Interview with Association of Green Councillors

Text of an interview I recently did for the Association of Green Councillor’s new magazine:

> How and when did you become interested in politics/the Green Party?

I’ve been interested in politics for as long as I can remember. At school, I enjoyed debating societies and looking at the party manifestos during general elections – I and got involved in mock elections at school. But my main focus was really environmental issues, outside of party politics, until I moved to Brighton in 2000 to start a business. A few chance meetings with local Green Party members piqued my curiosity. As I learnt more and more about the Green Party it felt like such a natural political home, with values that clearly fit my world view. The democratic style of party management organisation, along with the combination of social and environmental justice, were was my ideal.

I was soon was involved in election campaigning,  and sat on a few party committees nationally and locally before standing for election myself. I was selected as a candidate for the European Parliament and then for a council by-election, which I won. I haven’t looked back!

> What’s your role as Leader of the Council on Brighton & Hove City Council?

It’s an incredible job. On behalf of the council and the residents I’m the lead spokesperson, champion, negotiator and lobbyist for our great city. It’s my job to go out there and win the best for our city from the region, central government, EU and anywhere else I can. I speak for the city, lead on joint working with partners and set the strategic direction for our city council. I also negotiate with the other parties on the council to try and ensure decisions are made in a timely and consensual way, whenever possible.

I have a few legal powers and duties, mainly for emergencies or because I chair the key Policy & Resources committee. But by far the biggest part of my role is about influence, championing and selling our vision.

I’m also Convenor of the Green Group of councillors. It’s because I convene the Green Group, the largest group of councillors on our council, that I hold the Council Leader role. As Convenor, along with my two deputy Convenors, I’m responsible for the group’s overall wellbeing, convening arranging meetings, managing our workload, sharing out responsibilities and cross-party relations.

> What’s been the Brighton Green Group achievement you’re most proud of?

It’s very had to pick just one thing, whether it’s something we’ve already started. There’s also a number of or one of the very exciting new things projects in the works which I hope will soon be confirmedwhich I hope to be able to announce soon. If you really push me to pick just one then I’d say that, so far, it has to be the Living Wage, which has being been adopted by the council for all its workers and the start of reviewing procurement contracts to see which of our external providers can adopt it, and some have already following negotiationsis starting to roll out across our external providers. We now have a city-wide campaign, led by the Chamber of Commerce, recruiting businesses and the 3rd sector into paying the Living Wage, with some major local employers already on board. We also have a 10:1 high- to- low- pay ratio target for the council which we are on target to meet soon, in line with our manifesto commitment..

There are so many important achievements all our councillors have been winningresponsible for, but if I could just sneak in one more it would be the completely revamped sustainable and ethical procurement policy which will have a major impact and which the WWF rated as the best council sustainable procurement in the UK.

> And what have you found most challenging?

The cuts to council and benefits budgets, along with all the associated politics. Aside from the terribly damaging nature of the cuts themselves, tThere’s been some pretty shameful politicking going on in the city around the terrible financial situation our council finds itself in. Opposition parties are constantly claiming that government cuts are Green cuts, and then trying to score cheap points on the back ofby ‘saving’ things they know the city cannot afford. to continue with has It is doing just done our local politics such a great disservice. People depend on an honest political debate to make lead to the best choices,  possible in good times or bad, and I don’t think that’s happened very much recently. We aAs Greens, we do need to keep being clearrepeating clearly that we’re putting city first, politics second.

When governmentlocal government have has reduced their local authority budgets by 28% and Whitehall by just by 8%, it’s so painful to see even more money slashed from our funding at short notice, as is happening right now, while other parts of government plod on. Yes, local government needs to reform, always push for best value and consider new ways of doing things. But cutting our spending like this is damaging our economy, our citizens’ quality of life and local government’s ability to support the growing social demand as caused by benefit cuts bite.

> Brighton & Hove decided to move to a Committee model recently.  Can you explain what this is/how it differs from a Cabinet model, and why you changed?  On balance, has it been a good thing?

Yes it has been a good thing. The Cabinet system focussed power and knowledge in the hands of one ‘strong leader’ and up to 9 cabinet members. In the extreme case, theyse could take most of their decisions behind closed doors with no opposition or public scrutiny. Brighton & Hove had a more open cabinet system – because we’d tried to make the best of a bad scheme system which was imposed on us by government, against the will of all the parties on the council. It But it disengaged most councillors, creating a big divide between those in and out of cabinet – regardless of whether they were in the administration party or not.

So we switched as soon as the Localism Act let us switch out of the Cabinet system, we did. We chose a new Committee System, not a move back to the old one. We streamlined to fewer committees and meetings, simpler names for committees and a range of other improvements. It has created more logistical work for officers and councillors as we need to ensure there is more time for papers to be ready and circulated to all the committee members. But the resultant fewer meetings and greater inclusion has have been received very positively. Perhaps my life would be easier if we hadn’t changed, as I’d have been able to rush decisions through Cabinet, but I think the new system we have is better for councillors and better for the city.

> If you could change one thing about local politics, what would it be and why?

Speaking from the city perspective, which is what I’m absorbed in, I believe we have to rethink the amateur model of local government politicians. I’m ambitious for Brighton & Hove and compare us to Barcelona, Vancouver, Sydney and other great seaside cities. Their city leaders are full-time politicians with the resources personally and at municipal level to really deliver on their agendas. I think that’s right and proper. We should expect professional political leadership and to attract good candidates we should break out of the part-timer model of councillors. Too many good councillors in our group have only been able to last one term (if they can even be persuaded to stand) because of their huge difficulties they’ve had in making balancing their time commitments work along withagainst the financial struggles associated with councillor allowances – which by the way, are tiny by international comparisons. Paying politicians more is not exactly a populist position, I know, and I’m not complaining about my personal lot as Leader. But commission after commission raises these same issues with English local government representation – and yet no solution is in sight. So I think it does need tackling.

Connected to this, and as a way of if I can sneaking sneak in another supplementary answer in, is the issue of education. We need to teach more about local government and local politics to our children. Then I hope some more of them will engage, understand how to influence decisions and maybe even stand for office one day. To that end, we are supporting a Youth Council and Youth Mayor programme in our city to help encourage engagement and learning.

> What are your hopes for Brighton & Hove Green Party in the next few years?

That we deliver on our vision for a One Planet Smart City; for a thriving, clean, sustainable and happy city. There are some great opportunities for this but We will need to do this amidst some great opportunities, but alsowe need to do it amid the immense challenges of the government’s utterly ill-considered austerity measures. We aAs a party, we have a duty to our residents and to the national party to show that we can make the best choices for our city in good or bad times. We never have the luxury of choosing the national context for councils but, regardless, we have to do the best we can for our residents.

Climate change and austerity measures, are both damaging man-madeartificial phenomena which individual councils can do little to stop. But we can, as Greens, lead the way in smart, fair and ecological ways to cope despite these challenges. Anything less would be a failure of leadership.

If we deliver on that, then come the next elections we can build and grow our Green representation on the our own council, other UK councils and in Westminster.

[ENDS]