A version of this article was first published in The Argus on Saturday 28th December:
The past year has been a challenging, but good, year for our city. We continue to outpace the national economic recovery with rising employment figures, low levels of shop vacancies and visitor numbers continuing to do well. Our schools, colleges and universities are all growing and outcomes are improving, indeed this year saw record GCSE results against a nationwide downward trend.
2013 saw Brighton & Hove Albion and the city council, win the right to host 2015 Rugby World Cup matches in the Amex stadium. The city’s wonderful Festival and the Fringe both had record years, and our museums have been doing very well. Public art and photography have continued popping up across the city thanks to a diversity of projects. Pride was better than ever this summer, and has plans afoot to do even more next year. The Brighton Marathon also had a bumper year and announced exciting plans for 2014. And we saw a Royal visit to open The Keep, our new public archives in Falmer.
Nevertheless our wonderful retail sector faces challenges as shopping habits change to online and household disposable incomes continue to feel the squeeze. Sadly many have less in their pockets each week, not just in inflation-adjusted ‘real’ terms as economists say, but because of sustained government cuts to welfare. Whilst most agree the welfare system needs reform and simplification, little of that promised change has happened. So far we’ve just seen measures that by 2015 will have taken £15 billion out of support for the poorest. In many cases councils are picking up the pieces. For example the benefit cap costs the council £1m a year to keep families in their homes and prevent homelessness. The government is celebrating the reduced benefits bills, whilst we, the local taxpayers pay the price.
These years were always going to be challenging for local councils. With an ageing population and a baby boom, we have more demand than ever before. We are helping thousands more people each year through our 800 council services. This increase alone is a pressure of £10-15m a year. Yet, we have a government not just failing to recognise and help us with that growing demand – but cutting our funding, making the situation worse. By 2015 councils will have seen a 40% cut in funding just as their services are in greater need than ever.
Unfortunately the austerity consensus between Tories and Labour in Westminster means that this situation will only continue. We have to do the best for the city in the circumstances – so what has been happening?
Many readers will have noticed the major transport improvements completed this year, thanks to external funding from the Department for Transport and others. The Lewes Road and Seven Dials have been transformed, improving safety for all. Brighton & Hove remains one of the ten worst areas in the UK for road safety, so more work is needed. We’ve also been successful in rolling out 20mph limits where residents support it. Thanks to these transport measures we’re seeing walking, cycling and bus use all growing significantly – crucial when we have more and more people living, working and visiting the city.
We’ve taken made major progress on big developments in the city We’ve moved forward with the University of Brighton on developing Preston Barracks, and announced our plan to sell our seafront headquarters, Kings House. Lots of building has been underway such as the old Co-op on London Road, ‘Block J’ behind Brighton station, Woodingdean’s new library, the Brighton Housing Trust container homes and the Amex stadium expansion. We’ve also completed a major refurbishment of the Withdean Sports Complex and a number of council offices. Part of this involves working more closely with other public sector organisations – for example we now share Hove Town Hall with Sussex Police. Our parks and open spaces have seen lots of work this year too including installing chalky ‘butterfly banks’ and the revamped facilities at The Level .
It’s been a busy year for negotiating with government. After winning money for ultrafast broadband in late 2012, this year has been spent pushing government to let us spend it as they wrangled with suppliers and the EU. This was finally resolved a few weeks ago so 2014 should be an ultrafast year for the city. We’ve also been negotiating with government for a ‘City Deal’ to support the so-called Greater Brighton region. Clearly our residents’ lives don’t stop at municipal borders – so it’s important that we work with our neighbours to make progress together. At the time of writing we are very close to sealing an agreement which will support key developments across the city region to unlock economic development and empower our area.
This year we also completed the long overdue process of ensuring equal pay for all council workers. This should have been done more than a decade ago, but the political and logistical difficulties of doing so meant it was never fully tackled.. I know how difficult and unpleasant the dispute and subsequent strile was for all involved. But the end result is we now have clear and fair pay and allowances for all council workers and we’ve avoided the risk of legal challenges which could have left the council bankrupt.
We’ve also had great success with the living wage campaign. The council was accredited as a living wage employer this year, and a few weeks back the campaign celebrated over 100 local employers providing a living wage or more to all their staff. The campaign is led by the city’s Chamber of Commerce with council support, the only campaign of this type in the UK. Thanks to its work, over a quarter of the living wage employers in the UK are right here in Brighton & Hove – a wonderful milestone.
In April we were recognised as the world’s first One Planet City by sustainability charity BioRegional. This means our plans to reduce our environmental impact have been independently assessed to be credible, but we’ve still go to do the work of implementing them. That work is well underway.
We as a Green Group of councillors published our mid-term report in the Autumn which showed our strong record of delivery since May 2011. Three quarters of our manifesto commitments have been done or are on course to be completed. Straight after that the city hosted the Green Party conference in the city, followed by the Labour Party conference – both great for the local economy.
Looking ahead to 2014, we’ll need to complete the very challenging annual budget process for the 2014/15 financial year and start preparing for the 2015/16 council budget. There are no easy choices left for councils. But I’m committed to doing the best we can for citizens with whatever government leaves us in our spending pot.
In 2014 I hope to be signing the Greater Brighton City Deal with government and seeing developments move quickly after that. Almost immediately we will be working with our Local Enterprise Partnership to negotiate a ‘Growth Deal’ between government and our region. This will be our main source of funding for transport projects in the city in the future, a successful deal is crucial.
Meanwhile we’ll be completing the rollout of communal recycling and pay by phone parking in the city. We also have major work to do on the seafront ,balancing our local economy whilst finding the £100m cost of maintaining the rapidly ageing structures holding up the promenade.
Another absolutely key task is transforming social care and the local health system overall. Almost everyone agrees that council social care and the NHS need to work better together to improve services for our residents and make sure it’s affordable.
Many challenges and opportunities lie ahead in 2014. We will keep supporting those in need, helping local businesses and charities while delivering services. Brighton & Hove moves into 2014 in a strong position, with a creative energy ready to surprise and impress as we continue to attract visitors from far and wide. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.