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.

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