Tag Archives: localgov

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.

Peter James and the Mobile Library

Online and on paper there are some references today to renown local author Peter James’ views on the mobile library. What isn’t explained in reports is how he acknowledged the Green administration’s arguments. Last week Peter wrote to Cllr Geoffrey Bowden, chair of the Economic Development & Culture Committee, on the subject of the mobile library. Geoffrey is responsible for the library service amongst many other things. With his permission, and Peter’s too, I publish below their email conversation which speaks for itself…

 

On 14/02/2013 05:49, Peter James wrote:

Dear Mr Bowden

I understand that there will be a debate about the Mobile Library today.

Both as a local author and in my capacity as Chair of the Crime Writer Association, I write to you to implore you, from the bottom of my heart, to please look favourably on saving this valuable part of our library network.

If it had not been for the libraries, when I was a child growning up in Brighton, I don’t think I would ever have become a writer, for was in those that I discovered my love of books.

In today’s harsh economic times, fewer and fewer people are able to afford book, and libraries are their lifeline. The mobile serves so many people, including the elderly and equally importantly youngsters with decreasing access to books, as more and more high street bookstores close.

I think that a city like ours really must support literature in every possible way. I know resources are stretched, but the cost of this service is very small in the overall scheme of things, and what it brings to the community is something quite priceless.

All my best

Peter

————
Peter James (Hons) D.Litt

 
On 14 Feb 2013, at 09:32, Geoffrey Bowden wrote:

Dear Peter

Many thanks for taking the trouble to write to me. Like you I am a great fan of mobile libraries, but there are some rather steep costs involved in keeping one on the road. We have been exploring all kinds of ways to achieve this but, in the end, have been forced to concede that it is simply not possible.

Here are some facts which will provide you with some of the background to the reluctant decision to end the service.

  • the current vehicle is coming to the end of its natural life and is getting more and more expensive to maintain
  • a new vehicle will cost £125,000 to purchase
  • the annual running costs exceed £80,000
  • Less than 800 people are currently registered to use the mobile library
  • 78% of the current users are also registered at and also use one of the static libraries near to their homes
  • 98% of the population live within a mile and a half of one of our static libraries, which are well served by buses and contain far more books
  • one of the possible options we examined to keeping the mobile on the road was to find a partner with whom to run it. No one in the voluntary sector or other public services (police, NHS or fire services) were interested or had the funds available either
  • at one point capital was identified to purchase a new vehicle, but with running costs taken into account, it would only have been possible to run a reduced service for three days a week stopping off at only the most popular locations. This would not have passed any independent value-for-money test (a test required for such expenditure) so was therefore voted down by the Policy & Resources committee which has ultimate sanction of expenditure over the £50,000 level
  • the mobile is therefore being replaced by a home delivery service, which has been particularly welcomed by the truly housebound, who are currently excluded even from visiting the mobile library. 500 people have already been identified for this service and they will now be given access to up to 500,000 books (instead of the very limited number held on the mobile) via laptops and tablets taken to their homes by volunteers and a dedicated member of staff, who will guide them through the online book ordering process. The books will then be delivered and taken away once read

We live in extremely difficult financial circumstances and if the Government was not stripping out £30 million from the council’s grant and restricting us raising money via the Council Tax to pay for all vital services, we would be able to contemplate purchasing a new vehicle and keeping it on the road six days a week. Sadly that isn’t the economic situation in which we find ourselves.

The upside of this otherwise sad tale is that, unlike Labour and Conservative run councils throughout the country who are closing down libraries wholesale, having long abandoned their mobiles, the Green administration has managed for a second year running to keep all its static libraries open. In fact we are about to build a new one in Woodingdean (replacing a 50 year old temporary Nissen hut with a state of the art library and medical centre).

I am sorry this is not the answer you hoped for, but sometimes we are forced into making tough decisions and this, sadly, is one of them.

With best wishes
Geoffrey
Cllr Geoffrey Bowden
Green Party Councillor Queen’s Park Ward
Chair, Economic Development and Culture Committee

 
On 14/02/2013 10:44, Peter James wrote:

Dear Geoffrey

I really appreciate your taking the time and trouble to respond in such detail, thank you very much.

Certainly your points and argument here make sense, and it is at least encouraging to know about the home delivery service.

Meantime on a very positive note, you do all have to be congratulated on keeping the static libraries open, and it is extremely good news to hear about Woodingdean.

All my best and again, thank you for such a reasoned and thorough explanation.

Peter
—————-

Peter James (Hons) D.Litt

Reject the Benefit Cap

Due to lack of time, we didn’t get to debate my motion on the Benefit Cap during January’s council meeting. It was passed in a quick vote, which was excellent news, though the Tory councillors didn’t support it.

I’d like to just put down some of the points I had hoped to make in the debate.

I had noticed in the last fortnight the government has announced tens of billions of spending on arms, submarines, jets and aircraft carriers.

Which really raised the question “What kind of society do we want to live in?”

The Tory vision where we have people going hungry and cold in our country, and shameful levels of child poverty.

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

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.

In Brighton & Hove we estimate, on the latest data, that 300 families will be so badly hit by this that they will most likely be made homeless. The Department for Work and Pensions confirm that councils will be responsible for housing these families at a cost of £1.1m a year to our city council. The coalition cabinet has agreed that new burdens on councils must be funded.

Yet we hear silence from government when we ask how this will be funded… there will be no saving to the public purse from this awful policy. Councils, already with squeeze budgets, will be left to pick up the pieces.

The result will be hurt, heartache and homelessness for struggling families.

I strongly oppose this cap and hope sense will be seen in time. Failing that it is unacceptable for yet another cost to be thrown on councils whilst government cynically claim they are saving money off the backs of the poorest through this policy.

In every sense – financial, policy and moral – this cap offers nothing good for our city.

A lasting contribution to our city’s future

January’s full council meeting was busy, as usual. But one item in particular stood out: Agreeing the City Plan, the twenty year vision for the city’s development. A once in a generation decision.

The plan, a huge collective piece of work by all parts of the council and partners, sets out the thinking for how all future development, whether offices, schools, homes or business space, will be planned and where.

Three years ago the previous Conservative administration had made an abortive attempt to pass a plan. It attracted hundreds of amendments from both Green and Labour councillors and was rejected by the government inspector before formal examination had even begun.

Now with a Green administration in place we took a fresh, far more inclusive approach. The plan had support from a very wide selection of environmental, business and other organisations in the city. As a result the new Green City Plan only saw very minor opposition amendments included, which did not change the fundamental policies we had proposed. What has now been submitted to the government inspectors is a robust strategy which balances the intense needs for housing and employment on limited land.

Critically the whole plan is built on the One Planet Living principles and enshrines high standards of sustainability. Meanwhile changes have been put in place to increase the amount of affordable housing that will be built, improved transport connections and allocations for new schools.

Every development proposals that comes forward from now until 2030 will be judged against this plan, ensuring that they will be built to Green ambitions. It’s a great, lasting Green contribution to our city’s future.

Interview with Association of Green Councillors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

> And what have you found most challenging?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ENDS]

 

The draft Green budget for 2013/14 – protecting essential services

This week we have published our draft council budget proposals for 2013/14. Despite almost weekly changes from Government, we are continuing with our ‘open book’ approach and have published the bulk of our plans now – much earlier than previous administrations have done.

This will enable an extensive period of public consultation, including a council scrutiny process involving representatives from all parties, the community & voluntary sector and the business community. Last year our budget was all the better for this extensive input, and I’m confident that our commitment to openness will pay dividends again this year. You can find out about ways to influence the budget at http://www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/bhbudget

This year the Coalition government have continued their increasingly harmful austerity measures, targeting local government more than ever. While Whitehall have reduced their budgets by 8%, councils have already reduced spending by 28%. Delivering around 800 services, more often than not it is the council that gets new homes and classrooms built, supports local business innovation and improves quality of life through transport, public health and planning. Despite experts lining up to tell government that wildly cutting council resources only damages our local economies and local services, the government is refusing to listen.

We are seeking a 2% council tax increase, which is below inflation and will cost 43p more a week for the average household in the city. This will help offset 10% of the government cuts. This funding is particularly important as we are committed to offsetting as much as possible of the government cuts to council tax benefit. In Brighton & Hove, we have put set aside over £1.5m to support those least able to pay while capping the amount anyone will have to pay to no more than £3 per week. By definition this discount supports those on the lowest incomes in our city, and it’s important that we keep protect those

However government announcements in recent months have taken a further £10m from the city than we had expected when work started on the 2013/14 budget in June.

Thankfully our introduction of a 2-year budgeting process and the forward-planning it encouraged, meant we could bring forward some proposals from 2014/15 to help meet this growing challenge. We also are on track to deliver a significant underspend for the second year running, because of our excellent officers and our commitment to managing every penny spent carefully.

As a result we have been able to protect all branch libraries and children’s centres for another year, despite Coalition austerity measures. We have set aside £100k to provide business rate incentives for the kind of firms we want to attract to our city. We’ve identified £300k of funding to support third sector finance advice services that are seeing demand skyrocket due to welfare cuts. By investing in these services we know we are preventing bigger problems in the future for those struggling to make ends meet, whilst also supporting valuable third sector organisations in our city.

We are working hard to find new ways of bringing external money to the city, such as the commercial deal with the i360 where a loan from the national Public Works Loans Board will generate income for the council.

We will maintain a significant investment in transport improvements, including a pilot scheme to control verge parking, and a new, more accurate real time bus information service. Thanks to our clear commitment, we are attracting significant external funding to make our own money go further.

This is a digital, creative city, which hosts an incredible range of businesses and research, We will be investing in the digital infrastructure needed to keep us  at the cutting edge of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Our city has had a raw deal from government, but we’re committed to doing as much as possible to protect services for the benefit of everyone who needs them. I believe the draft budget sets our council on the right course for reducing our spending while delivering for our city.

UPDATE:

Some handy links for finding out more on the draft budget proposals…