This is Peppa Pig. Peppa likes many things. Peppa likes jumping in muddy puddles. Peppa likes doing sport at school. Peppa also likes going shopping on a Sunday in Dartford.
And that’s probably the best place for me to stop trying to write a blog post in the style of the voiceover of Peppa, the much-loved star of children’s TV.
There is, however, a serious point to this point – and yes, it does what the headline says: Shows how Peppa Pig proved the value of FOI for transparancy.
Here’s how: Once upon a time (here we go again), if a government announcement around investment and grants didn’t involve millions of pounds, it rarely troubled the news agenda of even the smallest daily newspaper.
I remember as a reporter working in Accrington, the Lancashire Evening Telegraph newsdesk weren’t convinced a £7million regeneration grant to take deprivation was an obvious splash. At the time, big government and European grants were ten-a-penny (pardon the pun) and the story wasn’t helped by the volume of regeneration jargon speak about ‘pathways’ and ‘zonal gateways’ etc.
Fastforward 15 years and we’re in a different economic climate, and how the news agenda has changed. The Portas Pilot – named after Queen of Shops Mary Portas – totals £1.2million to help 12 struggling towns come up with plans to change their futures.
Never has so much been written and spoken by so many about so little. £100,000 per town doesn’t go very far, unless you’re counting the number of words written about it. And that’s even before you get to the towns which missed out.
So how exactly is it being spent? Step forward national newspaper The Independent, which used FOI recently to find out how the councils were spending this money that was supposedly going to be the catalyst of their town centres.
As a result, they found out that Dartford council had used £1,600 – or 1.6% of the budget to hire Peppa Pig – or the official costume of – to help celebrate the launch of Sunday shopping in the town.
Dartford Council don’t accept the criticism, but the flurry of follow-up stories makes for interesting reading.
On KentOnline, council leader Jeremy Kite said:
“I think the way in which our spending was presented was particularly grotesque. We did spend that money on the Peppa Pig costume, but nobody asked me about the benefits we got from it, financially and in boosting morale in the town.
“We got Peppa Pig down and it was packed; people spent far more in local businesses than we spent on the costume.
“The fact that we haven’t wasted all the money immediately is a good thing. We wanted the time to choose the best things for the money – it’s not about the figures we spend, it’s the results we get from them.
Paul Turner-Mitchell, a Rochdale businessman who submitted the FOIs, turned to the Guardian to post his thoughts:
Only a few days ago, Mary Portas said that all the people involved in the regeneration of their high streets are doing this for nothing. I wonder how she would feel knowing that Stockton Council is paying business representatives to be on the town team? It hardly seems in the spirit of the Pilots.
While in Chorley, the Lancashire Evening Post reported anger at the fact the town missed out, and how the winners were spending their cash:
Malcolm Allen, chairman of Chorley’s Traders Alliance, which backed the town’s failed bid said: “We could have done better”, after hearing that Dartford spent £1,600 on Peppa Pig costumes and Wolverhampton Council spent £989 on postage.
“It’s disappointing news that the money is being spent on gimmicky things like Peppa Pig costumes, because it should be being spent on schemes that will have a long-term benefit to the town.
“If we’d have got the money, we wouldn’t have wasted it. Our priority would have been increasing footfall in the town centre and encouraging more individual businesses.
Here’s my point: Without FOI, this debate wouldn’t have been happening. Without FOI, the Government’s suggestion that this £1.2million was going to save 12 high streets would have gone unchallenged. Without FOI, the councils involved wouldn’t be being forced to justify how they are spending the money. Without FOI, this project would be little more than spin without any scrutiny.
We now know how much it costs to hire in Peppa Pig for a day. That, in isolation, may not sound like it justifies the case for FOI in the face of some many critics and threats but without FOI, we’d not be in a position to challenge the spending – and for a government keen for us to be ‘armchair auditors’ that must surely be a very serious point.