OPINION: Rubbish war offers new opportunities

Three weeks ago, the Daily Mail decided to declare war on rubbish collections by councils in what can be seen as bid to influence the outcome of the local elections.

Westminster City Council head of comms Alex Aiken recently argued that the paper’s attack had damaged the reputation of councils and that, despite the positive effects on recycling rates, so-called Alternate Weekly Collection of rubbish should essentially be scrapped because newspapers and columnists were against the change. Put simply, this is a load of old rubbish.

The local elections provided an almost unique opportunity to analyse the effects of national news­paper coverage on the attitudes of people. Did a two week campaign by the Daily Mail, followed by the rest of Fleet Street, ahead of the largest electo­ral test outside of a general election have any short term influence? Or do newspapers tell people, not what to think, but what to think about? In other words – was it the bins wot won it? In all, 312 coun­cils were up for election with about 133 implemen­ting the ‘fortnightly bin collections’ that the more right-wing papers were so up in arms about.

An analysis of the results shows that in all coun­cils up for election, one in four changed political hands. Of those councils that had implemented the rubbish collection that so upset the right-wing press, 29 per cent changed political hands – a diff­erence of four percent, which means around three more councils changed hands comp­ared to the ave­rage. No political party that implem­ented the sch­eme more than 18 months ago lost and of the two councils that lost on the bin issue, had strong hostility in their area well before the national newspaper campaign started.

For example, Bracknell Forest Council implem­ented Alternate Weekly Collections last October and should have lost heav­ily. In fact, the Tory controlled council won an extra three seats. The secret was good commun­ica­tion with residents.

This can tell us three things about PR. Firstly, newspapers will tell people what to think but not what to think about. Secondly, that good direct comm­unication with local people works. Finally, politicians have to make unpop­ular dec­isions to improve the long-term reput­at­ion of gov­ernment – something that has got to be a good thing.

Richard Stokoe is head of news for the Local Government Association

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