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You can get publicity for the most unlikely subjects. No, I am not talking about Tony Blackburn winning I'm a celeb...
You can get publicity for the most unlikely subjects. No, I am not talking about Tony Blackburn winning I'm a celebrity, get me out of here. I am talking about local government finance. It is a subject as mystifying as Tony's toupee but, with the right angle, it can almost convince you it is real.

The finance boffins are the only ones who really know their ACAs from their SSAs, but the technical arguments mask some serious issues about the scale and quality of council services. Meanwhile, journalists make a note in their diary saying 'council tax, March 2003', then move onto something more interesting.

It is not helped by the fact that finance campaigners give themselves catchy names like the Town & Country Finance Issues Group.

But there is a war brewing. The opening shots are being fired in the battle for central government resources and the northern metropolitan councils scored a direct hit in the middle of a very busy news period. The special interest group of municipal authorities' proposition was that Tony Blair's pledge to end child poverty within 20 years will fail because his definition of poverty - those living on less than 60% of median income - is fundamentally flawed. The result, said the pressure group, was particularly hard on low-income groups like single parents.

It is an old argument - is poverty a relative or absolute concept? Is it about how much you put in your supermarket basket, or how often you can afford to take the kids away?

But where SIGOMA did well was on commissioning its research - Poor measures? - from think tank the Social Market Foundation, and timing its release to coincide with the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. Many papers linked the coverage to events in South Africa, contrasting the domestic issues about poverty against reports of a world summit marred by posturing and disagreement. The inference was clear - the prime minister was failing those in his own back yard.

The research was also successful in drawing the big beasts of the poverty industry out to argue the points in the broadsheets and on the Today programme. The debate raged between Malcolm Wicks, work and pensions minister and former head of the Family Policy Studies Centre, and his opposition spokesmen Tory David Willets, a former No 10 policy wonk, and Lib Dem Steve Webb, a previous director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies. The tactic successfully gave a complex issue a primetime slot with some heavyweight commentators.

The story was given legs the following day by a report from think-tank Catalyst which reached the opposite conclusion, claiming the existence of an underclass of the permanently poor is a myth.

Interestingly, Catalyst is seen as an Old Labour organisation chaired by Roy Hattersley, while SIGOMA, deep in the old Labour heartlands, chose to line up behind the centre-right Social Market Foundation. In the battle for headlines on poverty, it seems that campaigners need all the allies they can get. But don't expect the others to take it lying down.

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