My Green view on last night’s council meeting

Another long full council meeting last night. I tried tweeting between the parts I was most involved in and was pleased to see others following the meeting through Twitter. Sadly the webcasting is still quite unwieldy so perhaps Twitter is a good alternative for some.

I shall try to review the key parts of the meeting from my perspective. I won’t cover everything because, well the agenda was immense, and not all was within my remit or expertise.

Questions

As usual, I asked some questions of councillors. Unfortunately Cllr G Theobald refused to rule out shipping some of the city’s waste to landraise sites in East Sussex. I also continued my attempts to see the final city municipal waste strategy document before it gets rubber stamped. Cllr Theobald either doesn’t understand my point or chooses to ignore it by saying I will see it at the meeting which will approve the document – rather too late to be of any use in my view.

I also pressed Cllr Smith who had promised to engage directly with Brighton’s Sailing Club at the last full council meeting. They are very worried about the implications of the proposed Brighton O development. However since the last council meeting there have been no meetings. His responses to my questions were very unsatisfactory – claiming that a question from a sailing club member to Cllr Theobald at a public Cabinet Member Meeting was equivalent to dealing directly with the club. Neither I nor club members at last night’s meeting agreed with that view at all.

The main agenda

The council agenda had a number of very important and worthwhile reports from scrutiny panels. While implementation of their recommendations is mixed, I do think scrutiny panels are one of the highlights of how our current council constitution is working — unlike much of how the cabinet operates.

So it was a great pleasure to be able to speak to the report on Brighton’s privately contracted GP-led health clinic which I contributed to as a panel member and helped to initiate in the first place. I shall post my speech separately, but I chose to highlight ongoing concerns over such private contracts and as usual the other, privatising parties, were quick to moan about ‘politicising’ a panel report. It’s such a silly criticism, of course they’re political, full council is political and we’re all politicians — what do they expect!

Blocking fee increases for farmers markets & street traders

The next item I played an active part on was approving the licensing fees for 2010/11. For whatever reason the Conservative administration had decided to increase the annual fees for street traders and farmers market stalls by 10% – a big jump no matter what the economic situation. But recently the George Street farmers market has closed down and we know markets at Upper Gardner Street and elsewhere have struggled. Greens strongly felt that they should be supported and so submitted an amendment to freeze charges for street traders and farmers markets, removing the increases. They make up a very small part of the overall licensing regime so there were no major budgetary implications.

Then suddenly just before the meeting began the Tories produced an amendment reducing the fees from 10% to 1% claiming it was a drafting error to have put 10% in. I wasn’t convinced – if it was a genuine error it could be corrected in the Mayor’s communications at the start of the meeting, as indeed an error in another report was corrected yesterday. The fee report had 10% in the main body and the appendices. I think this 1% amendment – which was a Conservative group amendment, not an officer amendment – was some quick backtracking when they realised 10% wasn’t a particularly smart idea.

So after speeches, some of which entirely missed the point of the amendments, the meeting accepted our amendment and we had a Green win – farmers markets and street traders won’t see an increase in license fees this year!

12 month review of the constitution

Another item I have a great interest in is the progress on amending the council’s constitution. It was changed almost two years ago, against loud Green protests, and we’re in a continual process of reviewing and revising its workings. The recommendations from the 12 month review were all well and good, but quite timid. One amendment we proposed last night was to split the Environment & Community Safety Scrutiny committee into two. Its agenda and remit is so large, Environment being the largest department in the council by far, that it struggles to cover enough ground. We feel Community Safety deserves its own committee. However the other parties resisted for various reasons. We proposed to fund this by abolishing two of the little used Cabinet Member Meetings – which is where the members sit in a public meeting to declare decisions they have already made.

Cabinet member Cllr Ayas Fallon-Khan then chose to speak in one of his now trademark outbursts attacking all and sundry (well the Greens) for cutting some Cabinet Member Meetings in our amendment. What he failed to mention is that his own Cabinet Member Meetings were already being cut in the main Conservative report!

The Green amendment wasn’t supported but we will keep plugging away at trying to improve the council constitution.

High Pay Commission

The highlight of the evening, for me, was this motion which I was seconding with Cllr Bill Randall as the proposer. Bill very graciously (and without warning me) set me up as knowledgeable in these matters leaving the bulk of the speaking to me. My speech (which I will post separately) was well received, I hope.

Labour councillor Kevin Allen then treated us to one of his very humorous speeches which lacked much substance. However it did reveal that Labour are so worried about Green chances in Brighton Pavilion that they’ve asked campaign group Compass (who launched the campaign on a High Pay Commission) to block our candidate and party leader Caroline Lucas from taking part in any more Compass events before the general election!

Cllr Allen proposed an amendment which basically congratulated the Labour government for all their work on this issue (yet the gap between highest and lowest paid continues to grow) and removed all the substantive points from our motion.

Ok, well the Labour group do that to us quite often. However the Conservative group voted to support the Labour amendment. Which just goes to show how similar Tories and Labour are – both not that interested in narrowing the pay gap it would seem. This left the motion far from our initial intention so Greens abstained but it was still carried overall.

Other motions

There was good debate on other motions including Cllr Rufus commenting on Labour’s foreign policies in relation to a fairtrade motion, Cllrs Wakefield-Jarrett and Fryer responding to the bizarre and inconsiderate Tory motion on van dwellers and more from Cllr Rachel Fryer and Cllr Pete West on licensing.

I opened my council email today to find an outpouring of support for the Green motion on Sussex University job cuts. So that went down well with unanimous support in the chamber if I recall rightly.

My final memorable moment was on a Green motion about neighbourhood policing. Green Cllr Ben Duncan, the council’s only elected representative to Sussex Police Authority, is a bit of a target for the other parties at the moment. They can’t stand that he’s the only representative nor that Ben doesn’t universally praise the police or criticise protests. Throughout the meeting there had been digs at Ben. The Tories proposed an amendment to his motion to:

ask the Council’s solerepresentative on the Sussex Police Authority to relay to his fellow members the Council’s view that the proactive use of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and a tough stance against benefit fraud has had a significant positive effect on reducing both “crime and, crucially, the fear of crime” in Brighton & Hove.

This was a direct attack on our view that ASBOs don’t work and criminalise people who need help. We’ve also been concerned about the public statements Conservative members have made around benefit fraud, though of course we don’t condone fraud in any way. Bizarrely Labour supported this amendment too. Leaving us once again unable to tell Tories and Labour apart.

It was a long night but with some good results for the city and a clutch of excellent scrutiny reports which offer plenty of recommendations for us all to be working on.

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