was spent, and that it was "vitally important" that council newspapers continued to be published.

A city council spokesman said: "Outlook was rated among the top four council publications in the UK in terms of customer satisfaction and value for money at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations excellence awards.

"It continues to provide important and well-presented information for thousands of readers in the city and we're very confident that it offers good value."

Pupils to pay deposit for books

Pupils are being charged to borrow text books from a city high school in a move which could be rolled out to others across the Capital.

Holy Rood High has begun to ask pupils for a 10 deposit to borrow books from its maths department after a number of them went missing or were damaged.

The council has backed the move, saying that it will work to come up with a "consistent and reasonable approach" to charging deposits in exchange for borrowing books. But the policy has come under fire for inflicting extra costs on families, many of whom come from nearby Craigmillar, one of the city's most deprived areas.

Some parents with children at the school are concerned about the impact it could have on families, especially as many were affected by the decision to cut the number of pupils receiving free bus travel.

Karen Ritchie, whose daughter Dionne is in third year at the school, said she had been asked to pay for at least one text book so far.

She said: "This could add up if you have more than one child and lots of the subjects start charging.

"That's more money for me to send Dionne to school over and above the bus fares and school dinners."

Another parent, who asked not to be named, said: "If the other departments follow then we have no way of knowing how many pupils would not be able to afford to stay at school."

Labour's education spokesman, Councillor Paul Godzik said: "We need to look at the impact this has on low-income families. Headteachers are rightly looking to ensure they get the most out of their money. But for low-income parents this will have a disproportionate effect on the family budget.

"We really don't want to go down the route of children from low-income families not having the same access to text books."

A council spokeswoman said: "The deposit scheme was introduced due to the number of text books being lost or damaged."