So that’s it, we’ve had our council meeting and there won’t be another one until October. In spite of that Conservative and Labour councillors voted to axe proceedings at 9pm with two motions still to be debated.
The meeting started with my challenging the minutes of the 18th March meeting. Back then the Conservatives, backed once again by Labour, voted to defer the Independent Remuneration Panel’s report on councillor allowances (full background info). Four months later and the report still isn’t before us. In the meantime there are 34 councillors instead of 25 receiving additional allowances, which for a full year will cost the council £25k more than if the panel’s report was implemented. Back in March I had made a point of order noting that the deferral of the report would have budgetary implications. This point was not minuted and I asked for the minutes to be amended accordingly, but the Mayor refused to accept this. Not good.
Our new Green Cllr Lizzie Deane was introduced to the chamber and took her seat – well done Lizzie!
Next for me was the new system of questions. I can put as many written questions as I want to the administration, but they aren’t discussed at the meeting. You can read them online along with the rest of the agenda.
The replies were not particularly marvellous. For example in asking for an update on recycling figures Cllr Geoffrey Theobald gave me numbers for 2005/6 and 2008/9 but nothing for 2009/10 or a part of that financial year, which is several months behind us now.
I specifically asked for details of the licence under which the council’s financial data will be published. I would like it to be a very open, permissive licence that allows for all sorts of re-use and mashups. This point was not even acknowledged in Cllr Young’s reply. I also asked when they would start publishing the data, again no hint of dates was provided.
Asking about the council’s website, which has been due a rebuild for years, I received a lot of waffle about resident needs etc. The council website was supposed to be upgraded years ago, and every year it seems to slip a year.
Onto oral questions, which shamefully are limited to only one per councillor. I asked the Leader of the Council:
“In the face of drastic budget cuts which both Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors on East Sussex County Council are calling ‘unavoidable’, what policies does the Leader of the Council propose to put in place to prevent even greater inequality amongst Brighton & Hove’s residents?”
To which I received a rant about the Green Party but as far as I recall, no response to my question. I followed up by asking what evidence the Leader could provide to support her preferred approach of ‘Intelligent Commissioning’ would be able to meet the challenges this city faces. She could provide none, saying that because it hadn’t started yet there wasn’t any evidence. Which rather implies, as I suspect, that there is no solid evidence from other councils in the UK or elsewhere to back up the Intelligent Commissioning approach.
Next we debated a report on budget cuts. However all the report contained was a list of the reductions to grants that central government are applying. There were no details on when or how these cuts would be managed by the administration. The report was completely inadequate to facilitate any proper debate or scrutiny. It did emerge through the meeting however that the administration clearly do have plans written up, they just weren’t willing to share them to the full council. In the face of repeated questioning on several specific grants to community grants, the Leader started reeling off which funds were definitely secure. Cllr Mears knows the detail of what’s going to happen — she just refuses to share it with councillors.
I made the case that we should be open, inclusive and participatory in handling these budget changes. It’s only by engaging the entire city are we going to be able to find a path out of these unnecessary cuts imposed on us by ideologues in the coalition government.
A number of important reports were briefly discussed before moving onto Notices of Motion. We supported Labour’s motion calling for a return to the committee system of running the council. Labour have a bit of a cheek proposing such a motion after having tried to foist a directly elected mayor and several forms of cabinet system onto this council. Still it was good to see councillors agreeing that we all want a more democratic, collaborative form of governance if possible.
Next the two Green motions addressing cuts, first housing benefit and then cuts more generally as well as proposals for ‘Intelligent Commissioning’. Most of the way through the housing benefit motion, the Mayor activated the new guillotine motion supported by Tories & Labour in March. All debate ended and the motions were voted on. Both Green motions fell, without my having even been able to propose the one I had proposed.
Conservative and Labour councillors continue to show their preference for expediency over proper democratic discourse. They do their voters a disservice by their desire to shut down meetings rather than open them up with guillotine motions, limiting questions and speaking times. I have copied below the text of the speech I would have delivered if I had been given a chance. It is shameful when elected representatives are denied their right to speak because others just want to be home before the ten o’clock news begins.
Speech to Notice of Motion: OPPOSING CUTS AND ‘INTELLIGENT COMMISSIONING’ AS THE RESPONSE
In 1988 Eric Pickles, using the casting vote of the mayor, took control of Bradford council. On Tuesday 25th October, in a 12 hour budget meeting, Pickles forced cuts of £5.8 million from the council budget that night and cut £13 million within 6 months. His 5 year plan was to remove £50 million from the budget and restructure the authority to become a “holding company” that signed contracts with private providers.
By the end of that long October 1988 meeting Pickles had received a personal message of support from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as protestors roared outside. And now, the wheel has turned and Eric Pickles is a minister, unleashing his same awful vision on all councils in this country.
The cuts being imposed on this council are ideological – that is, they are completely avoidable. The country is solvent and credit rating solid, however Conservatives are committed to pouring yet more money into defence whilst failing to apply sufficient tax the wealthiest people and firms.
Let us not forget that Tories, LibDems and Labour all agree on the need for cuts – their only quibble during the general election campaign was when the cuts should start. Greens were alone in opposing cuts and offering an alternative path out of the mess, fully costed by economists.
Our motion speaks for itself on the cuts. We absolutely deplore them and believe it to be grossly unfair that the British government can find the resources to bail out banks and fight foreign wars, whilst dramatically cutting services to its own most vulnerable citizens.
Furthermore it is our view that Intelligent Commissioning is not the answer to coping with the cuts. We have yet to see evidence from any other councils that it works. Commissioning large corporations, who often have legal departments many times the size of ours, is a fraught business.
Only at yesterday’s health committee did we hear that a private contractor for the SOTC made an extra £750,000 profit last year, because of NHS commissioning which means they get the same fee regardless of how much or, in this case, how little work they deliver.
It cannot be good for staff morale, and it certainly isn’t good for the budget, for Intelligent Commissioning to require new directors at inflated salaries. We should be moving to a smaller gap between the pay levels of our staff, not a greater gap.
Of course there are times when a specialist product or service is needed from a private provider, we shouldn’t be re-inventing the wheel when, for example, software to meet our needs is readily available.
It is our view that the best possible value and service for this city comes from a different approach. It comes from dedicated officers, with decent pay and conditions, who are treated with respect and dignity by the leadership of this council. Constant reviews and the threat of being ‘commissioned into the private sector’ are not, in my view, the way to motivate people to deliver their best.
We and our MPs must fight these cuts as fiercely as we can. Furthermore locally I believe our response is for the council to come together, not to be split apart. We should focus on our positive spirit, that together we can meet these challenges and provide the best services possible locally, with public servants paid decent, but not excessive wages. We oppose these cuts and believe Intelligent Commissioning is not the way forward. Please support this motion.