Tag Archives: green

The election that was

This is a post I’ve kept putting off because I thought my thoughts would get more clear with time. They haven’t, they’re still a jumble. So apologies, but this is how they’ve come out.

This election campaign was filled with exhausting hard work, lots of late nights, hours spent writing and designing leaflets and hundreds of conversations.

It included reading lots and lots of blog posts, probably thousands of tweets and lots of time on iPlayer trying to watch the good bits I’d missed.

Working on Caroline’s campaign management team wasn’t just exhilirating because of the prize in sight, it was because I got to spend time with some extraordinary people.

The TV debates were overall a hugely negative change – they narrowed the terms of the political discourse and they gave excessive focus to just three parties out of all those standing across the country.

Election night was nailbiting and… long, very long. But the result was worth it – the sense of elation was incredible. Nearly 40 years after our party was founded, we have finally broken into the long-closed Westminster club. I’m not sure who took it, but this video at the count declaration, captures some sense of the moment.

Gathering on the seafront outside the Brighton Centre with a couple hundred of green supporters at 7am to toast our victory was an unexpected addition to the morning.

Going out onto New Road to help with Caroline’s first ‘street meet’ a few hours later was remarkable. We saw incredible support from everyone we met, even as we were surrounded by a swarm of cameras and journalists.

Reading the hundreds of congratulatory emails to Caroline and the Green Party from right across the world has shown what this breakthrough has meant to people spread far beyond what I could have imagined.

And finally, seeing a fraction of the invitations and casework coming in to Caroline, has shown to me how much hope the people of Brighton have put in getting more from their MP than ever before. Caroline and the Green Party will do everything they can to deliver on those hopes.

People of Brighton, we can wake up on Friday to a Green MP

All the trends indicate that this Thursday, if you vote Green in Brighton Pavilion, you’ll wake up on Friday to a Green MP.

Vote Green because you believe in our policies, because you want to change politics and because you want to see more diverse voices in Parliament. Vote Green because you know Brighton can do better.

And if that doesn’t convince you, how about Queen’s Brian May!?

This has been an extraordinary election to take part in. Aside from partisanship, there have been some incredible grassroots projects including voteforpolicies.org.uk, The Straight Choice and Democracy Club. More power to their elbows – they’ll surely be plenty of post-match analysis from the data they’ve collected.

I shall try to update via Twitter over the next 48 hours, I doubt a blog will emerge before Sunday or Monday.

On debating Charlotte Vere over nuclear power

On Monday 22nd March I was invited on Radio Reverb’s “In Brighton Mondays” show to debate political issues with Conservative candidate Charlotte Vere.

I very much enjoy such debates, and the show was no exception. However it raised some interesting issues for the Tories. Firstly Charlotte spoke glowingly of food waste collection and fortnightly waste collection — waste reductions techniques the local Tory council just will not consider no matter what. When challenged on this Charlotte answered that she wasn’t a councillor and wouldn’t get involved in council-level debating. Interesting… I wonder if she and the Pavilion Conservatives see eye-to-eye, does she have the support of Tory councillors in the constituency? I doesn’t seem like it.

But sparks have been flying on another matter. Following from a debate about where wind farms should be sited, we began talking about the challenge of providing sufficient energy over the next 15 years. Charlotte suggested nuclear fusion, which I thought was an extraordinary claim. I sent out a press release highlighting my concerns over this. On Twitter Charlotte pushed back hard demanding a retraction and apology. So I got hold of the show’s recording (thanks to Charlotte & Radio Reverb’s Paul Stones) and had a listen. I’ve copied the transcript I made of the section in question at the end of this post.

Not only do I think it’s clear that Charlotte was strongly advocating nuclear power, including fusion, but that she was proposing non-uranium based reactors. That means either plutonium (which can be used for weapons and is dangerous to store with a half-life of 24,100 years) or the relatively benign Thorium. Given Charlotte kept highlighting how safe new nuclear power is, I imagine she was meaning to refer to Thorium – however there are no working commercial Thorium reactors (there are some which use a Uranium/Thorium mix but that’s an altogether different technology).

It’s a worry that someone who wants to become an MP is advocating betting our energy security on unproven nuclear technologies. There are so many technologies and opportunities for energy efficiency that could meet the challenge, and we have such a long way to go. For example I walked past a large Sainsbury’s on Easter Sunday and saw all the lights on inside despite nobody being there – what did we have to burn to keep those lights going? We can meet the energy challenge by using energy much more carefully and through a mix of renewable energies.

Debate on meeting renewable energy targets – Transcript of Radio Reverb “In Brighton Mondays” 22/3/10
Sections not in [square brackets] are verbatim
==========================================
42:54
[JK criticises nuclear]
44:06
CV I think it’s all very laudable and very um… how can I say, it’s interesting. I think the point is that in the real world we have to look at where we are now and where are we are going to be able to go in the short term. Because we have a 2025 power crunch coming up and we have to sort it out before then. So heat pumps in people’s home and solar panels on their roofs, that’s all great and if people want to do that, that’s brilliant and I’m sure they’ll be government help to allow them to do that.
But the point is we also have to consider that a huge amount of energy is used by business, by the economy and we have to figure out where we’re going to get the electricity for those too.
So if you look at the usage of the country on a daily basis, about 40,000MW. So if we want to do 25% of that, that’s a lot of electricity. Now Jason will of course say oh nuclear power it’s the most evil thing since, I don’t know, the Joker. And the point is: It’s NOT actually. Old fashioned nuclear power based on uranium perhaps was because it was of course it was all done to make warheads, but we don’t need that anymore.
So I think the thing is scientists are making great strides in going from nuclear fission to nuclear fusion so there’s a huge different type of nuclear power that could come online provided we make the commitment to actually having a nuclear component going forward.
Nuclear power is actually incredibly clean, it’s unbelievably clean. So…
JK Apart the waste that takes million of years…
CV No, no but hang on a minute! Non-uranium, non-uranium.
JK Even if you…
CV Sorry non-uranium.
JK Even if you put aside the safety fears, even if you say they are solvable, you’re talking about fusion which has been promised for how long? This is like going back to Star Trek…
CV It’s coming, it’s coming!
JK We’ll see!
CV If we don’t invest in it we’ll never know, will we?
JK Of course keep the research going. [JK then argues that nuclear hugely slow to build and hugely costly, not economical]
CV It has to stay in the mix. [referring to nuclear]
[Later on CV admits fusion not a proven technology before going back to fact that renewables won't meet needs of 2025 energy crunch.]
[Debate goes back to windfarms on the downs]

Procedure was thrown out the window to suit the Tory/Labour coalition

Last Thursday’s Full Council meeting was an astonishing affair. I tweeted as much as I could of it (to howls of displeasure from the Tory side!) but my daughter’s 4th birthday party over the weekend has prevented me from blogging it until now.

The full agenda can be read online here (and minutes will go on that page too when ready). The webcast of the meeting can be viewed online here.

The main issues of controversy were: questions to councillors, the handling of the report into councillor allowances, the approval of the sustainable communities strategy and finally proposals for transforming meetings of full council.

No debate on councillor allowances

Right at the beginning of the meeting, as we had been told in briefings beforehand, the Conservatives — fully supported by Labour — moved a procedural motion to defer the report of the Independent Remuneration Panel (IRP). The IRP are there to decide the allowances (ie salaries) of councillors in an independent way so we’re not deciding our own paycheques. The IRP had long said they were going to do a fundamental review for this year’s report. While in my view they could have been more radical in the changes they proposed, still the Tory/Labour coalition weren’t happy about it. They claimed a lack of consultation despite the report being discussed by the group leaders and governance committee in the proceeding weeks.

Essentially the panel chose to support backbench councillors with a 1% increase in their allowance, plus slightly more flexible childcare support. To stay cost neutral overall, and to come in line with national guidelines, they recommended cutting additional allowances for the deputy chairs of committees. With a few exceptions this is entirely justified as deputy chairs have little in the way of real extra duties. Apart from one LibDem and one Green – ALL the deputy positions are held by Labour and Tory councillors. So they get more money for few extra responsibilities hence they can spend more time on politics instead of other paying work. In other words it’s rather convenient and supports the Tory/Labour old guard.

Rather than debate this issue before an election, they chose to defer this report. As a result the existing allowances for all these deputy chairs will carry on, against the advice of the panel. Furthermore they wanted a vote to defer without any debate because it’s not really a comfortable issue for them to discuss, especially ahead of an election where expenses and fat cat politicians are a hot topic.

To add insult to injury they deferred the report without using any procedure provided for in the council’s constitution. I pushed and pushed for an explanation for how, procedurally they could do this without a debate. Eventually I was told ‘common law powers’ allowed the Mayor to do this (let us not forget the Mayor is a Conservative councillor married to a Conservative council cabinet member). I wasn’t convinced but Tories & Labour in their cosy coalition voted the deferment through without debate. I think this was an affront to the independent panel’s members and to taxpayers.

This item starts at 7:30 minutes in the webcast.

Questions to Councillors

I didn’t really get any useful answers to my questions. Cllr Geoffrey Theobald astonishingly refused to answer supplementary questions even from a member of the public as well as myself and other councillors. He took it upon himself to ruling they weren’t relevant to the original question and chose not to answer. The Mayor (apparently one of Theobald’s supporters in the Theobald/Mears rivalry which divides the Tory group) was more than happy to back up his personal rulings.

Cllr Dee Simson, in response to a question I raised about disabled access to taxis, claimed credit for an equalities impact assessment being run on our taxi policies. However I understand this only happened after the local Federation of Disabled People threatened legal action under the Disability Discrimination Act. Overall a disappointing questions session.

On the webcast this starts, with the unanswered public question, at 30:30 minutes.

Splitting the Sustainable Community Strategy

This document was up for adoption by the Full Council meeting. It’s drafted by local strategic partnerships so it’s really the product of joint working between a huge number of groups within the city. Extraordinarily, again with no procedural basis under the constitution, the Tories requested and were granted by the Mayor, a split vote on the document.

They wanted to vote on the Transport chapter separately, because they disagreed with some of the policies in it. This was astonishing for so many reasons: Firstly the report is supposed to be taken as a holistic view of improving the city, splitting chapters missed the point of it. Secondly the Tories had not suggested any intention of doing this at any of the pre-meeting briefings or whips’ meeting. Finally Conservative cabinet member Cllr Geoffrey Theobald chairs the Transport Partnership responsible for creating the transport chapter! So a senior Tory was officially responsible for leading its creation and now they wanted to vote against it!

A number of Greens gave passionate speeches including Cllrs Pete West and Ian Davey. Thankfully, in this case, sense prevailed and all the opposition parties outvoted the Tories. But it was really a most bizarre spectacle for the Tories to reject months of partnership work at the last minute.

This in on the webcast from 1hr 25mins.

Opposing Transformation of Full Council Meetings

The webcast probably tells the story better than I can. This whole set of proposals appalled me. It seemed to be to save Councillors and officers the hassle of having to sit through council meetings where dissent and debate could happen. Tory and Labour councillors, being whipped, know the outcomes beforehand and just want to vote on each report and go home. As they chair all but one of all the other council committee meetings, they feel rather comfortable with the state of affairs. They reckon they can have their say in other meetings.

But Full Council meetings are the only meeting where councillors have an absolute right to speak, elsewhere it’s only with the consent of the Chair. I made this and many other points in my speech. Unfortunately they had started the timer before I actually started speaking – in fact it was at 40 seconds before I was underway. Then, with a tiny bit left to finish the Mayor was quick to cut me off. She then tried to incorrectly refused fellow Green councillors’ request to give me a time extension. Many Members, including the Mayor that evening, are under the misapprehension that you need 14 votes to support an extension, but actually the rule is that if there’s no objection the Council is considered to have consented to the extension. I tried to continue but the Mayor managed to rustle up a Tory to object. Which was appallingly undemocratic given it was a speech opposing reductions in speaking times!

I was eventually silenced, despite much protestation I might add! Another Tory wanted to have a vote on excluding me from the chamber for disobeying the Mayor, but I’m grateful that the Mayor chose not to take them up on that offer. Green Cllr Rachel Fryer spoke well in seconding our amendments to remove the worst of these proposals.

Conservative Cllr Brian Oxley, who I personally get on well with, was the main speaker in favour of the proposals. Despite having spoken several times the Mayor let him go on and on with an extension – further highlighting the imbalance of opportunities for free expression in council meetings. Cllr Oxley claimed that cutting speaking times from 10 and 5 minutes (for proposers & other speakers) to 5 and 3 minutes would allow more councillors to speak. But in most cases only a few councillors wish to speak because they are knowledgeable on the matter. I think it would be far better to let a speaker properly develop their argument rather than belt out a few soundbites. But given another proposal was to limit council meetings to only 4 hours, Cllr Oxley’s eye was on hitting that deadline rather than free speech for all councillors.

Sadly none of the Green amendments were passed, though I’m thankful for the LibDem’s support against the Tory/Labour coalition which forced the ‘streamlining’ of meetings through.

This items starts on the webcast from 2hrs 12:40.

Other points

The meeting had to select a single representative to the South Downs National Park Authority. None of the other opposition parties were willing to work with us on this. Furthermore, after having been told speeches would be allowed to promote why each candidate was qualified for the post, the Mayor absolutely would not allow any speeches. This lack of speeches was supported by the other parties, which I think was a great shame. My favourite Cabinet member, Cllr G Theobald, was duly selected as the council’s representative.

All three Notices of Motion proposed that evening were agreed by the council, including two Green ones. The one I proposed on maternity services (but all credit for the motion’s drafting has to go to my seconder Cllr Amy Kennedy and our political assistant Charlie Woodworth) was also supported, though after a bit of debate including attempts by Labour to suggest my working for Netmums prejudiced my involvement with a maternity notion. Pregnancy & birth are discussed on the Times, Mumsnet, the Guardian and hundreds of other media – I really don’t think I could possibly claim a prejudicial interest. If I worked for the NHS or my wife did then yes I would accept such a need to declare an interest – but not for Netmums!

All in all it was a boisterous meeting which once again showed that when it comes to preventing alternative views, Tories & Labour stick together to block us Greens as best they can. But they won’t succeed – trying to gag us only makes us want to fight harder for what we believe in.

UPDATE: I have added timestamps for the webcast so those interested can jump to the correct portion of the video.

Speech: Maternity Services in Brighton & Hove

This speech was presented to the Full Council meeting of Brighton & Hove City Council on 18th March 2010. It was to propose a Green notice of motion on maternity services, which was passed by the meeting:

Amidst much downbeat news on the NHS, it is doubly worth celebrating, as this motion does, the local Primary Care Trust’s plans to introduce a midwife led birthing centre in our city.

For far too long the majority of mothers have had to trek to Crowborough for a midwife led birth or go to the Royal Sussex County hospital for a ‘standard practice’ birth. An increasing number have been wanting to have home births but the resources have not always been available to support this. Furthermore Crowborough birthing centre only has six beds – so the choice has not been a reality for many families.

Of course good, trouble-free births do happen every week at hospitals. I support the good work our local hospital does, this motion is about offering families meaningful choices.

For so-called “normal” pregnancies home and birthing centre births are just as safe, if not safer than the hospital environment. For it is in hospitals, where birth still tends to be overly medicalised, that unnecessary interventions with unintended side-effects still happen too often.

Much obstetrician thinking is still too male dominated. Doctors tend to treat birth as something that happens to a women, in the way disease happens to someone, rather than an incredible thing that women do and have been doing for millennia.

We celebrate the advances in medicine which have dramatically reduced childbirth mortality rates. But traumatic births, due to inconsiderate and inappropriate medical interventions, should be avoided wherever possible. For the trauma of a difficult birth has lasting physical and psychological impacts on mother and child, hence their partners and surrounding family too.

Women being offered epidurals, “because the anaesthetist is around now”, being strapped to monitors which restrict their movement in the critical stages of labour and being given epistomies because mums are made to deliver lying in that most unnatural position, on their backs. These are all examples of unnecessary interventions which still happen in NHS hospitals. These are actions which have a lasting impact on the wellbeing of mothers.   Medical interventions often require additional recovery and healing, hindering mothers from caring for their children in those precious early days.

Such interventions are extremely rare in midwife led-birthing centres. Midwifes have a different, more nurturing model of birth which trusts women in their ability to deliver safely and naturally. Of course they have the training and skills to deal with the complications which can occur, but most births can and do proceed without major intervention.

Birth is a life changing moment for all concerned. The mother in a state of anxiety, pain and intense physical vulnerability and the father trying to make himself useful in one way or another. A midwife is in a unique position of experience and skill to empathise with and support the expectant family.

When my wife was expecting a few short years ago, we started off with different midwives at each checkup. After a few months we were fortunate enough to be assigned to one midwife who stayed with us until a week after the birth. However for the birth itself, none of the midwives or other staff were known to us. This made a difficult situation that much more stressful. A familiar face would have made a world of a difference.

The NHS need to find a way to resource greater continuity of maternity care. This also applies to post-natal care. Midwives generally stop seeing a mother 5 to 10 days after birth. Health visitors pick up the baton from there, yet they are suffering from increasing caseloads where 70% of health visitors in one survey saying that they didn’t have time, due to their caseloads, to help even the families that are most in need. The number of health visitor home visits are in decline as are the number of clinics they run.

This leads to an increased risk that child development problems and post natal depression are less likely to be picked up. Unless parents are proactive in accessing services, they are likely to get only very occasional visits backed by postal surveys. This isn’t enough to form the bond needed to spot problems in the early days of parenting.

A good relationship with a midwife and then health visitor is vital. These are tender, challenging, vulnerable times. For the mother who wants to discuss problems she may be experiencing, for example the physical after-effects of giving birth or during breastfeeding, there must be a level of trust and understanding for them to share these concerns.

That’s why this notice of motion calls on the PCT and the Health Secretary to support greater midwife provision and post natal care. Offering counselling after a traumatic birth received near unanimous support in the PCT’s survey. Such counselling can prove vital in speeding psychological recovery. There is plenty of evidence that when not dealt with birth trauma can have an impact for years, on the mother and her relationship with those around her.

Let’s work to try and eliminate as many unnecessary birth traumas as possible, but where they do happen, let’s support parents with the best services we possibly can.

I urge you to support this motion. Thank you.

Speech: Opposing proposals to transform council meetings

Presented to the Full Council meeting of Brighton & Hove City Council on 18th March 2010 in relation to Item 68 of the agenda which aimed to dramatically cut the amount of time for councillors to speak and ask questions:

Sat together this evening in this chamber, we 54 councillors represent the over quarter million residents of our wonderful city. They have entrusted in us the great responsibility of the stewardship of the city and its public services. It is a duty we must undertake with humility, dedication and honour.

When seeing the proposals before us to restrict debates, limit member questions and guillotine meetings; one must ask — is the duty of public service too great for some? Are eight meetings of this council a year too many? Are a few long meetings too much to take when debating this city’s wellbeing?

The proposals suggest four hours is the most we should endure in a council meeting. That equates to less than half a second for each resident of this city. Is that really the most we can offer? On this side of the chamber we feel matters should be debated fully and properly.

I believe the sterile, unopposed cabinet system is seeping too far into this Council’s constitution. Despite their very public wailing and gnashing of teeth, Labour and Tory councillors forced through the new cabinet system. Now full council meetings are the only forum in which members have an absolute right to speak. At every other meeting we can only speak with the chair’s permission, leaving full council the last preserve of free debate between members. Yet these proposals, which both Labour and Tories are reportedly happy to wave through, further reduce the opportunity for dissent and debate.

We are not clerks trying to speed up some repetitious process. We are democratically elected representatives. We follow in a long line stretching all the way back to the elected senators of ancient Athens where discourse was a thing of note. I believe we should aspire to greatness in this chamber instead of this appalling streamlining.

Let us examine the report presenting these unwelcome proposals. We must first reject the notion that more motions or more questions are inherently something to be avoided, in my view they reflect a healthy interest in the workings of the council.

I must say the appendices are deeply misleading and unhelpful. They cite no councils with our status of no overall control, nor our diversity of elected parties. For example Westminster City Council is overwhelmingly Conservative, with a few Labour councillors and no other parties. Southampton: Again Conservative majority with two other parties. Same again for West Sussex.

If one looks in appendix 2 at the number of notices of motion per council meeting, it is notable that we seem to be unique in having so many of our scant meetings taken up with special business which blocks such motions, these meetings include the budget and the mayor making. Greens strongly feel that the most sensible way to spread the load would be to have more full council meetings. This is especially vital given they are the only place where we can all debate issues freely.

Cllr Fryer will speak to our amendment 6. We are withdrawing amendment 5 as officer clarification has shown it to be unnecessary. I shall address the remainder now in reverse order.

Given the importance of freedom of expression we oppose the reduction in speaking times and propose an amendment accordingly. We must allow ourselves 10 minutes to develop an argument properly, anything less is only going lead to a poorer quality of debate.

Similarly, capping the number of notices of motion allowed merely acts to limit our freedom of speech. It is impossible to know which issues will arise and sometimes two motions won’t be enough to deal with the matters at hand. Opposition councillors have scant opportunities to formally seek support for issues they consider important, we must defend this avenue hence our amendment on this issue.

On the matter of questions, an issue dear to my heart, the picture is more mixed. I welcome the opportunity for a system of written questions akin to that used in Parliament. However, the proposed oral questions procedure is half baked. Limiting members to only one oral question each, plus a supplementary, will block comprehensive attempts in holding an administration to account.

Members each have their own areas of expertise and ward interests. At certain times, say of industrial action or a heat wave, their knowledge in asking pointed questions is valuable to the whole council and residents in getting to the bottom of an issue.

If the concern is about the time questions take, perhaps the Conservatives would pledge to stop asking pre-arranged questions of each other? This offer has not been forthcoming; so again we propose amendments to the recommendations on member questions.

Finally with regards to automatically closing meetings after 4 hours. As I mentioned, I don’t believe a few long council meetings a year is too much for our residents to ask of us. And of course the meetings continue to have rule 17 to allow a closure motion if absolutely necessary. Automatic closure is unnecessary and undemocratic in our view.

All these items come back to the question of what are we here in this chamber for: Is it for the efficient despatch of business or to properly deliberate matters on behalf of residents? We believe it is the latter and this requires a decent amount of time.

Who of us here tonight hasn’t referred to one of Churchill’s great speeches or bemoaned the increasing focus on soundbite politics? Yet if these proposals go through there will be no time for Churchillian speechifying, all we will have time for will be the soundbites most claim to decry. If these proposals are approved, we will be doing a huge disservice to ourselves and those we are elected to represent.

I urge you to reconsider this matter and support the Green amendments. Thank you.

GREEN GROUP AMENDMENTS

ITEM 68 – Proposals for Transforming Meetings of Full Council

Council Meeting 18th March 2010

Amendment 1.

To remove the automatic closure of council meetings after 4 hours, ensuring matters of importance to the city are fully debated.

DELETE 4.3 and REPLACE with “4.3 Members should note that a meeting can be closed by use of Council Procedure Rule 17.”

Amendment 2.

To remove arbitrary limits from member questions so that issues can be fully explored and administration Councillors can be properly held to account.

DELETE 5.4 (a) and DELETE the final sentence of 5.4 (d) so that it reads:

“5.4 (d) A Member asking a question (but not others) may ask one supplementary. No Member may ask more than one question.”

Amendment 3.

To remove the proposed limit in the number of Notices of Motions that can be submitted, thus keeping freedom of expression for all Councillors.

DELETE 6.2 (i) and (ii) and REPLACE with “6.2 Members should keep in mind the length of Council meetings when submitting Notices of Motion.”

Amendment 4.

To retain existing time limits for speakers at Council meetings to allow proper debate.

REPLACE 8.2 (i) with “8.2 (i) Speaking time limits will remain unchanged at 10 minutes for proposers and 5 minutes for other speakers.”

Amendment 5. [WITHDRAWN]

To require cross-party support for second extensions for speakers so that the administration party cannot keep voting extensions for their speakers.

ADD 8.2 (iii) “Second extensions of speaker time will only be granted with the agreement of the Council including at least one member of another political party or an independent member.”

Amendment 6.

To split the mayor-making from the standard business of the annual Council meeting so that debate can be held on appointments and other business.

ADD a new recommendation 2.2 (iv):

“The annual Council meeting will be held in two parts. The ordinary business including agreement of leadership, committee and external appointments will be held first. After a 15 minute break during which guests can be seated, the Mayor-making will commence.”

Proposed by: Cllr Jason Kitcat

Seconded by: Cllr Rachel Fryer

This evening’s budget council meeting let the city’s residents down

Tonight was the night for the full council to decide the budget for the next year. The opposition parties could, if they had worked together, have amended the Tory budget to remove the harshest cuts and reallocate spending. I will copy the detail of the Green amendments below so you can get a flavour of the cuts we wanted to reverse, and the ideas we proposed. I’m disappointed that other than £10k for piloting digital tools for older people with Age Concern, none of our proposals went through. One of the LibDem amendments to go through, providing energy meters on loan in libraries, is something I first suggested over two years ago but didn’t think to include in this budget, so I’m glad they picked it up and go it in.

But the whole process is what I want to reflect on here. Firstly, and I welcome this, the Tory administration published a first draft budget much earlier in the year. This was very helpful and for the first time the scrutiny committees got to meet and discuss the budget. As a result of this and other feedback a number of proposed cuts, such as to the History Centre and respite care, were rolled back way ahead of the budget meeting.

Meanwhile the Green group of councillors were working up a range of amendments with our own ideas and priorities. Fully aware of the potential of joint opposition working, we for months were approaching the opposition parties trying to initiate a collaborative approach. They kept delaying meetings or asking us to wait for their amendments to be ready. Two weeks ago we put forward a suggested set of joint amendments. Labour refused saying they would continue with how they have worked on previous budgets: That is submitting a set of their own amendments without reference to what the other groups were doing.

The problem is, you can’t spend the same money twice. So without jointly figuring out what our various priorities were and how we could fit them together into a balanced budget, it was going to be difficult to make successful amendments to the Tory budget work.

The Council’s Chief Executive also called a number of Leaders’ Group meetings (where the leaders of the political groups on the council get together with lead officers) ahead of the budget meeting to try and broker some deals. Other than offering, at the last minute today, less than £80k to support a few minor opposition amendments, no deals were forthcoming.

Whilst the amendments Labour submitted weren’t as good (in our Green view) as our own, they still undid many of the worst Tory cuts. So Greens were willing to support them in the hope of getting a less bad budget for the city. Labour refused to support our amendments, even ones similar to their own. The two Liberal Democrat councillors sat on their hands on votes for many opposition amendments, even when we supported Labour amendments. With the Independent councillor supporting the Tories, without LibDem votes the Labour amendments fell.

So the only opportunities to prevent the cuts passed by. The meeting ended with the budget passing after Greens were the only party to vote against the Tory budget full of cuts and frankly bizarre capital spending priorities. As councillors buzzed around at the end, it became clear to us that Labour had asked the LibDems not to support their own amendments! This ensured their amendments would not be carried. Deals clearly had been done with the Tories to support the status quo and stop the Greens from getting too much influence. So to be absolutely clear about this — while Labour pretended to amend the budget, from what I overheard they had already made sure their amendments could not succeed by getting LibDems to not vote in favour of them. Alternatively the Tories did deals with both of them directly. How else could ‘progressive’ parties fail to stop cuts to critical budgets such as social care?

The cynical political plotting by the parties has left the city with a worse budget than it needed be. It’s sorely disappointing. Meanwhile the debate suffered from mostly being based on fighting battles from the eighties or silly point scoring about national outcomes after the general election. The two amendments I’d been championing around food and garden waste were opposed for the most spurious reasons. Labour claimed home composting would suffer with a green waste collection, yet clearly many households are never going to be able to home compost plus much garden waste isn’t compostable without being chipped. On food waste the irrelevant spectre of fortnightly collections (which Tories are terrified of) reared its head when in the city centre communal bins are emptied almost daily!

The current political culture in our city council is excessively plotting, bitter, cynical and does not serve the best interests of this city’s residents. I wish I could think of suggestions on how to improve the chances of joint working. But we Greens spent weeks and weeks trying to get engagement from other parties without any clear interest from the others. If they’re going to do deals for their own personal benefit (perhaps Official Opposition status again next year which brings with it large additional allowances for several councillors) ahead of what’s best for the city, I really don’t know what to suggest.

I’d love to offer an alternative analysis but I feel we saw the worst of the councillors tonight. And once again, divisions on the left of the political spectrum let the right win through.

Green Group Amendments

(I don’t have a digital copy yet, the full details will be published on the council website soon enough, so I’ll just type out the rough basics of our proposals)

  • £10k to fund 50% of an Age Concern worker to develop a WiredAge pilot project involving older people with online tools.
  • £150k to fund up to 900 families in lower council tax bands getting home insulation
  • £25k for an additional noise patrol shift per week
  • £180k to fund enhanced sustainability measures at each of the 9 secondary schools in the city (£20k each)
  • £69k to temporarily increase the discretionary grants budget this year
  • A cost neutral green waste collection service paid for by participating residents. Estimated cost for residents of £90 per annum based on 4,000 participants.
  • £100k to re-start Valley Gardens transport project – feasibility & design work.
  • £150k one-off transfer to the winter maintenance reserve.
  • Reverse £126k cut to Youth Offending Service.
  • Reverse £137k of £332k cuts to home to school transport budget.
  • Reverse £137k of £300k cuts to adult social care services commissioning cuts.
  • Remove £100k annual increase in winter maintenance budget.
  • Reduce the budget for mowing grass verges by £100k.
  • £40k to fund a detailed study in to running a viable food waste collection trial.
  • £20k to fund a travel plan for Varndean, Stringer & Balfour campus.
  • £490k to bring around 15 empty council properties into use.
  • Reduce the seafront maintenance budget by £50k.
  • Remove £500k for the new transport model (which has no business case to support the £1m cost over its 5 year life).
  • Change resident parking permits to base the cost on CO2 emissions of the vehicle, raising £240k in the first year and £490k in later years.
  • £32k to improve downland management through collection & composting on priority downland areas and bringing forward sheep grazing.
  • Reverse £208k of the £410k cut in Adult Social Care relating to personal budgets.

Brighton Pavilion: A graphing battleground

Which graph do you think best describes the chances of parties in the fight for Brighton Pavilion constituency? The most recent election, poll or perhaps the last general election in the constituency? In their attempts to woo voters both Labour’s Nancy Platts and Conservative Charlotte Vere are making some interesting choices with their graphs.

Why do election graphs even matter? Because our perverse electoral system means you just need a majority of one vote to win the seat. Many people don’t want to see their votes get wasted by voting for third or fourth parties who don’t have a chance of winning. So we have tactical voting – people voting for the least worst winnable option in their opinion. As a result all the parties vie to show how good their chances of winning really are.

Personally I think you’re only as good as your last electoral test. Yes different voting systems and types of election will influence how people vote – for example, UKIP do vastly better in Euro than local elections. However, for the same place, each election does build a picture of the relative strengths of local parties.

So let’s look at the tale of Brighton & Hove Green Party’s support in the Brighton Pavilion constituency. In 2005, when all the parties had different leaders (Blair, Howard, Kennedy and Greens yet to elect their first leader) and Brighton Pavilion had a different boundary, Keith Taylor brought home a record 22% of the vote for the Greens.

2005 General Election result, Brighton Pavilion

The May 2007 council elections saw us just beat the Tories into first place across the constituency. The December 2007 by-election in Regency ward (which elected me to the council) saw the gap between Greens and other parties widen dramatically. This was repeated in the 2009 Goldsmid by-election, but as it falls outside of Brighton Pavilion is not included here.

May 2007 Council Election results, Brighton Pavilion
December 2007, Regency council by-election result

Next we saw the June 2009 European Elections. Unfortunately we don’t have constituency-level results for these but city-wide Greens came top, beating all the parties for the first time, a feat we repeated in several other cities across the country.

June 2009 European Elections, Brighton & Hove city-wide result

Finally in December 2009 the Green Party commission an ICM poll which showed the same pattern once again – Greens in the lead followed by Tories then Labour.

December 2009 ICM Poll Result, Brighton Pavilion

Some have criticised the poll result – yes it was commissioned by the Green Party – but ICM are a member of the British Polling Council and so are bound by its standards. It’s not like they bucked the trend – the graphs above show results have been pointing in this direction for quite some time. Furthermore the new boundary for Brighton Pavilion includes all of Hanover & Elm Grove ward, which is represented by three Green councillors and has had a strong Green vote for a very long time indeed.

All this to say that the electoral statistics are not easy to address for Caroline Lucas‘ opponents. Still it’s interesting to observe how they handle the challenge. Labour’s Nancy Platts goes for ignoring 5 years of history and suggesting that a Green vote will let the Tories in.

Graph of 2005 General Election result in a 2010 Labour leaflet from Nancy Platts
2005 Election Results, from Nancy Platts' website

This is Nancy’s only option, the most recent graph which shows Labour ahead in the constituency. Sadly, if anything, thanks to our electoral system a Labour vote is likely to let the Tories in this time around. Labour have been trying the old ‘Green vote lets the Tories in’ trick for years in Brighton & Hove, I think people are pretty sick of being told something which evidently hasn’t been held out in recent elections.

(On a side note in writing this post I’ve noticed that different online sources cite the 2005 Green result as either 21.9% or 22.0% — it’s not just a rounding issue, the actual voter numbers differ e.g. BBC vs UK Polling Report. Not a massive difference but just wanted to flag up that I’m aware of it.)

Charlotte Vere treads a rather unusual path with her graphs. First this gem from her most recent leaflet:

2005 General Election result, from 2010 Charlotte Vere leaflet

My scanner may not be the best in the world, but the graph really is that jagged and blocky on the leaflet itself! Notice anything missing from the graph? Yes – Green and LibDem votes! In my view, it really is an extraordinarily misleading graph.

The same leaflet also includes a graph showing remarkable levels of support for the Conservatives:

Pulse GP poll, from 2010 Charlotte Vere leaflet

Pulse, a news rag for GPs, conducted a poll of some of their readers. I’m told by GP friends that the paper is heavily funded by pharmaceutical companies and isn’t considered much of a serious news-source. Regardless, given that most GPs are well into the top tax bracket it’s no surprise they support Tories. But unless there has been a rush of GPs moving to live into Brighton Pavilion, this poll is unrepresentative and bears no relation to what’s happening in the constituency. Is it there for any reason other than to mislead?

While we continue to suffer under our simplistic, winner-takes-all electoral system I’m afraid these kinds of graphing horrors are likely to continue. Whoever people finally cast their vote for, I hope they do so informed by facts and not the graphing skills of the local Labour or Tory activists.

UPDATE: Of course all this talk backed by GP polls from the Tories about being the party of the NHS is deeply misleading as they’re planning to break it up into further private ‘marketisation’ so when they say ‘NHS’ they mean something completely different to what most people understand – more info

Preston Street: Ready for Regeneration

Preston Street needs help. Working with the traders association, chaired by Angelo Martinoli, we’ve tried petitions, meeting with cabinet members and their officers as well as press work in The Argus. Progress has been minimal I’m afraid, other than a few minor tweaks here and there and one vacant shop now with council-provided boarding.

This video highlights some of what the street is going through – I had to cut many other examples and comments from traders to keep it a reasonable length. The main three issues I hear again and again are:

  • The need for something like the i360 tower development to come forward to bring more people into the area;
  • Improved street-scape as the current setup is unattractive, riddled with double-parking and unworkable — ideally pedestrianisation or shared-space as on New Road is needed;
  • The recognition that many tourists drive to Brighton but parking fees discourage people staying in that part of town when other car parks elsewhere are cheaper.

As a Green, parking is a tricky one for me, but I don’t like waste and the council’s Regency Square car park currently stands mostly empty every day. Since this film was made the council have approved new 1 hour and fixed evening fees for Regency Square (before 2 hours was the minimum charge). These are yet to have been implemented and were brought forward without any consultation or discussion beyond the initial petitions I presented flagging up the poor use of the car park.

We’ll be sending this video to key decision-makers in the council. Please do support Preston Street and if you have any comments or ideas get in touch.

Speech: Responding to GP-led clinic scrutiny report

I presented this speech in response to a scrutiny panel report I contributed to being presented to full council 28th January 2010. Nobody answered my question at the end of the speech:

I would like to thank Cllr Denise Cobb who was chair of HOSC at the time for agreeing to create this panel after several months of questions on these matters by myself and other members.

I also thank the panel Chair Cllr Alford for his very even handed and co-operative working, as well as Cllr Allen, with whom it always a pleasure to serve with. My thanks to our officer Giles Rossington for his excellent support. I do commend this report to members.

This report is very timely given the continued pressure to further privatise parts of the NHS and package public services off to private businesses.

The panel’s concerns over the tender process favouring larger corporations should trigger alarm bells for all those worried about the future of the NHS. Similarly how such changes are consulted upon with the public was cause for concern with the panel and continue to be a public issue of importance.

These private contracts are riven with problems. The President of the British Orthopaedic Association recently wrote to The Times highlighting grave concerns over their quality control and service levels. A study of one private treatment centre found two third of operations showed poor technique and that after 3 years 18% needed revision operations compared to a 0.9% NHS-wide rate.

Cataract operations at a private treatment centre in Oxfordshire have cost up to 600% over the odds and performed only 93 of 572 contracted procedures for half a year. Meanwhile eye operations in a private contract treatment centre in Portsmouth have cost seven times more than they would on the NHS.

Health service experts the King’s Fund argue these contracts are a drain on Primary Care Trust finances. At a 2008 HOSC meeting a clinician from Brighton & Sussex University Hospitals Trust admitted that the private orthopaedic procedures alone were costing them £2-3 million a year.

The chosen contractor for Brighton’s clinic, Care UK, do have serious ongoing questions over their ability to provide consistent high quality care in our area as well as the rest of the country. In spite… or perhaps because of this… their annual healthcare profit has been in double digit growth for years, including 44% growth in profit for 2009.

Clearly the Conservative Party want more of this kind of privatisation when their 2010 health manifesto states that they aim:

“To give patients even more choice, we will open up the NHS to include new independent and voluntary sector providers…”

We recently learnt that the chairman of Care UK and his wife are giving tens of thousands to fund the Conservative shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley’s office.

So, the question I must ask the Conservative group is…. Is this the kind of privatising corporate ‘greed is good’ politics we can expect if David Cameron wins the general election?