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.

Rewiring Public Services – Local Government’s battle cry for the future

This past week I spend a productive few days at the Local Government Association’s 2013 annual conference in Manchester. It was great to discuss the issues facing councils with friends old and new. Passion and innovation were on display in spades thanks to a strong presence from the LGA Improvement Board, NESTA, Public-i, MySociety and many others.

Some of the best sessions for me included an extraordinarily frank speech by Lord Heseltine, insights into NHS re-organisation from Lord Victor Adebowale and a good overview of the financial challenges ahead from Professor Tony Travers. Most, but not all, of these and much more are online through the conference webcast.

Also at the conference saw the formation of the Key Cities group, of which Brighton & Hove is a founder member. This grouping of major urban areas will prove to be a major voice in lobbying central government, especially as many are in the bidding process for City Deals. This work along with associated sessions hosted by the Centre for Cities were hugely positive for shared understanding and learning. It’s important to note that this group is resolutely aiming to be supportive of the LGA and remain within the association, in contrast to some of the noises made by the group of 8 Core Cities.

But by far the most important outcome from the conference was the launch of the LGA’s powerful ‘Rewiring Public Services’ campaign and the associated reports that back it up. This campaign was produced following extensive engagement across the public sector and with support from all four political groups on the LGA (Conservative, Labour, LibDem and Independent – which includes Greens). If ever there was a time for solidarity amongst councils, this is it, which is why I strongly encourage all councils to remain in the LGA despite the pressure from some to save on the annual fee.

The campaign is superbly put together, well designed and with a clear set of asks. In essence the campaign first shows that through financial modelling that we cannot continue as we are, that the funding shortfall will hit £14.4 billion by the end of this decade. Given this and that the ‘big three’ parties in Westminster all accept current spending plans, the campaign then makes a clear bid for a sustainable alternative. This alternative includes financial independence for councils, enshrining a constitutional right for local government to exist, simplification of the relationship with central government and lasting resolutions to the key challenges, such as social care.

I was delighted to be invited to speak at the opening plenary responding to the campaign’s launch along with the RSA’s Matthew Taylor, Graham Allen MP and some fellow council leaders. The mood at that session epitomised the whole conference: Defiant, positive and united in championing local government as the best way to lead solutions for local needs.

Local Government Minister Eric Pickles was dismissive of the whole thing when he spoke to the conference a day later. But this was hardly unexpected. He is but one voice in the political sphere, there are many others to be persuaded.

In one sense, as work by the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee has shown, the Rewiring Public Services campaign’s asks are eminently reasonable and deliverable. Indeed they are only asking for what local government in the rest of the developed world already has – freedom. But given how long England has struggled under centralism, the cross-party consensus on campaigning for these changes is quite remarkable. That extraordinary consensus now has to be maintained and pushed upwards from councillors and officers to MPs and civil servants.

Local government’s future is in genuine crisis. If now is not the time for fundamental change, then when will it ever be? This is a once in a generation opportunity to achieve a sustainable foundation for local government. Everyone who cares about local services needs to set aside party allegiances, as the LGA leadership have, and lobby to achieve the change we desperately need. I certainly will.

Squaring the circle in Brighton and Hove – the full picture on pay & allowances

I need to set the record straight on claims about the pay and allowances negotiations currently underway at Brighton & Hove City Council. The long overdue proposals being consulted on deal with historic issues we inherited from Labour and Tories that have to be resolved to complete the move to single status, which is the process to ensure fairness for all staff pay every council has had to do. The majority of staff, about 90%, will see little or no change to their total pay, and of those affected more will gain than see detriment. Any detriment will be compensated and we expect the total wage bill to rise slightly.

Why are we having to consult staff on this at all? We need to go back to the founding days of the city council I serve on. Brighton & Hove City Council was formed in 1997 from the merger of Brighton Borough, Hove Borough and parts of East Sussex County councils. This, along with changes over the years since then, has left a complex arrangement for staff pay and allowances.

Previous Labour and Conservative administrations made a number of abortive attempts to resolve what unions themselves have called a ‘mish-mash’ of allowances which all agreed need resolving. Whilst basic pay was eventually reformed, the final part of single status in the form of allowances was always ducked leaving the council in a risky and unsatisfactory position.

When Greens became the largest party on the council in 2011 this was one of those incredibly difficult issues which we had to address. Sadly external factors mean the council cannot legally delay any longer, we must negotiate a new set of clear and fair allowances this year. Of the council’s £180m a year pay bill, these allowances make up £4m however the implications of these changes affect all staff.

I make no apology for seeking to introduce fair pay and allowances for all staff from care workers, social workers to gardeners and waste operatives. Since Greens formed the administration our lowest paid all have and will retain bigger pay packets through our introduction of the Living Wage, where we have led the way in local government. Senior management pay is at its lowest level in over a decade. As a result we’ve closed the gap between highest and lowest paid in the council meaning it’s far more equal than when Labour ran the council.

We have spent months exploring every possible option and reviewing how other councils handled similar issues before beginning negotiations with the recognised trade unions. Most councils handled changes to pay and allowances at the same time. Previous administrations took away that choice from us by dealing with basic pay only, leaving the allowances issue unaddressed.

Along the way, up to the formal decision to begin the process, all three political group leaders on the council were regularly briefed on progress. At no point did any of them object to the process continuing. Labour are now retrospectively claiming that they did object vociferously, but I never witnessed this. Form your own conclusions as to why they now say they did object.

The Green Group of councillors were briefed by officers on the plans before voting as a group to proceed. Hence a report was put to the council’s cross-party Policy & Resources Committee authorising the start of negotiations to be led by officers, as is appropriate for such a complex issue with weighty legal and financial implications. We had understood that none of the parties would vote against the report, though some councillors might abstain.

As the meeting proceeded the two Labour councillors on the committee were deep in conversation and appeared to decide a new position then and there. Come the vote they unexpectedly voted against whilst the remainder voted for the report.

Negotiations began in February and continued, on and off, until this month. This Tuesday 7th May the council’s offer as the employer was formally sent to the unions, staff and councillors. This marked the beginning of the ninety day staff consultation period with a huge array of group briefings, every employee receiving a detailed pack and one-to-one meetings for everyone with their manager.

It is very clear that this is not about budget savings and not about ‘austerity’. In fact, based on the offer under consultation, the pay bill is likely to go up slightly. Which other Council in the country can claim that?

With input from officers and unions, we have moved heaven and earth to produce the best possible offer which absolutely minimises detriment whilst remaining within legal and financial constraints.

What is the offer then? The offer includes three key aspects:

  1. A new fair and simple set of allowances which is easy to understand and helps the council meet the needs of our citizens.With these new allowances 90% of staff will see very little or no change at all in their take home pay. Of those that do, the majority will actually see an increase and a minority will see some detriment. Most of those seeing detriment will, it is estimated, lose less than £25 per week. I recognise even that is a lot to some people, but not the headline figures being used by some individuals.
  2. Anyone who is unfortunately suffering detriment will be generously compensated for that loss with a lump sump payment. For example someone losing between £1,001 and £1,250 a year is proposed to receive £3,550 in one-off compensation.
  3. We are keen to provide new opportunities for staff. We hope that, if agreed at a future committee, changes like Bank Holiday working can increase opportunities for waste and recycling staff whilst improving services to the city by eliminating changing collection days every time there is a Bank Holiday.

We shouldn’t prejudge the consultation: Staff need to be given the chance to consider the proposals, how it might affect them and offer their feedback. We also need to be mindful of any negotiations which might happen once the consultation period ends.

We have to resolve these allowances now. To do so without any detriment to any member of staff would sadly be totally unaffordable, even with Council Tax rises that would certainly not be supported by Labour and Conservative councillors. It is also important to remember that Brighton & Hove is the second worst-cut council of its type in the country. Being simply against any detriment to anyone might be ideologically pure, but doesn’t offer any solutions to the immediate situation the city council finds itself in. The Labour Party are not interested in the rights and wrongs of this important issue, and are cynically using it as a stick to beat the Green administration whilst knowingly not telling people the whole story.

It is worth re-iterating that this is not about saving money, the offer will cost more. Most staff are unaffected and the majority of those seeing changes will benefit. Those seeing detriment will be compensated. Despite the incredibly difficult times for our council, facing brutal Tory-LibDem cuts to our funding, we know how important it is to resolve this matter so we are funding the compensation and the slight increase in the wage bill to deliver a fair outcome.

During the consultation period I know that everyone involved remains open to any suggestions from staff and unions which could further improve the offer.

Change is a difficult process for staff affected and to bring in those changes as a minority administration, but it is absolutely the right thing to do for the long term wellbeing of the council, it’s employees and everyone it serves. Nobody who knows all the issues denies that it has to be done, and that other parties have failed to finish the job when they had the chance. With the success of this process I believe that once and for all we can have a council with a clear and fair pay and allowances system. At last.

 

Jason Kitcat is a Green City Councillor. He is writing in his capacity as Convenor of the Green Group of councillors on Brighton & Hove City Council. You can read more about the offer being consulted on here.

Speech to Green Party Spring Conference 2013

Here is the text of the speech I delivered to party conference this morning:

Good morning conference.

I’m happy to report to you that your Green councillors in Brighton & Hove are working hard to keep delivering Green policies for the city.

As I speak a city-wide 20mph limit is being rolled out for a healthier, safer city while wonderful new cycling and walking infrastructure is being installed to improve some of our major routes and most difficult junctions.

We are building new affordable homes and we have ended council tax discounts for second homes.

Our City Plan for the next 20 years has been passed, embedding Green thinking in the heart of every planning application the city will see for decades.

The city council is working to annual carbon budgets and is on course to lead the world’s first One Planet City.

We continue to lead the most open, participative and inclusive council we can. This leadership, with our neighbouring councils, has just won us a City Deal for the Greater Brighton region which will bring new devolved powers and investment opportunities.

This is all in the face of a coalition government that is hostile to our values in so many ways. We reject government austerity measures which are harming local communities.

Take their so-called ‘welfare reforms’ for example: So much time and energy has been wasted on countless cuts just to appease Daily Mail journalists who think this is where public funds are being wasted – on benefits.

But that isn’t the truth. The shameful truth is we have the outrage of government cutting benefits to those least able to afford whilst spending billions on new submarines, aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons we do not need.

The government’s benefit cap policy is a cynical, populist move which will mostly hit large families, many with members struggling in low-paid work.

Meanwhile Liam Byrne MP has confirmed that Labour too would have a benefit cap and would keep cutting the benefits bill. Other Labour MPs confirm cuts to local government too. We have all three mainstream parties committed to backing rich over the poor.

Despite the occasional glimmer, Labour does little other than remix Conservative policies in the same toxic vat as the one Blair, Clegg and Cameron tried. It’s a travesty that this country lurches from one government to another on the basis that they’re not quite as bad as whoever is in power… until they are.

We cannot let them get away with this.

So we need to speak out and ask “What kind of society do we want to live in?”

The Tory vision of people going hungry and cold in our country, with shameful levels of child poverty and families turfed out of their homes? One where wealth is transferred from the poorest to the richest?

Or a progressive vision where nobody is left behind, where those with greatest need receive the most help, and where inequality is challenged.

This conference we remember that 40 years ago Europe’s first Green Party was started by our colleagues in this country. A party with a clear vision for the future. One that believes and does localism.

The only party serious about real localism, so we should shout about it.

We are the only party with a coherent vision on welfare and sustainable local government.

A reversal of the privatisation of the NHS, and an end to the scandals it’s already brought to communities like Lewisham

True local taxation and powers to help protect local services from mad national austerity measures.

We must speak out, and give people the hope of a genuine alternative.

I’m passionate about local government. Municipal pride and creativity are Green values that we need to rekindle in town halls across the country. Councils need to be more self-confident, bold and demand greater local freedoms.

But we must always remember councils will exist in contexts beyond our immediate control. While national government remains able to re-write the rulebook and take away resources at a whim, it will always be difficult

Being in administration of a council, as in Brighton & Hove, is like taking the captaincy of a ship. We cannot control the waters ahead, whether they be stormy or calm. But we must complete the journey, safely transporting all aboard, whether battered by storms or baked by the sun. We will not founder. Guided by our Green principles and by pulling together as a party, we will continue forward, delivering progress for residents in Brighton and Hove and showing the real change a Green-led council can achieve.

Comment on Welfare Reform from a Council perspective

I had the following comment piece published in The Argus yesterday as a ‘Thursday Soapboax':

The government is continuing to impose its austerity cuts to welfare support and local public sector budgets.

 

I believe what Philip Jones referred to in his soapbox piece (The Argus 14th February) as a “Sick Tax” is the government’s 16% real terms cut to what was once Council Tax Benefit. From 1st April it has been localised to councils as a council tax discount labelled by government as “Council Tax Reduction”.

 

Like everywhere else, our council has no choice but to locally administer this slashed scheme, whilst also coping with yet another year of huge government cuts to our funding. The Green administration’s budget proposals have, despite huge financial pressures, absorbed almost half the cut to council tax benefit and set aside up to £600,000 in discretionary funds to help those worst hit by these and other government cuts to benefits.

 

We have had to prepare for this at breakneck speed – producing a legally correct local scheme and software to manage it in very short order. Indeed all the council leaders in the South East, most of whom are Conservatives, have repeatedly written to ministers objecting to the speed and scale of these changes. In spite of these pressures Brighton & Hove City Council have been widely praised for the extensive consultation we have done since last summer on our scheme. Meanwhile we have proactively contacted all those affected by phone and letter to help advise them on how we and our partners can help.

 

With our scarce funds we have been able to ensure nobody affected by Council Tax Reduction will pay more than £3 extra a week this coming year, and most will pay far less. It’s worth remembering that council tax is assessed on a household basis and not individual. So Mr Jones is wrong to say that we are in any way targeting sick people, quite the contrary.

 

Ultimately we are all victims in the face of very poorly implemented, heartless Conservative-led government policies. Come 1st April our city will be hit with the cuts to council funding including council tax benefit, the bedroom tax and cuts to housing benefit too. Liam Byrne MP says, if in government, Labour too would continue to cut benefits spending and the city’s two Tory MPs don’t seem to understand what they are doing to their own constituents. It’s tragic that the three largest parties in Westminster all seem to think building nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers whilst cutting support for our poorest is the best way forward for our country. Greens utterly disagree.