Tag Archives: politics

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]

 

A progressive majority in 2015?

Yesterday was a significant day in politics for many reasons. The most reported reason was the awful passing of the welfare bill which caps benefit rises to 1% for three years, well below inflation. So in real-terms working-age people are having cuts in their benefits imposed. This is on top of the other cuts they will be experiencing to services, to council tax benefit, the total household cap on benefits and so on.

 

It is an attack on the poorest and only furthers the snide false idea that somehow those on benefits are luxuriating at home whilst others work hard. Sadly, as the numbers are in Parliament now, the bill was always going to pass. Caroline Lucas, some LibDem rebels and Labour did vote against the bill. But, as the Economist said in relation to their vote on the EU budget position, Labour are playing a dangerous and cynical game. They knew this bill was going to pass and they’ve ruled out repealing it should they win in 2015. So their vote against the bill last night was a hollow gesture. Only more so when one hears that they are willing to accept the government’s (diminishing) spending envelope for welfare but debate the priorities within it. In other words, Labour too would be cutting benefits but just in ways they don’t want to specify until after an election. This is similar to their admission they too would cut local government funding in government but won’t be drawn on the detail.

 

At times like this I find Labour’s cynicism breathtaking. I also find myself incredibly disappointed when I know so many Labour councillors around the country do not support the positions of their national leadership. Perhaps against reason and experience, I hope for better from the Parliamentary Labour Party.

 

The country desperately needs a progressive majority at the next election to reverse the damage of the Coalition government. It’s a political reality that this would absolutely have to include Labour. Indeed a progressive coalition’s formation could well pull the current Labour leadership back towards their more progressive roots.

 

So on to another reason yesterday was politically significant: The Labour Party published a list of their target parliamentary seats. This publication was telling as it seemed to completely ignore the electoral reality that the share of votes going to Labour and Conservatives has been in consistent decline for decades. Membership of those parties has also been in long-term decline. Mirroring politics in much of Europe, the British are now voting for a greater diversity of parties. This appears to be an irreversible trend which Labour utterly ignore by suggesting that they alone, despite their dire finances, are going to win a complete majority in the next Parliament.

 

Major groups like Compass recognise the need for a progressive majority which is why they have opened their membership beyond Labour to anyone with progressive (‘democratic left’ they call it) values.

 

Recall that in 2010 Labour lost all their parliamentary seats in Sussex, indeed they were almost completely wiped out in the entire region. Yet their list targets all three parliamentary seats in the city and more beyond.

 

In 2010 it was quite plain that Labour could have retained at least one seat in Brighton & Hove if they had targeted their resources instead of trying to hold all three seats. I can understand choosing which seat to target may have been difficult to decide on within the local party. But now they face a clean sheet. The Green Party is going to throw everything we have at Brighton Pavilion, our flagship constituency with Caroline Lucas as our superb MP. Labour could well risk spending huge resources across all three seats again without the results they are hoping for at the end of it.

 

We have a progressive majority in our city. The vast majority of our residents do not support the Coalition parties and their policies. We see this in election results time and again. However they don’t always get the MPs or councillors they hope for because of our electoral system, uncertainty over how to vote tactically and party tribalism.

 

All progressives in the city should be seeking to oust Conservative MPs in 2015. This will only be achievable locally, and nationally, through a broader electoral effort than just the Labour party. Greens, Trade Unionists, disaffected LibDems and more all have a role to play in ensuring progressive MPs are elected. Labour’s announcement yesterday was very ‘old politics’ and does the city no service in trying to reject the coalition’s policies. I hope other political leaders locally will join with me in seeking a progressive majority for the city in the 2015 elections, and avoid reverting to party tribalism.

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…

The Very Existence of Local Government Hangs in the Balance

This blog is loosely based on comments I made to the Local Government Association’s Independent Group Annual Conference on 22nd October 2012.

As Leader of the first and only Green-led council I am perhaps more free to speak to other council leaders than some other leaders. Time and again I find common ground with them in lamenting Whitehall’s controlling approach to local government. None welcome resources being stripped away in haphazard and sudden ways which make long term planning incredibly difficult.

For example, government announcements over the past few weeks have dragged Brighton & Hove’s expected budget gap for 2013/14 down by approximately another £10 million. Yet we can’t be exactly sure until late December, when we hope for exact figures from government departments.

What’s striking is that while councillors and the Local Government Association can find so much common ground, this is rarely reflected in the actions of those in Westminster and Whitehall. I believe that never before has the gulf between local and central government thinking grown so wide. Something is seriously wrong when councillors, who make up the key activist ranks of all political parties, are being so often ignored by their national political leaderships.

The sorry consensus between Osborne and Balls, Milliband and Cameron is that cuts to local government will continue into the next Parliament. This is despite councils already having been cut far more than other parts of government, 28% cut from councils whilst just 8% from Whitehall by some estimates. Furthermore the LGA’s “graph of doom” clearly shows that council resources for doing anything beyond social care will be gone in a matter of years.

We are in a fight for the future of local government, the very existence of local councils hangs in the balance. No major party has explicitly stated that they are seeking to end the concept of independent local government, but that is where we are headed if we do not act now.

Let’s be clear, I’m not making a party political point here. No major party in Parliament is beyond reproach – whether Labour refusing to back LGA amendments on council tax in the Lords or the Coalition imposing new planning rules on extensions. We need to break the Westminster consensus which talks a good game about ‘place’ and ‘localism’ but steadily delivers less resources and independence to councillors.

Everyone who believes it is right that we have local democracies and local authorities delivering services to a defined place needs to speak out. Great places such as the world class cities where people flock to live, work and visit are the result of local government action and strong local leadership. We are doing our country a great disservice by undermining the local political sphere. Indeed, MPs should take heed, for it is on the back of councillors they win elections.

Unless we collectively and powerfully act now to shift thinking we will see councils irreversibly wither away over the next few years, and we would all be the poorer for that.

Trust the process and put City First

Without political differences there wouldn’t be much point in doing politics. Debating those differences is a key part of what all politicians do of whatever colour  - we do it to explain why our ideas are different and deserve more consideration than the others.

That’s all understandable and as it should be. But a balance is needed. Because elected politicians, including councillors in Brighton & Hove, also have a duty to their constituents. We have to run the city council to the best of our abilities in the best interests of the residents. We naturally won’t always agree on what the right thing to do actually is, but by agreeing to participate in the rules and processes of local democracy, we understand how the final decisions will be made.

We argue; we make our case but if the democratic process comes out with another result we must accept it and move on.

Unfortunately in Brighton & Hove we are straying into territory where not only is the debate over political differences overshadowing too much of the decision-making and actions of the council, some players seem to be seeking to undermine the democratic processes we have to collectively depend on to make decisions.

For example the council is currently engaged in the very important task of recruiting a new Chief Executive. Unfortunately, someone sought to leak some of the candidates’ names, including those of some candidates who didn’t make it through the shortlisting process. If I were a candidate for any job, let alone such a senior and high profile one, I would expect my application to remain confidential. And the panel also deserves confidentiality as it frankly debates the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. This leak was a very serious breach of sensitive information, with serious consequences, and an investigation is underway.

Leaking sensitive information such as this seeks to undermine the process agreed by the whole council in its constitution and the laws regulating local government. The recruitment depends on a cross-party panel which has councillors in proportion to our overall political group sizes. It is this proportionality to how voters chose to elect parties that maintains the democratic mandate. While the decision on the shortlisted candidates wasn’t unanimous, it was agreed properly as with any council decision by committee or panel.

A council statement was then prepared for media enquiries, which said:

“The recommended shortlist of candidates was agreed by the interview panel. Following the interviews the recommended candidate for the post of chief executive will be subject to Full Council agreement on 25 October.”

Unfortunately Cllr Gill Mitchell (Leader of the Labour & Co-operative Group) was quoted in The Argus saying: “The statement from the council press office is not only misleading, it’s untrue. There was no unanimity in the selection of shortlisted candidates.”

As a result of this the council statement became the matter of some controversy on Twitter. In the hurried discussion on Twitter I mistakenly implied that I hadn’t approved the statement but realised soon after this was incorrect and that I had in fact done so. As soon as I became aware of my mistake I corrected myself on Twitter, openly, for all to see. Bearing in mind that I sign off many statements every day, it’s actually an easy enough mistake to make, and as soon as I realised the error, I corrected it.

Let’s be clear that the council statement was correct, it doesn’t suggest unanimity, just that the shortlist was agreed in line with the standard process for the council’s panels and committees. To say that a committee or panel “agreed” something is perfectly normal practice, and I’m not aware of an opposition leader ever questioning this type of wording before, it’s just the usual democratic process. We need to accept these processes and focus on the best interests of the city.

Let’s not be distracted from the fact that someone sought to undermine a clear, fair and proper process to recruit a key role for the city. I welcome the local Conservative party also condemning the leak, but am deeply disappointed that the local Labour party won’t join us in the condemnation.

The city needs and deserves a constructive, workable political culture. We have to accept political differences exist but also agree to be bound by the democratic processes of our council. I call on residents to help politicians change the political culture in the city – challenge us when we slip backwards and demand productive cross-party relations from all parties.

This week we will be interviewing shortlisted candidates for council chief executive. My hope and aim is to find cross-party consensus on a candidate to bring to full council for approval. To do that successfully all parties are going to have to work together, trust the process and put the interests of our great city first and foremost.

Subsidised buses – services all running, money saved

The work continues on subsidised bus routes for Brighton & Hove. You can read the story so far in my previous posts. We made some important decisions at yesterday’s Policy & Resources Committee.

In summary: To cope with government cuts the council budget, agreed by all parties, included the need to find a saving from the bus subsidy budget. Combined with the pressure of increasing fuel costs and a government cut to bus operator subsidy this made for a challenging, pressured issue.

Strictly speaking the law requires bus companies to not run any routes or parts of routes which are unprofitable. This was probably intended to prevent anti-competitive ‘loss-leader’ services by one company to undercut another. The result however is that some routes don’t operate without a council subsidy.

Two key issues at hand were school bus routes, some of which were costing the council over £1,000 per child per year (plus the £240/year parents pay for a pass) while child numbers are declining and also some non-school routes which were costly to keep going.

As we have long said, we are working on alternative approaches to school transport. So yesterday Greens proposed, and the committee agreed, that we procure one year contracts for services on the 74 and 96 school routes. These will be for smaller vehicles under more flexible terms which we estimate will be half the cost of the services as they were currently run. These will be funded from one-off funds.

For the other services, as I have said many times, only by proceeding with the procurement as we did last month could we flush out which services could continue commercially, without subsidies. It was a strong approach which has shown that a number of evening services will now continue without council taxpayer support.

The one change to the services previously run is the 52 route which will now terminate at the Marina. There was also a very unfortunate administrative error which resulted in one route being given to the incorrect operator – that is being corrected, and everything has been reviewed by senior officers to ensure it’s all now proper and correct.

Still now with the information we have from the commercial bus companies, which was only possible by the approach we took, we are in a position to keep services going on all routes that were previously subsidised but with a saving of £230,000 per year.

The opposition, particularly the Labour group, have been continuing to claim that they did ‘deals’ with the largest bus company to ‘save’ routes and also that their ‘campaign’ including a petition had pressured us into changes. This continues to be complete nonsense. We said we’d do what we have, and we have. No deals have been done with the bus companies – Roger French has made absolutely clear that there hasn’t been a deal. Indeed it wouldn’t be legal, the bus companies have to make their own commercial decisions on which routes they run. The remainder have been procured through EU rules.

Both opposition parties have been in administration and know the way you have to negotiate procurements with bus companies, as we have successfully done. Their comments and campaigning indicate that they are either naive over these processes or being intentionally misleading about how they work. Either way it’s not good for them. They’ve been completely wrong-footed by our actions.

So let’s remember, we’ve delivered on what we said we do and all the services keep running with a significant saving for council tax payers.