Thursday night saw the last full council meeting of the year being held at Brighton Town Hall. It was the first without Cllr Smart who recently passed away very unexpectedly. So we heard a number of very heartfelt speeches marking the loss, particularly from Cllr Geoffrey Theobald.
On a more upbeat note the public took great interest in the meeting, the galleries were packed and we saw a huge number of public questions and petitions. Most focussed on the Bright Start nursery which the Tories have threatened with closure. The case for closure is not made, the nursery with a little management attention could easily be made viable. Rather than giving it a chance, or admitting that closing it in the middle of a school year makes no sense, they waffled. Then, with no forewarning, council leader Cllr Mears announced that a new consultation would be launched to see if parents and staff would take on the nursery themselves. I’m tired of hearing these ‘big society’ wheezes. The council is the way by which citizens are acting collectively to provide services. Why on earth should people – already with jobs and lives of their own – now run public services too when we have a council to do it?
Cllr Mears continued that evening to make numerous outbursts, often claiming them to be ‘points of order’ when in fact they were no such thing. Points of order are for highlighting breaches of council protocols and rules, not for debating matters or to get the last word as Cllr Mears was using them. Unfortunately this behaviour by his group leader put the Mayor Cllr Geoff Wells in a difficult position, and so he chose not to challenge Cllr Mears.
Anyway a Green motion on Bright Start and amendments to recommendations were both passed at the meeting, so I believe the closure plans will now have to be put on hold. Green Cllr Lizzie Deane delivered a superb speech, her maiden speech in fact, in support of the motion so victory was doubly well earned.
There was also a good crop of questions from councillors. In them I have managed to winkle out a number of commitments. Firstly Cllr Mears has agreed to advocate use of the Open Government Licence by the council, this is effectively a Creative Commons by attribution licence, thus setting the scene for much more use and reuse of council-produced publications and data.
I also learnt that the pay multiple for Brighton & Hove City Council is 13.1, which means the highest paid officer earns 13.1 times more than the lowest paid officer. Not as high as the worst offenders in the corporate sector, but still plenty of room for improvement. Cllr Mears agreed with my request to publish this figure as a regular council performance indicator.
I also used questions to pressure the council about their use of tax-evaders Vodafone and the decline of recycling rates in the city centre.
In other business the new, very much improved, council statement of licensing policy was approved. Greens were the only political group to submit ideas to the consultation process for this revision, and I was the only councillor from any party to attend the Licensing Strategy Group meeting which debated the policy. We also managed to pass an amendment which will institute a further review to expand the cumulative impact area. This area helps to reverse some of the laxity of the original 2003 Licensing Act, by making it easier to refuse new and extended licences in areas already with a high density of venues.
A number of important scrutiny reports were presented, including on city-wide 20mph limits, which stimulated heated exchanges with Cllr Geoffrey Theobald who just doesn’t quite understand the idea of large areas all being at 20mph being preferable to a patchwork of different limits. Or he didn’t appear to anyway.
Around this time Cllr Mears, in another abuse of council procedures, announced that there was heavy snow and more to come. So when the now-usual closure motion was called by the Mayor after 4 hours of business had passed, votes split as people worried about getting home. Personally I think that there are so few council meetings, and they are so important to the city, that a little bit of a late night 6 or 7 times a year is my duty. So I voted against the closure motion.
Unfortunately it did pass, and we emerged to find hardly a snowflake to be found. With her group outnumbered and out-manoeuvred had Cllr Mears used the snow to end a tricky meeting? We shall never know.
The remaining business was voted on without debate, so I couldn’t speak to the two Labour motions nor the Green motion seeking to control private rents and bring some sanity to the private rented sector.
Exactly two years go Cllr Kevin Allen had burbled a furious speech against a motion I had presented which opposed NHS privatisation. Both Tories and Labour had voted it down as their policies support PFIs and NHS marketisation. Yet this Thursday Cllr Allen was presenting a motion raising concerns over… privatisation of the NHS. Could it be?!
I share those concerns. But I’m more worried that Labour think they’re going to pull a fast one. Yes Andrew Lansley’s health reforms are shocking and regressive, but he did trail them in his health manifesto. Labour can’t now jump into the fight privatisation when for 13 years they pushed more PFIs and cracked the NHS open to corporate providers. What on earth do Labour stand for? It seems to me they like to appeal to ‘progressives’ but their agenda continues to be neo-liberal. Their shadow local government minister admitted on Monday that Labour also would have cut council budgets and they’ve not explained how or when they would have stopped the NHS privatisation process they started. Saying whatever it takes to win is not honest politics – it’s part of the problem.
Similarly, Labour’s motion on Vodafone’s tax evasion was all well and good. But Vodafone (and others) didn’t start evading tax after this May’s election… it was happening under Labour’s watch too. Anyway both of Labour’s motions and the Green motion was passed – though notably the LibDems voted against the NHS privatisation motion.
All in all a rather anti-climactic council meeting. Once again debate was cut short just before the notice of motion could be addressed. But some good results and signs that the Tories are floundering.