Local Government’s challenge: Digital Transformation

I recently had the privilege of addressing the first LGA Digital Workshop for council leaders and cabinet members. Held at my alma mater Warwick University, the 2 day session attracted nearly 20 senior councillors. I was really delighted that the event had been put on, with a range of essential voices like MySociety and Emer Coleman participating.

I’d been partly responsible for this workshop happening: When I addressed the Local Government Association’s staff conference last December one of my challenges to them had been to lead the sector’s digital transformation. So I’m delighted that they are rising to that challenge.

Here’s a précis of what I said to the Digital Workshop in Warwick:

As a sector we have to be honest with ourselves, the truth is that we have underinvested in our staff and their training.  It has been too easy to trim training budgets every year and whilst focussed on just keeping going. That staff do have digital skills is more down to chance – either they’ve brought them from earlier in their career, or more likely is that their own curiosity has helped them develop skills at home, such as through hobbies and voluntary work.
The scattering of digitally literate staff we have just isn’t going to be enough. Local government, for perfectly rational reasons at the time, has long under invested in technical infrastructure and skills. But moving forward that just won’t do, digital talent won’t just be a ‘nice-to-have’ but critical to our future.
It is far too easy for our conversations on ‘being digital’ to focus almost exclusively on social media. Of course social media is exciting and important, especially for us politicians who are always keen to be seen, but it’s just one small element of the bigger picture.
There is huge potential for digital tools to be transformational for local government. Unfortunately we are behind the curve on this transformation. For example: My last two employers before I became a councillor full-time were completely virtual – no physical offices – we collaborated online daily with only the occasional meeting in person each year. By comparison I find many councils still not particularly comfortable with conference calls, but culturally committed to lots of in-person meetings.
Our citizens’ expectations for our flexibility and responsiveness is continuing to grow. And of course the extreme budget pressures we are under mean we must find new ways of working. I don’t believe we can maintain quality public services in the face of budget cuts without a digitally-led transformation for our councils.
This will require us to maintain skills and leadership on the digital agenda within the sector and individual councils. Many larger private sector firms are in the process of ‘in-sourcing’ their IT staff from external and often overseas suppliers. They recognise that their digital competency is such a critical competitive advantage that they need to keep it close by. Agility, including quick response to changing demands and technologies, are facilitated by in-house talent which you don’t need to spend ages agreeing a contract and detailed specification for. They can try things out, iterate based on the feedback and move on. We need to be able to do that too, whilst still using external support in targeted ways.
in Brighton & Hove our research shows that up to 70% of our citizens would be willing to self-serve online. That’s a huge opportunity for us to do things differently, release resources for those not able to go online and be more efficient. We’ve made some progress on those…
For example our environmental services call centre saw an average 30% drop in calls after strategically using social media and web to proactively inform citizens of service issues and offer advice in the face of weather conditions.
We are also trying to proactively push information out to reduce the demand for getting in touch. So we have launched the first council Freedom of Information site powered by MySociety’s What Do They Know. Responses are published on the site in the name of openness and to help reduce repeated requests for the same things. Also to help with openness I host a regular webcast called ‘Open Door‘ to discuss key issues for the city. These are archived and are regularly referred to online as sources of information.
It’s important to never assume that we know who the audience is for digital channels. In some of our user research a young male construction worker with an iPhone struggled to complete simple actions on the web because he didn’t know how to use it. He didn’t know how to get online from his smartphone. All ages can be struggling with digital or happily surging away, so we must keep that in mind.
Also don’t assume that just because someone put a page on the council website that it’s useful! We’ve removed hundreds of pages of content from the council website with no complaints. The site is now easier to browse and less of a burden to maintain.
Unfortunately the politics of local government and historical attitudes often mean we have a low risk appetite. This failure to support ideas that could end in failure undermines the experimental and agile approaches which are essential to successful digital programmes. We must overcome this, I believe the risks of doing nothing are far greater than of trying a few things that might not work out first time.
Once this workshop is over, we cannot all return to our town halls and scratch around on this alone. We must collectivise our digital action. We must build on existing tools like personal data stores and the government identity assurance programme rather than creating hundreds of isolated ‘My Councils’. We must also avoid ‘divide and conquer’ by suppliers.
The success of the Government Digital Service (GDS) gives some ideas on how to move forward as a sector, including finding ways to attract and retain talent, this will need to include pay. The Local Government Association must be pushed and supported to build the local government sectors’ GDS equivalent.
So in conclusion, the opportunities from digital transformation for our councils are huge. But we aren’t there yet, by a long way. We need to ensure we have the right talent and skills in our councils, we must boost our risk appetites to enable iterative experimentation and we cannot go it alone – we must work together.

Learning more about the challenges social care faces

As the debate continues around our plans for a social care referendum, lots are keen to learn more about social care. Which is good news and exactly what we have been hoping for.

Scope and Age UK provide some of the best online resources, I’ve included two of their videos here, but do visit Scope’s Britain Cares and Age UK’s Campaign for Better Care to find out more.

UPDATED 22/2/14 to add King’s Fund video.

The crisis in local government funding: Why now is the time for a referendum (Part 2)

This is the second and concluding part on why now is the time for the citizens of Brighton & Hove to be asked whether they will support a 4.75% tax increase to protect council social care services. Part One is here.

Here in Brighton & Hove we have tried to absorb as much of the budget pressures as possible through being more efficient, more flexible and by reducing our footprint – in other words fitting our staff into fewer, more sustainable and efficient offices. This has yielded significant savings, but it won’t be enough for the very significant drops in funding the government plans over the next two years. In July 2013, based on government statements, council officers made their best predictions on how our core funding will drop in the coming years. Here’s their graph:

Main BHCC grant reductions

So in the face of this we do need to find more efficient ways of working – we have no choice. But we also need to raise money. We are looking at new ways of generating income, but those will take some time to pay dividends. More immediately we could increase fees and charges, but this isn’t always desirable, could only go so far and couldn’t possibly raise enough.

So the last option we are left with is council tax. It is an option that Eric Pickles has done his best to undermine and control local decisions with gimmicks like a ‘tax freeze grant’ and by adding an ‘excessive tax threshold’ over which councils are forced to seek permission for the increase through a referendum which can only be held after tax bills have gone out.

However for all its many imperfections, those with the biggest homes do pay more council tax and the poorest do get help paying it through our discount scheme known as ‘Council Tax Reduction’.

First though we need to understand the recent history of council tax in the city. In the last year of the Conservative administration they originally proposed a -1% council tax reduction, but this was amended to a freeze. Labour had originally agreed with us to still refuse the overall budget and revisit some of the other options. Sadly in the end Labour reneged, and supported the freeze. The next year Labour passed an amendment, backed by the Tories, to our first budget reducing a 3.5% council tax rise down to a freeze. It was only the year after that Labour, at the last moment, decided to support a 1.96% council tax rise.

Even setting aside the scale of government cuts in relation to our budget, what do these successive freezes do for the council’s financial position when compared with the pressures of inflation. This graph shows the situation since Greens took administration in 2011:

Total Green Inflation + Council Tax

As you can see, in real terms one of the only sources of income the council has influence over, is hugely behind inflation. It’s so far behind that it barely scrapes the surface of growing demand and government cuts. The imposition of a freeze by Labour and Tories in 2012 alone means that we have £3.7m less in the 2014/15 budget. Indeed we have cumulatively had £8.5m less since 2012 when compared with what our 3.5% proposal would have done. This additional income would have quite probably meant that we could have kept to a 2% rise for 2014/15. Many warned that freezes back then would lead to higher tax increases later, and this is proving to be case. Smaller, regular increases as we proposed was responsible, long-term thinking. Sadly, as Eric Pickles knew, too many were unable to resist the temptations of the short-termist freeze approach.

Let’s put all this history and our 4.75% proposal into perspective. Firstly let’s look at the average inflation and tax rises during our term in office and Labour’s terms:

Average CT + Inflation Labour vs Greens

Clearly Labour’s tax rises were far above inflation, while ours have been significantly below, even if the 4.75% proposal was to be agreed. And this was during the time of plenty. So in real terms council tax bills have been declining in value under Greens.

Now let’s look at the whole picture of tax increases and inflation since the city council was formed:

By party Council Tax + Inflation graph

Click for full sized graph


It’s important to note that the first budget of each administration is actually set by the previous administration just before the elections. So the 2011/12 budget, which we had to implement, was set by Tories in February 2011 just before we became the largest party in May 2011.

Clearly no party represented on the council today was averse to tax increases at one point or another when they were in charge. That continues to be the case: Right now we see Conservative-led councils like Kent advocating 2% increases and Sussex’s Conservative Police & Crime Commissioner just approving a 3.6% increase to her precept. Labour councils are seeking tax increases too and we see Labour council leaders backing our referendum proposal including from Preston and Brent.

What would our proposal cost? Setting aside Police and Fire precepts, which we don’t control, for our 4.75% proposals the majority of households would pay an additional £4.53 or less a month. It would raise £2.75m more than in our draft budget from December 2013 when we planned for a 2% rise. The extra money raised would go exclusively to protecting Home Care, Community Care, the supported employment service ‘Able & Willing’, and third sector grants. The nature of the budget and referendum processes mean it will be cast iron that the additional money raised would have to go to those services.

***

So there we have it. Our population is ageing, adding significant additional pressures on council budgets as we strive to deliver the care our most vulnerable deserve. We have an unprecedented scale of government funding cuts – which councils and political parties across the country agree is setting us up for a huge funding gap. And lastly, we have in recent years locally seen council tax fall well behind inflation meaning that it is not really contributing to relieving our intense funding pressures.

Social care is the council’s biggest area of spending, and is responsible for the most vulnerable in our society. The picture I’ve painted above shows that carrying on, even with the most clever efficiency savings we can possibly deliver, will mean a severe reduction in what care we can offer. I hope that isn’t what we want for our society. But now is the time to have the debate. The referendum process defined by government is imperfect, but it’s all we’ve got right now.

Some in the media want to skip straight to whether people will vote for or against the referendum question. That’s premature, right now we need to debate the reasoning for the referendum as I have set out here. We must discuss the principle of letting the city decide at this critical juncture for the future our public services, otherwise we risk this precious opportunity being rejected out of hand by a few councillors.

I believe it is right and just to ask the citizens of Brighton & Hove, before it is too late, “What future do you want for our elderly, disabled and vulnerable?”

Debate continues on Twitter under #bhbudget #brightondecides and #LetThePeopleDecide - join in!

The Brighton & Hove Independent are hosting a free public debate on the social care referendum on Monday 10th February at 7pm. Free tickets can be booked here.

The crisis in local government funding: Why now is the time for a referendum (Part 1)

There has been much political analysis in recent days over the ‘real’ reasons why I announced the Green administration’s plans for a social care referendum on a 4.75% council tax increase.

Opposition parties have tried to throw as much sand in the eyes of the public with a colourful array of false and misleading claims. I won’t dignify them further other than to say how unedifying it has been to see political leaders doing everything they can to avoid debating the genuine issues at hand: the huge financial pressures councils are under and the growing uncertainty over how social care can be provided into the future.

Let’s be clear, the reason I’ve proposed a referendum on a 4.75% tax rise for social care is because I think it’s the right thing to do. Let me now explain why in more detail.

In 2011 we made a commitment to publishing early drafts of council budgets to facilitate the consultation and engagement process. Every year so far the final budgets have changed for the better as a result of this process. It’s the right way to do things when we have to decide on the future of important services for our city. We did the same again this year and the feedback from the public, service users, advocacy groups and unions was clear. They were very concerned about the impact of budget cuts on the third sector and social care in particular. They’re not alone – the majority responding to the council’s budget questionnaire wanted funding to be maintained or increased for local services. Yet because of government cuts and growing demand for our services , we will have to spend £23m less for the coming 2014/15 financial year.

Why is social care under particular pressure? Well the number of people who need social care is growing. This includes those with physical and learning disabilities as well as the elderly. It’s no secret that as we are all living longer, the cost of social care is growing. Here’s a snapshot – looking at centenarians as just one of many examples – of how the ageing population is expected to grow in the coming years:

Growth of centenarians in the UK

 

Let’s bring that into the local context. Here are the ONS’ predictions for our city until 2021 along side the change in council funding from Government in a similar period:

 

Future population & council funding changes

Future population & council funding changes

 

Yes, the graph really does show over 85s increasing in number by 20%  and at the same time our government funding declining by 61%. This is why the cross-party Local Government Association has been doing increasingly detailed work on making clear the huge pressures councils face as austerity continues and pressures on services grows. This graph shows their predictions for unitary councils like Brighton & Hove:

 

LGA unitary funding forecast

LGA unitary council funding forecast

 

The gap between funding available and funding needed for existing services is incredibly stark: This is not for new or extra services – but just to keep things going. In local government circles this has been debated, with increasing angst, for some time. But it’s sadly the case that too little of this reality  has entered public debate.

Some have claimed that this is special pleading by the Greens but that’s simply not true. The Local Government Association has a cross-party consensus on the issue and their chairman, the Conservative Sir Merrick Cockell, has led the charge. Sir Merrick, also the former leader of Kensington & Chelsea Council has said:

“We are being pushed into a position where either things will fail or the system has to change … we can’t cope unless someone takes that big step … to change the way we operate … Vital services are being damaged because councils do not have a seat at the table to negotiate a fair deal for their communities.”

Similarly the Labour leader of Birmingham City Council, Sir Albert Bore has said:

“Birmingham faces a severe financial crisis. Politicians in Westminster are systematically dismantling services that maintain the very fabric of culture and community here.”

“These cuts will mean the end of local government as we know it … but that does not mean the end of local government. We now need to build the new local government that will replace it. We call on the government to make radical changes to the way local services are funded and provided.”

The Independent Mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, has said:

“…every city in the UK is facing a massive budget challenge… It will not be without pain… No number of negative headlines will change the fundamentals: we [the city council] must balance our books…”

The Conservative leader of Devon County Council has said to local government ministers:

“The impact of [the] spending review has not been accurately portrayed… We cannot make these extra savings without reducing substantially the services we offer to the people of Devon.”

And the Labour Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson has said:

“I believe community cohesion is being seriously threatened by the lack of funding to our city and others. I believe that the so-called ‘summer-of-discontent’ will happen again if we do not address this issue.”

So the problems of funding cuts are real, are being expressed loudly by all parties and are already hurting local services across the land.

In part two I will look in more detail at the particular situation we find ourselves in Brighton & Hove and why I believe our proposal is the right way to proceed. UPDATE: Part two has now been published.

Meanwhile debate continues on Twitter under #bhbudget #brightondecides and #LetThePeopleDecide plus comment pieces have been published by Local Government Chronicle editor Emma Maier, The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins and others as well as lots of excellent blog posts.

Why we want to let the people decide on social care referendum

A version of this article was first published in the Brighton & Hove Independent.

Readers will know that public services have for the last few years seen significant government cuts. Here in Brighton & Hove we have so far been successful in protecting essential services by saving tens of millions of pounds through genuine efficiencies. But darker storm clouds are on the horizon.

Councils are facing what many are calling ‘a cliff edge’ in funding, and as a result huge chunks of services could disappear. Simply put, we can no longer absorb all of the government’s cuts whilst also meeting the increasing demand for our services from a growing yet ageing population.

Nationally councils have seen a 38% reduction in funding compared to Government only 8% trimming of Whitehall departments. And sadly, per head of population, Brighton & Hove has been one of the worst hit councils in the country.

We want to offer you, the residents of our city, a choice: accept the full weight of austerity cuts imposed on Brighton & Hove by Eric Pickles or else cast a vote for a fairer and more compassionate society. Let the coalition cuts take their toll, or agree to pay a little bit extra each month to fund care for older and disabled people in our community and protect funding for the city’s charities.

The increase in council tax we’re asking of residents will not only save services this year, but will improve their security for years to come. If agreed, the money will specifically go towards supporting home care, residential community care, day services, support for those with learning disabilities looking for work – as well as protecting grants to the city’s third sector.

The elderly have worked hard all their lives and deserve our continued support in their old age. And the city’s charities, social enterprises and not-for-profit organisations also provide essential services across all our city’s communities. We know that investment in our third sector benefits the city and residents many times over. Without additional funding, the Coalition’s cuts will seriously impact upon some of the most vulnerable people in our city.

We think it’s right that we trust the residents of Brighton and Hove to decide what they want from local services – particularly given the financial situation is so different to that when they voted in 2011. So we want to hold a citywide referendum in May 2014 on whether we should raise council tax by 4.75% for the coming financial year.

We ask the people of the city to vote in favour; to reject austerity in Brighton and Hove and help us to preserve a more compassionate society, one which cares for older and disabled people, supports social enterprises and protects the not-for-profit sector that is so vital to so many in our community.

The full announcement of the referendum can be viewed here.

2013 in review

A version of this article was first published in The Argus on Saturday 28th December:

The past year has been a challenging, but good, year for our city. We continue to outpace the national economic recovery with rising employment figures, low levels of shop vacancies and visitor numbers continuing to do well. Our schools, colleges and universities are all growing and outcomes are improving, indeed this year saw record GCSE results against a nationwide downward trend.

2013 saw Brighton & Hove Albion and the city council, win the right to host 2015 Rugby World Cup matches in the Amex stadium. The city’s wonderful Festival and the Fringe both had record years, and our museums have been doing very well. Public art and photography have continued popping up across the city thanks to a diversity of projects. Pride was better than ever this summer, and has plans afoot to do even more next year. The Brighton Marathon also had a bumper year and announced exciting plans for 2014. And we saw a Royal visit to open The Keep, our new public archives in Falmer.

Nevertheless our wonderful retail sector faces challenges as shopping habits change to online and household disposable incomes continue to feel the squeeze. Sadly many have less in their pockets each week, not just in inflation-adjusted ‘real’ terms as economists say, but because of sustained government cuts to welfare. Whilst most agree the welfare system needs reform and simplification, little of that promised change has happened. So far we’ve just seen measures that by 2015 will have taken £15 billion out of support for the poorest. In many cases councils are picking up the pieces. For example the benefit cap costs the council £1m a year to keep families in their homes and prevent homelessness. The government is celebrating the reduced benefits bills, whilst we, the local taxpayers pay the price.

These years were always going to be challenging for local councils. With an ageing population and a baby boom, we have more demand than ever before. We are helping thousands more people each year through our 800 council services. This increase alone is a pressure of £10-15m a year. Yet, we have a government not just failing to recognise and help us with that growing demand – but cutting our funding, making the situation worse. By 2015 councils will have seen a 40% cut in funding just as their services are in greater need than ever.

Unfortunately the austerity consensus between Tories and Labour in Westminster means that this situation will only continue. We have to do the best for the city in the circumstances – so what has been happening?

Many readers will have noticed the major transport improvements completed this year, thanks to external funding from the Department for Transport and others. The Lewes Road and Seven Dials have been transformed, improving safety for all. Brighton & Hove remains one of the ten worst areas in the UK for road safety, so more work is needed. We’ve also been successful in rolling out 20mph limits where residents support it. Thanks to these transport measures we’re seeing walking, cycling and bus use all growing significantly – crucial when we have more and more people living, working and visiting the city.

We’ve taken made major progress on big developments in the city  We’ve moved forward with the University of Brighton on developing Preston Barracks, and announced our plan to sell our seafront headquarters, Kings House. Lots of building has been underway such as the old Co-op on London Road, ‘Block J’ behind Brighton station, Woodingdean’s new library, the Brighton Housing Trust container homes and the Amex stadium expansion. We’ve also completed a major refurbishment of the Withdean Sports Complex and a number of council offices. Part of this involves working more closely with other public sector organisations – for example we now share Hove Town Hall with Sussex Police. Our parks and open spaces have seen lots of work this year too including installing chalky ‘butterfly banks’ and the revamped facilities at The Level .

It’s been a busy year for negotiating with government. After winning money for ultrafast broadband in late 2012, this year has been spent pushing government to let us spend it as they wrangled with suppliers and the EU. This was finally resolved a few weeks ago so 2014 should be an ultrafast year for the city. We’ve also been negotiating with government for a ‘City Deal’ to support the so-called Greater Brighton region. Clearly our residents’ lives don’t stop at municipal borders – so it’s important that we work with our neighbours to make progress together. At the time of writing we are very close to sealing an agreement which will support key developments across the city region to unlock economic development and empower our area.

This year we also completed the long overdue process of ensuring equal pay for all council workers. This should have been done more than a decade ago, but the political and logistical difficulties of doing so meant it was never fully tackled.. I know how difficult and unpleasant the dispute and subsequent strile was for all involved. But the end result is we now have clear and fair pay and allowances for all council workers and we’ve avoided the risk of legal challenges which could have left the council bankrupt.

We’ve also had great success with the living wage campaign. The council was accredited as a living wage employer this year, and a few weeks back the campaign celebrated over 100 local employers providing a living wage or more to all their staff. The campaign is led by the city’s Chamber of Commerce with council support, the only campaign of this type in the UK. Thanks to its work, over a quarter of the living wage employers in the UK are right here in Brighton & Hove – a wonderful milestone.

In April we were recognised as the world’s first One Planet City by sustainability charity BioRegional. This means our plans to reduce our environmental impact have been independently assessed to be credible, but we’ve still go to do the work of implementing them. That work is well underway.

We as a Green Group of councillors published our mid-term report in the Autumn which showed our strong record of delivery since May 2011. Three quarters of our manifesto commitments have been done or are on course to be completed. Straight after that the city hosted the Green Party conference in the city, followed by the Labour Party conference – both great for the local economy.

Looking ahead to 2014, we’ll need to complete the very challenging annual budget process for the 2014/15 financial year and start preparing for the 2015/16 council budget. There are no easy choices left for councils. But I’m committed to doing the best we can for citizens with whatever government leaves us in our spending pot.

In 2014 I hope to be signing the Greater Brighton City Deal with government and seeing developments move quickly after that. Almost immediately we will be working with our Local Enterprise Partnership to negotiate a ‘Growth Deal’ between government and our region. This will be our main source of funding for transport projects in the city in the future, a successful deal is crucial.

Meanwhile we’ll be completing the rollout of communal recycling and pay by phone parking in the city. We also have major work to do on the seafront ,balancing our local economy whilst finding the £100m cost of maintaining the rapidly ageing structures holding up the promenade.

Another absolutely key task is transforming social care and the local health system overall. Almost everyone agrees that council social care and the NHS need to work better together to improve services for our residents and make sure it’s affordable.

Many challenges and opportunities lie ahead in 2014. We will keep supporting those in need, helping local businesses and charities while delivering services. Brighton & Hove moves into 2014 in a strong position, with a creative energy ready to surprise and impress as we continue to attract visitors from far and wide. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Two letters lobbying Iain Duncan Smith

I’ve not had the time to blog much lately, apologies. You can catch up with my weekly column on The Latest or Brighton & Hove Independent websites.

Below are two letters to Mr Duncan Smith highlighting serious concerns about how his department is treating local government.

To Iain Duncan Smith in the Department for Work and Pensions:

Dear Secretary of State,

We appreciate that the introduction of Universal Credit is no longer on the government’s original timetable. While delays that help ensure effective implementation are to be welcomed, I need to alert you that this creates additional financial pressures for councils.

You may be aware that the administration of housing benefit is funded by a specific grant from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). I am sure the original intention of this grant was to fully support local government in providing a service on its behalf. However unfortunately its costs have long outstripped its funding – in the latest national comparative figures available, 2012/13 national Housing Benefit Administration expenditure was expected to be 74% higher than the grant ( 102% in London and 69% in Unitary authorities) and for Brighton & Hove this was 98% – representing a subsidy from the council’s General fund of £2.938m. The administration grant continues to be subject to reductions, 10% for 2014/15 and yet the delays to the implementation of Universal Credit alongside reforms mean that efficiency savings of this magnitude are increasingly challenging. For example as individuals find they need to take more than one job or find themselves moving in and out of work more frequently so their circumstances require more frequent reassessing from a benefits perspective. This adds additional cost and complexity that will only be resolved at the point at which Universal Credit is introduced. In 2014/15 the gap between expenditure and income for Housing Benefits for Brighton & Hove is expected to be £3.397m – a direct subsidy from the council’s General Fund to deliver a DWP programme. While the council continues to review and benchmark its service against comparable local authorities, there is no evidence at the moment that this is out of line with others.

We appreciate that there is a desire to constantly improve efficiency and reduce costs to the taxpayer. We, like many authorities, have successfully driven down our costs while maintaining high standards of service. However there does come a point, when service effectiveness is a matter of having enough resource to meet demand and while we continue to strive to make our service more efficient the gap between funding and actual cost is an increasing burden that Local Government cannot afford to accept on the DWP’s behalf.

I therefore call on you to reconsider the funding position for HB admin subsidy to let our costs be covered. The money that has been taken out of the admin grant over the years makes it increasingly difficult of us to deliver this statutory social security benefit on your behalf. Other local services have had to be cut to fund our ongoing delivery of this national benefit. I do not believe taxpayers would consider this fair or justifiable.

I await your response.

Thank you
Cllr Jason Kitcat
Leader of Brighton & Hove City Council

—–

 

Dear Secretary of State,

Proposals to implement a Single Fraud Investigation Service (SFIS)

We are aware that the Autumn Statement 2013 has confirmed that government plans to implement a Single Fraud Investigation Service (SFIS) during 2014.

Brighton & Hove City Council is very concerned at the current plans to operate SFIS as an organisation wholly managed and operated by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). We believe current plans have been adopted without due consideration to local authorities’ views and without full consideration of the impact such changes would have on counter fraud activity outside of SFIS, especially those areas under the remit of local government. We would strongly urge you to reconsider how SFIS is implemented.

We recognise that SFIS could be a great opportunity to make a real difference to investigating welfare and related frauds and to work in a truly collaborative way. As it stands, we believe that local authorities will be left more vulnerable to fraud attacks if current proposals go ahead. We also believe that reported savings of operating SFIS could therefore be offset by wider fraud losses across local government.

In this council, not only do we operate a Housing Benefit investigation team but we also host one of two National Anti-Fraud Network (NAFN) offices that provides first class data and intelligence services to over 350 councils. Through these services, currently it is common for local authorities to link investigations together e.g. ‘blue badge’ fraud and benefit frauds; housing tenancy fraud and benefit fraud.  Under SFIS proposals, much of the benefit of this type of combined investigation will disappear, as will any links between local authority corporate fraud work and SFIS. This simply does not make sense.

Allied to this, there will be no or limited links between SFIS investigations and Council Tax Reduction Scheme investigations. Again, a collaborative approach would be our preferred solution rather than two separate investigations undertaken by different organisations with potentially two separate prosecutions being undertaken at the same time. There is potential for significant process duplication and preventable costs.

At Brighton & Hove, in common with a number of authorities, we have recently set up a Corporate Fraud Team to undertake fraud investigations across a wider spectrum of our activities. We are concerned that the current proposals do not provide sufficient time to develop this unit and also that any work it carries out in future will be in isolation from SFIS. Again, this would not appear to be well thought through, especially with the introduction of powers to make housing tenancy fraud a criminal offence.

NAFN is recognised as a centre of excellence in local government and its services extend well beyond local authorities. For instance, NAFN processes all of the DWP’s fraud related vehicle checks. The introduction of SFIS as currently proposed would be likely to reduce NAFN resources considerably and therefore the impact on the wider fraud community in terms of protecting public funds could be considerable.

We are also concerned about the impact on localism. Centralisation of welfare benefit fraud investigations would appear to go against the grain of the localism agenda supported by the rest of government.

We would strongly urge further constructive and meaningful consultation on current proposals so that we can identify a solution that would be beneficial to all areas of central and local government.

Should you have any queries or wish to discuss the matter any further, I would be most willing to provide further information or meet you to talk through these issues.

Yours sincerely,

 

Councillor Jason Kitcat                              Councillor Leslie Hamilton

Leader of the Council                                 Chair of the Audit & Standards Committee

Where’s the sense in the energy bill outrage?

Recent weeks have seen incredible inflation in not only energy bills but in the soundbites that both Labour and Tories are hurling around. On energy costs, the big six energy suppliers and the supposed costs of the ‘green’ elements of household energy bills we’re getting a lot of hot air, but not much sense.

It’s all been rather disheartening as none of the key issues behind the ongoing painful price rises have been addressed. With a likely cold winter ahead meaning more and more will have to choose between heating or eating, we deserve better than the rather poor attempts at electoral positioning that the current policy debate is turning out to be.

This woeful debate follows a trend by successive governments, including the current one, of singularly failing to tackle energy as the huge national challenge and opportunity it genuinely presents. The Tories are in a complete morass over what future energy sources should be: Fracking and nuclear power seem to be their top priorities. Putting aside the environmental madness of these two choices, in the UK they are decades away from producing new energy on a commercial scale for British consumers.

Meanwhile Labour have opted for the electioneering gimmick of an energy bill ‘freeze’ post-election. Labour must think they’ve got a nice bit of candy to offer voters but on the slightest bit of consideration, it doesn’t really make much sense. Firstly pre-announcing a bill freeze means the suppliers are far more likely to edge price increases higher now to give them more bankable income should a freeze really come in play. How much of a ‘Miliband factor’ is in this month’s ~10% price rises I wonder? I also am curious to know what happens during the price freeze if wholesale gas prices skyrocket, especially through a very cold snap when demand greatly increases? Will the government have to use taxpayers’ money to pay the higher costs? I can’t imagine a government forcing shareholders (including our own pension funds) to bear gargantuan losses in the face of genuine raw material cost inflation would last very long in court.

Practicalities aside the bill freeze doesn’t really achieve a whole lot. Yes above inflation energy cost increases hurt the poorest hardest, no doubt. But with the freeze pre-announced I expect price changes before and after the freeze will cover expected losses for the energy firms. And frankly a two year breather after years of increases is hardly a lifeline if you are already choosing between heating and eating.

No, what is needed is massive investment in our energy systems to provide resilient, local, renewable energy that is truly affordable. It’s notable that this month green energy supplier Ecotricity announced that they now have built enough of their own renewable sources to start undercutting the big six suppliers’ prices.

Secondly, and just as important, we must take action to proactively deliver serious energy efficiency for all citizens. This has to be in a way that is cheap and works for everyone, including those in the private rented sector. In Brighton & Hove our work on council blocks has resulted in the first energy bill decrease ever for tenants living in those blocks. Those in fuel poverty need this kind of action to permanently reduce their energy bills far more than they need a short-term freeze which holds no longer term solutions. Of course creating more energy efficient homes not only cuts bills permanently, but also makes the warmer better places to live, which all the health and wellbeing benefits that entails.

Cutting demand through energy efficiency will reduce the strain on supplies, reduce our overseas dependence on unreliable sources of fossil fuels whilst creating lots of jobs for those doing the work. I’d much rather be ensuring that homes are permanently warmer rather than faffing about with billing tweaks. If given the proper funding, councils have a huge role to play in delivering energy efficiency programmes, but only central government can tackle the big six suppliers.

Energy is vital to our health, happiness, economy and national security. A few overheated sound bites and electioneering gimmicks are doing great disservice to the huge importance and potential genuine policy action could make for our citizens. I hope voters, media and the third sector will demand better from the national debate; I promise to do my bit as a Green voice for Brighton & Hove.

Speech to Green Party Autumn Conference 2013

I was very fortunate to be given the opportunity to address our party conference in Brighton yesterday. Below is the video and (approximate) text of my speech.

Thank you. Weren’t Natalie, Caroline and Will’s speeches great yesterday and today? Conference is going fantastically well. It’s an incredible feeling to have it here in my city, in my ward. I’d like to pay tribute to our great party leadership team, all the conference organisers and the local party for all they’ve done in making us feel so welcome. Thank you everybody for all the work you’ve done.

I moved to this city 13 years ago. Single and just out of university I came here to start a digital business, just like so many others have.

I began to learn more about this city that I lived in and worked hard in. I enjoyed the many good things about this unique place but also grew impatient with how many things I knew could be so much better.

I also kept noticing that the strongest, most committed and caring voices on the issues I too cared most deeply about were Green councillors and activists.

And so, inevitably, within a couple of years I had joined the Green party and was knocking on doors each election with the rest of them.

Quite a few things have changed since then. I’m fortunate to have a family now with two beautiful children and my wonderful wife. I’m also far more directly involved in running the city than I was 13 years ago.

The other day I got on the bus and someone said “you’re Kitcat aren’t you?”  “Yes….” I replied. He cheerfully shook my hand, and said “Great to see the council leader taking the bus!”

The difference is not that I’m just recognised on the bus, the key difference is that finally we Greens are in administration. No longer do we have just words to dedicate to the pursuit of our long-held values. Now we can put them into practice.

Yesterday, with my colleagues on the Green administration, and we launched our report on our achievements of our first two years in office. Yes of course, we’re a minority administration and at any time the opposition can and do gang up to outvote us. Yet in spite of that we’ve have delivered huge amounts of our manifesto promises for our city. Three quarters of our promises are done or well on course to be completed.

It’s quite novel that, isn’t it? You stand for election on the basis of a manifesto and then you deliver on the promises. It could catch on, what do you think?!

A few of the highlights for me:

A Living Wage for our lowest paid council workers. We’ve also reduced the gap between top and bottom earners to almost 10 to 1, another manifesto promise.

We’ve protected our local economy from the worst of the recession, it’s outperformed the national average. In July alone we had 1m people visit the city, which shows that we are committed to protecting all the makes Brighton special so that people have their weddings, conferences and more here which is essential to our local economy. And guess what? The majority of those visitors come to the city by public transport.

Yes, we are experiencing biting government cuts — we’re the second worst cut of any unitary in the country — we’ve protected council services and funding for the third sector.

Thanks to the work of colleagues Ian Davey and Pete West huge progress has been made in putting sustainable transport first in this city. The significant benefits for public health, and improved air quality are clear. We have been named the least car-dependent place outside of London.

We have become the world’s first One Planet City, independently accredited by environment charity BioRegional. We are delivering on our promises, we in believe in environmental justice and social justice.

When we came into office we discovered that despite having the most highly educated parents in the region, we had very poor secondary school results. Led by Sue Shanks, Chair of the Children’s Committee, we have brought a new focus to school improvement. This year we have seen record GCSE results whilst the national average has been going down.

And if you have a spare 15 minutes do visit The Level where a £3m investment has transformed a key city centre park into a fantastic green lung and high quality public space for all. There are 30,000 households within 15 minutes walk of this park, go and have a look. It’s truly incredible what we’ve been able to do there, and we’re so proud.

I could go on all afternoon, seeing as there’s about one hundred manifesto achievements we’ve already delivered, but I won’t. Do have a look at the report which is available online and in the hall next door.

I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved together as an administration. All the councillors — every councillor in the Green Group on this council — are delivering on our manifesto their working hard every day, to make our values reality in this city.

We are of course also fortunate in this city to have someone who is, without any doubt, the UK’s most impressive and principled MP – Caroline Lucas. I’d like to personally acknowledge the incredible job she does representing the people of Brighton Pavilion and the Green Party in Westminster. Thank you Caroline.

I also can’t wait to see what Jenny Jones is going to do in the House of Lords, I think it’s going to be incredible as well. Congratulations Jenny.

As Caroline said in her speech yesterday, this year in Brighton & Hove has been tough. It’s not an easy time to be in local government. It seems to me that Councils are the coalition government’s whipping boy. Despite being found at the start of this Parliament to be the most efficient part of government, by far, councils are bearing the brunt of the cuts. One average local government, local councils that affect all of your areas, have seen the budgets reduced by 28%. What have Whitehall done? They’ve only trimmed theirs by 8%.

Those cuts harm our local communities. We have to fight against them. We must keep making the case they aren’t necessary, and that austerity does not work.

But we also must keep campaigning for devolution to independent local government. If we don’t fight for local power for local councils for our local people, then our communities will always be at the whim governments. We have to keep making the case for what we believe in, which is true localism and true decentralisation for our councils.

But until then, until that time when we control all levels of government at the same time (!), we do have a duty to do the best for our areas. It is so much easier to criticise from the sidelines than to govern. But in spite of the bad times, we cannot abandon those who put their faith in us to fight for what we believe to be right. We need to make the most of whatever resources we have to protect those in the greatest need. And we will.

Of course this year we have had another challenge which I feel we really must talk about.

When we took administration we found that successive Labour and Tory administrations had let unequal allowances for council workers fester for 15 years. They had repeatedly tried to push their dirty secret under the carpet for the next administration to trip up on.

We couldn’t let this go on. So we set upon the huge task of finally resolving the mass of historical arrangements which were leaving men and women unequally compensated for similar types of work.

Everyone knew this had to happen but only us, the Greens, had the moral fibre and courage to follow through on delivering fairer allowances for all council workers.

Yes it was rough on the way, as it inevitably would be. But I’m delighted to say that come this 1st October we will have introduced a new simple and fair set of allowances for all our staff which meets our moral and legal obligations. As a result of this many workers, especially women, will be seeing increased take-home pay as a result of this. That’s the Green values.

Changing this country to the clean, green, fair future we all so urgently want to see will not be easy. That was just one microcosm of the challenges we face ahead.

The enemies of change, the opponents of fairness, the self-interested, the oil barons, the oligarchs, they will all fight us every step of the way. I say to you, as a party we must steel ourselves to this challenge. We know time is short and the stakes are incredibly high.

And yes, being tested in government is tough. But this is only the start of what we need to do to bring our vision to reality.

We need to find the courage to retain our unique Green traditions of co-operating and collaborating whilst being stronger and more united in the face of the powerful opposition our values inevitably arouse.

As a smaller, newer party the odds often seem stacked against us. But we keep breaking through — in Europe, in councils across the country and in Westminster. And I know that together we can do it again in Europe next year, and beyond.

Never has our message of a sustainable, balanced and fair future been more urgent and important than now. We must really keep working together to win arguments, win elections, to win power and deliver real change.

The better Brighton & Hove we’re building here today is just the beginning.

Together we can do it.

Thank you.

Modernising the council and responding to Tory opportunism

During our term of office the Green administration has been working hard to keep lowering the council’s costs and reducing our carbon footprint. A major part of this work has been focussed on the buildings we use.

Brighton & Hove City Council was formed from the merger of a number of different councils which themselves had amalgamated others bits of councils further back in history. So it’s no surprise that there was quite a spread of properties, of varying quality and value, in us. As the government continues to cut council funding our staff numbers are declining through voluntary severance and recruitment freeze. This and technology allow us to dramatically reduce the number of buildings we need to provide council services.

This programme of rationalising buildings is called ‘workstyles’ and began under the previous Conservative administration. Greens have accelerated this work, linked in more IT and service modernisation plus greater ambitions for sustainability.

The final phase, number three, is the biggest and most important. It covers a very significant number of staff and some of our largest, most high profile, offices in a programme that will take 3-4 years to complete. As we are a no overall control council and this work will extend into the next 4 year term, all party leaders have been briefed on the plans. This started in earnest just over a year ago leading to a decision at Policy & Resources Committee in October 2012 which set the principles for this phase. The key principle being that the entirety of our Kings House offices would be sold to fund either moving entirely into Hove Town Hall or into part of Hove Town Hall plus another unidentified building. Either way the decision was clear that savings (in cash and carbon emissions) could only be made with the investment of the capital that selling Kings House would provide. This was agreed with the support of the Conservative councillors on that committee.

The very significant work that decision required has now been done. The clear recommendation from all the analysis is to move remaining staff entirely into Hove Town Hall. As this programme is key to saving the council money, enabling major service redesigns and essential IT investment, we didn’t want to delay. So with cross-party agreement I called a special meeting of the Policy & Resources Committee for this month specifically so that we could crack on with the Workstyles phase 3 programme (otherwise there wouldn’t have been a scheduled meeting until mid-October).

Last Monday the party leaders met for our monthly Leaders’ Group meeting and we discussed Workstyles. There was no suggestion of any concern about the report, just some questions about some of the planning that would need to happen whilst building works were underway and what the refurbished Hove council chamber might be like.

So it was with considerable disappointment that on Wednesday I learnt of a Conservative amendment to the plans through Brighton and Hove News — the next day the Tory leader Geoffrey Theobald sent me the full text of the amendment which aims to tear up the workstyles programme by putting a school on the rear half of the Kings House site.

It somewhat renders the year of briefings and discussions pointless if a party is going to then opportunistically seek to amend at the last moment via press release. Even more so when the Conservatives voted for the principle of selling all of Kings House off less than a year ago!

Workstyles is essential to the council’s financial future as well as its ability to meet the challenges of changing demand. You’d think Tories, who started it, might understand that! Instead they want to offer up the most valuable part of Kings House to a free school who I understand they have already lined up a sponsor for. If their plan went ahead it would totally shatter the financial savings and it would eliminate the opportunity for a significant amount of much needed affordable housing to be built on the site. Furthermore, because of the nature of the Workstyles programme’s need for works to happen elsewhere first, the site couldn’t open as a school before 2017 at the earliest.

Having had discussions at the end of last week I’m pleased that the Labour group leader Warren Morgan has confirmed that he, like the Greens, will oppose the Conservative approach thus allowing this important project to move forward unimpeded.

Yes there is currently pressure on school places in the West of our city. But lots of work is underway with school expansions and already approved Free Schools getting going. A last-minute Tory attempt to make an essential and very long-term programme about schools is deeply opportunistic. It also undermines the whole point of repeated cross-party briefing to find consensus in our times as a no overall control council.

As Council Leader I will keep working hard to find open and consensual ways of working cross-party so that we can put the needs of our city first, and politics second.