notes from JK

Speech to Green Party Autumn Conference 2013

I was very fortunate to be given the opportunity to address our party conference in Brighton yesterday. Below is the video and (approximate) text of my speech.


Thank you. Weren’t Natalie, Caroline and Will’s speeches great yesterday and today? Conference is going fantastically well. It’s an incredible feeling to have it here in my city, in my ward. I’d like to pay tribute to our great party leadership team, all the conference organisers and the local party for all they’ve done in making us feel so welcome. Thank you everybody for all the work you’ve done.

I moved to this city 13 years ago. Single and just out of university I came here to start a digital business, just like so many others have.

I began to learn more about this city that I lived in and worked hard in. I enjoyed the many good things about this unique place but also grew impatient with how many things I knew could be so much better.

I also kept noticing that the strongest, most committed and caring voices on the issues I too cared most deeply about were Green councillors and activists.

And so, inevitably, within a couple of years I had joined the Green party and was knocking on doors each election with the rest of them.

Quite a few things have changed since then. I’m fortunate to have a family now with two beautiful children and my wonderful wife. I’m also far more directly involved in running the city than I was 13 years ago.

The other day I got on the bus and someone said “you’re Kitcat aren’t you?”  “Yes….” I replied. He cheerfully shook my hand, and said “Great to see the council leader taking the bus!”

The difference is not that I’m just recognised on the bus, the key difference is that finally we Greens are in administration. No longer do we have just words to dedicate to the pursuit of our long-held values. Now we can put them into practice.

Yesterday, with my colleagues on the Green administration, and we launched our report on our achievements of our first two years in office. Yes of course, we’re a minority administration and at any time the opposition can and do gang up to outvote us. Yet in spite of that we’ve have delivered huge amounts of our manifesto promises for our city. Three quarters of our promises are done or well on course to be completed.

It’s quite novel that, isn’t it? You stand for election on the basis of a manifesto and then you deliver on the promises. It could catch on, what do you think?!

A few of the highlights for me:

A Living Wage for our lowest paid council workers. We’ve also reduced the gap between top and bottom earners to almost 10 to 1, another manifesto promise.

We’ve protected our local economy from the worst of the recession, it’s outperformed the national average. In July alone we had 1m people visit the city, which shows that we are committed to protecting all the makes Brighton special so that people have their weddings, conferences and more here which is essential to our local economy. And guess what? The majority of those visitors come to the city by public transport.

Yes, we are experiencing biting government cuts — we’re the second worst cut of any unitary in the country — we’ve protected council services and funding for the third sector.

Thanks to the work of colleagues Ian Davey and Pete West huge progress has been made in putting sustainable transport first in this city. The significant benefits for public health, and improved air quality are clear. We have been named the least car-dependent place outside of London.

We have become the world’s first One Planet City, independently accredited by environment charity BioRegional. We are delivering on our promises, we in believe in environmental justice and social justice.

When we came into office we discovered that despite having the most highly educated parents in the region, we had very poor secondary school results. Led by Sue Shanks, Chair of the Children’s Committee, we have brought a new focus to school improvement. This year we have seen record GCSE results whilst the national average has been going down.

And if you have a spare 15 minutes do visit The Level where a £3m investment has transformed a key city centre park into a fantastic green lung and high quality public space for all. There are 30,000 households within 15 minutes walk of this park, go and have a look. It’s truly incredible what we’ve been able to do there, and we’re so proud.

I could go on all afternoon, seeing as there’s about one hundred manifesto achievements we’ve already delivered, but I won’t. Do have a look at the report which is available online and in the hall next door.

I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved together as an administration. All the councillors — every councillor in the Green Group on this council — are delivering on our manifesto their working hard every day, to make our values reality in this city.

We are of course also fortunate in this city to have someone who is, without any doubt, the UK’s most impressive and principled MP – Caroline Lucas. I’d like to personally acknowledge the incredible job she does representing the people of Brighton Pavilion and the Green Party in Westminster. Thank you Caroline.

I also can’t wait to see what Jenny Jones is going to do in the House of Lords, I think it’s going to be incredible as well. Congratulations Jenny.

As Caroline said in her speech yesterday, this year in Brighton & Hove has been tough. It’s not an easy time to be in local government. It seems to me that Councils are the coalition government’s whipping boy. Despite being found at the start of this Parliament to be the most efficient part of government, by far, councils are bearing the brunt of the cuts. One average local government, local councils that affect all of your areas, have seen the budgets reduced by 28%. What have Whitehall done? They’ve only trimmed theirs by 8%.

Those cuts harm our local communities. We have to fight against them. We must keep making the case they aren’t necessary, and that austerity does not work.

But we also must keep campaigning for devolution to independent local government. If we don’t fight for local power for local councils for our local people, then our communities will always be at the whim governments. We have to keep making the case for what we believe in, which is true localism and true decentralisation for our councils.

But until then, until that time when we control all levels of government at the same time (!), we do have a duty to do the best for our areas. It is so much easier to criticise from the sidelines than to govern. But in spite of the bad times, we cannot abandon those who put their faith in us to fight for what we believe to be right. We need to make the most of whatever resources we have to protect those in the greatest need. And we will.

Of course this year we have had another challenge which I feel we really must talk about.

When we took administration we found that successive Labour and Tory administrations had let unequal allowances for council workers fester for 15 years. They had repeatedly tried to push their dirty secret under the carpet for the next administration to trip up on.

We couldn’t let this go on. So we set upon the huge task of finally resolving the mass of historical arrangements which were leaving men and women unequally compensated for similar types of work.

Everyone knew this had to happen but only us, the Greens, had the moral fibre and courage to follow through on delivering fairer allowances for all council workers.

Yes it was rough on the way, as it inevitably would be. But I’m delighted to say that come this 1st October we will have introduced a new simple and fair set of allowances for all our staff which meets our moral and legal obligations. As a result of this many workers, especially women, will be seeing increased take-home pay as a result of this. That’s the Green values.

Changing this country to the clean, green, fair future we all so urgently want to see will not be easy. That was just one microcosm of the challenges we face ahead.

The enemies of change, the opponents of fairness, the self-interested, the oil barons, the oligarchs, they will all fight us every step of the way. I say to you, as a party we must steel ourselves to this challenge. We know time is short and the stakes are incredibly high.

And yes, being tested in government is tough. But this is only the start of what we need to do to bring our vision to reality.

We need to find the courage to retain our unique Green traditions of co-operating and collaborating whilst being stronger and more united in the face of the powerful opposition our values inevitably arouse.

As a smaller, newer party the odds often seem stacked against us. But we keep breaking through — in Europe, in councils across the country and in Westminster. And I know that together we can do it again in Europe next year, and beyond.

Never has our message of a sustainable, balanced and fair future been more urgent and important than now. We must really keep working together to win arguments, win elections, to win power and deliver real change.

The better Brighton & Hove we’re building here today is just the beginning.

Together we can do it.

Thank you.

notes from JK

Interview with Association of Green Councillors

Text of an interview I recently did for the Association of Green Councillor’s new magazine:

> How and when did you become interested in politics/the Green Party?

I’ve been interested in politics for as long as I can remember. At school, I enjoyed debating societies and looking at the party manifestos during general elections – I and got involved in mock elections at school. But my main focus was really environmental issues, outside of party politics, until I moved to Brighton in 2000 to start a business. A few chance meetings with local Green Party members piqued my curiosity. As I learnt more and more about the Green Party it felt like such a natural political home, with values that clearly fit my world view. The democratic style of party management organisation, along with the combination of social and environmental justice, were was my ideal.

I was soon was involved in election campaigning,  and sat on a few party committees nationally and locally before standing for election myself. I was selected as a candidate for the European Parliament and then for a council by-election, which I won. I haven’t looked back!

> What’s your role as Leader of the Council on Brighton & Hove City Council?

It’s an incredible job. On behalf of the council and the residents I’m the lead spokesperson, champion, negotiator and lobbyist for our great city. It’s my job to go out there and win the best for our city from the region, central government, EU and anywhere else I can. I speak for the city, lead on joint working with partners and set the strategic direction for our city council. I also negotiate with the other parties on the council to try and ensure decisions are made in a timely and consensual way, whenever possible.

I have a few legal powers and duties, mainly for emergencies or because I chair the key Policy & Resources committee. But by far the biggest part of my role is about influence, championing and selling our vision.

I’m also Convenor of the Green Group of councillors. It’s because I convene the Green Group, the largest group of councillors on our council, that I hold the Council Leader role. As Convenor, along with my two deputy Convenors, I’m responsible for the group’s overall wellbeing, convening arranging meetings, managing our workload, sharing out responsibilities and cross-party relations.

> What’s been the Brighton Green Group achievement you’re most proud of?

It’s very had to pick just one thing, whether it’s something we’ve already started. There’s also a number of or one of the very exciting new things projects in the works which I hope will soon be confirmedwhich I hope to be able to announce soon. If you really push me to pick just one then I’d say that, so far, it has to be the Living Wage, which has being been adopted by the council for all its workers and the start of reviewing procurement contracts to see which of our external providers can adopt it, and some have already following negotiationsis starting to roll out across our external providers. We now have a city-wide campaign, led by the Chamber of Commerce, recruiting businesses and the 3rd sector into paying the Living Wage, with some major local employers already on board. We also have a 10:1 high- to- low- pay ratio target for the council which we are on target to meet soon, in line with our manifesto commitment..

There are so many important achievements all our councillors have been winningresponsible for, but if I could just sneak in one more it would be the completely revamped sustainable and ethical procurement policy which will have a major impact and which the WWF rated as the best council sustainable procurement in the UK.

> And what have you found most challenging?

The cuts to council and benefits budgets, along with all the associated politics. Aside from the terribly damaging nature of the cuts themselves, tThere’s been some pretty shameful politicking going on in the city around the terrible financial situation our council finds itself in. Opposition parties are constantly claiming that government cuts are Green cuts, and then trying to score cheap points on the back ofby ‘saving’ things they know the city cannot afford. to continue with has It is doing just done our local politics such a great disservice. People depend on an honest political debate to make lead to the best choices,  possible in good times or bad, and I don’t think that’s happened very much recently. We aAs Greens, we do need to keep being clearrepeating clearly that we’re putting city first, politics second.

When governmentlocal government have has reduced their local authority budgets by 28% and Whitehall by just by 8%, it’s so painful to see even more money slashed from our funding at short notice, as is happening right now, while other parts of government plod on. Yes, local government needs to reform, always push for best value and consider new ways of doing things. But cutting our spending like this is damaging our economy, our citizens’ quality of life and local government’s ability to support the growing social demand as caused by benefit cuts bite.

> Brighton & Hove decided to move to a Committee model recently.  Can you explain what this is/how it differs from a Cabinet model, and why you changed?  On balance, has it been a good thing?

Yes it has been a good thing. The Cabinet system focussed power and knowledge in the hands of one ‘strong leader’ and up to 9 cabinet members. In the extreme case, theyse could take most of their decisions behind closed doors with no opposition or public scrutiny. Brighton & Hove had a more open cabinet system – because we’d tried to make the best of a bad scheme system which was imposed on us by government, against the will of all the parties on the council. It But it disengaged most councillors, creating a big divide between those in and out of cabinet – regardless of whether they were in the administration party or not.

So we switched as soon as the Localism Act let us switch out of the Cabinet system, we did. We chose a new Committee System, not a move back to the old one. We streamlined to fewer committees and meetings, simpler names for committees and a range of other improvements. It has created more logistical work for officers and councillors as we need to ensure there is more time for papers to be ready and circulated to all the committee members. But the resultant fewer meetings and greater inclusion has have been received very positively. Perhaps my life would be easier if we hadn’t changed, as I’d have been able to rush decisions through Cabinet, but I think the new system we have is better for councillors and better for the city.

> If you could change one thing about local politics, what would it be and why?

Speaking from the city perspective, which is what I’m absorbed in, I believe we have to rethink the amateur model of local government politicians. I’m ambitious for Brighton & Hove and compare us to Barcelona, Vancouver, Sydney and other great seaside cities. Their city leaders are full-time politicians with the resources personally and at municipal level to really deliver on their agendas. I think that’s right and proper. We should expect professional political leadership and to attract good candidates we should break out of the part-timer model of councillors. Too many good councillors in our group have only been able to last one term (if they can even be persuaded to stand) because of their huge difficulties they’ve had in making balancing their time commitments work along withagainst the financial struggles associated with councillor allowances – which by the way, are tiny by international comparisons. Paying politicians more is not exactly a populist position, I know, and I’m not complaining about my personal lot as Leader. But commission after commission raises these same issues with English local government representation – and yet no solution is in sight. So I think it does need tackling.

Connected to this, and as a way of if I can sneaking sneak in another supplementary answer in, is the issue of education. We need to teach more about local government and local politics to our children. Then I hope some more of them will engage, understand how to influence decisions and maybe even stand for office one day. To that end, we are supporting a Youth Council and Youth Mayor programme in our city to help encourage engagement and learning.

> What are your hopes for Brighton & Hove Green Party in the next few years?

That we deliver on our vision for a One Planet Smart City; for a thriving, clean, sustainable and happy city. There are some great opportunities for this but We will need to do this amidst some great opportunities, but alsowe need to do it amid the immense challenges of the government’s utterly ill-considered austerity measures. We aAs a party, we have a duty to our residents and to the national party to show that we can make the best choices for our city in good or bad times. We never have the luxury of choosing the national context for councils but, regardless, we have to do the best we can for our residents.

Climate change and austerity measures, are both damaging man-madeartificial phenomena which individual councils can do little to stop. But we can, as Greens, lead the way in smart, fair and ecological ways to cope despite these challenges. Anything less would be a failure of leadership.

If we deliver on that, then come the next elections we can build and grow our Green representation on the our own council, other UK councils and in Westminster.



notes from JK

Despite the cuts, Green councils deliver

There is no doubt it’s not an easy time to be in local government: The Tory-led coalition are imposing massive austerity measures with councils bearing far more than their fair share of the cuts in public funding. This has been complemented by ongoing public attacks on both council officers and councillors by pugnacious Tory ministers like Eric Pickles, Bob Neil and Grant Shapps. Finally councils are being pushed and pulled between suggestions of more powers being devolved, more central direction on how to do things and massive centrally decided reforms to their funding and legal powers. Local government is a bit punch drunk.

Despite all this, councils can and should deliver. In Brighton & Hove the Green administration came to power in 2011 with a very clear manifesto which we have been working hard to implement. In less than a year Greens have made significant changes, we have:

1. Introduced a Living wage of £7.19 for the lowest paid council staff. We have created a Living Wage Commission for the city which is working with the largest employers to advocate that living wage across the city.

2. Won over £6m of new external funding for major improvements to the city’s transport infrastructure & public spaces.

3. Protected the Children’s & Adult Social care budgets, including for carers – over 2 years they will not change, whilst neighbouring authorities are withdrawing care and support from many in need.

4. We are building the city’s first new council houses in decades, and bringing more empty properties back into use. We are also working with local squatter groups working on ‘meanwhile’ leases for empty properties awaiting development.

5. Introduced a new approach in the council which prioritises openness, democracy & participation – as shown by our budget process, commitment to open data and plans for neighbourhood councils.

None of these would have happened without Greens taking control of the city council in Brighton & Hove.

We’re also unique in how much we’ve protected in our first budget, despite incredible pressure from the government, and ill-conceived amendments from the opposition parties. The Green administration’s budget will:

  • Double capital funding for transport and the public realm.
  • Build new non-academy school places in our best schools.
  • Keep an in-house Youth Service, unlike almost every other council in the country.
  • Preserve the main grant programmes for the 3rd sector at the same level as previous years.
  • Create a new £300,000 grants programme for 3rd sector youth services, and a £150,000 fund to support capital investment in the 3rd sector.
  • Protect Staff terms and conditions.
  • Preserve parks services
  • Keep all our branch libraries remain open, the book fund is growing.
  • Preventing homelessness funding is protected and domestic violence support increasing by £100,000.
  • We will be bringing forward pilots for communal recycling, food waste collection and commercial waste collection.
  • We will be piloting participatory budgeting and neighbourhood councils.
  • We will be consolidating buildings down to a few hubs which will be upgraded to be super energy efficient, have solar panels and support mobile working and hot desking.
  • Will keep pursuing a unique bid for urban UN Biosphere status.

Whilst the government’s austerity measures are forcing back to scale back in some areas, we are still able to make good progress in many important areas. For example we are going to be working towards achieving One Planet Council status in the coming months.

As Greens we’re utterly opposed to much of the coalition’s wrong-headed policies, but we have a duty to make the best of the situation for our residents. If you have elections in your area vote Green this May for more dedicated councillors fighting for fair solutions to the challenges in their areas. Greens deliver.

notes from JK

The first ever Green council cabinet meeting

It wasn’t until I started drafting this post that yesterday’s events really sunk in. Thursday 9th June 2011 saw the UK’s first ever Green-led council start making formal decisions. We had our first cabinet meeting at Hove Town Hall.

The Green administration has been in power for roughly 20 days – the formal transfer didn’t happen until the annual council meeting of 19th May. Still we have managed to push some decisions forward in that time.

I’m especially pleased that we’ve been able to approve installing solar panels on up to 40 council buildings across the city. It’s the largest ever solar project in the city which will save a huge amount of carbon emissions, save energy and create new revenue to help offset the central government cuts to our budgets.

Other positive stories were a new vehicle procurement programme which will save the council money and reduce emissions from our fleet. Work is underway to welcome the Olympic torch to our city. We’re also seeking bidders to bring the vacant listed buildings at Patcham Place back into use. Full details on all the reports and decisions are online.

What several of these reports highlighted to me, especially with my Finance & Central Services portfolio, was the tensions between front and back office. The story of protecting frontline services is not always so clearcut. If our “back office” central services functions didn’t have experts on energy and procurement (for example) we wouldn’t have been able to save or generate money with some of the reports we approved. That money will be put back into services, frontline services. But if we only squeeze “back office” budgets it may be a short term saving for a longer term loss. Yet I don’t want to see frontline services reduced one inch.

What’s the alternative for what seems like a zero sum game at first glance? Twenty-odd days in it feels to me that we need to do things differently, and more efficiently. That can sound trite but it’s true and eminently possible. Look at how some companies such as Dyson or Apple leap over the rest. They’re by no means perfect but they chose to do things a bit differently and we have all benefited from their innovation either directly from the products or how they push others to up their game.

Local government is a different tale altogether – dedicated to service and the public – but that’s not to say we can’t innovate. Let’s see what we – residents, council staff and councillors – can achieve together.

Papers for the Cabinet meeting
Webcast from the Cabinet meeting

notes from JK

Election debrief – some thoughts on the 2011 result in Brighton & Hove

Well that was exhausting! We have emerged from the largest ever Green campaign in Brighton & Hove with the first ever Green-led council in UK history. An incredible achievement building on Caroline Lucas’ election as the UK’s first Green MP last May.

It takes an awesome number of voluntary contributions for a small political party to achieve these kinds of results. It’s impossible to thank everyone who gives their time and skills to support a campaign they believe in. It’s an incredible thing to see and understand that wave of support we’ve had in the past few years. Thank you to each person who has helped us, no matter how big or small their contribution.

As someone who has been deeply involved in the party’s electoral strategy since about 2007 it is quite gobsmacking to see our ambition and our plans realised. Of course things were not straightforward, plans had to be adjusted and so on. Still, we have effected real change. A party with a very different culture and values to the others is for the first time in administration. Real change is possible. I’m involved in all this because I believe this is one of the best ways to change the world for the better.

Now we need to deliver for the people of this city. Thankfully, we have an excellent detailed manifesto to work from, and also the goodwill of many people and organisations around the city.

And no doubt we’ll need their support because we face many challenges: We’ll be a minority administration and our group has 14 new councillors out of 23 and we will have to deal with the cuts and changes the national Conservative-led government will impose on us.

Our group of councillors elected me to be the Cabinet Member for Finance & Central Services. I am humbled by the trust they have put in me to serve the city with this portfolio. Expect more blogging from me in the future on the areas covered by my portfolio.

A quick comment on the election campaign itself: It was disappointing how few hustings there were, it did feel that the local election didn’t really capture the public imagination. I think Labour made a real error, as they did last year over who could win in Pavilion, in claiming only they could form the next council administration. They have further tarnished their name by making claims which have been shown to be untrue. I hope they will reflect on that and hope we can work together constructively whenever we find common ground in the coming 4 years.

For now I’m catching up on sleep, spending time with my family and getting up to speed on all the departments I’ll be responsible for.

current affairs

Greens could take Norwich City Council this week

This week sees an extraordinary mass by-election in Norwich. Following Adrian Ramsay doubling the Green vote in this May’s General Election, Greens are now poised to take control of the council there.

Green Cllr Rupert Read has blogged on the possibilities here. You can also read about the exciting Green proposals for an ‘Open Council’ here.

If you can help on election day, this Thursday 9th September, then email

I haven’t been able to make it to Norwich this year. But I hope to see plenty of happy Norwich faces at Green Party conference this weekend! Please help out if you possibly can.

notes from JK

Action on licensing: East Street residents speak out

Licensing issues continue to be a key concern for residents in Brighton city centre, as previously noted. Despite the introduction of a ‘Cumulative Impact Area’ hours continue to get later and it’s a struggle to stop a race to the bottom. I’m really pleased that Police, residents and ward councillors have been working together more closely than ever on licensing issues. Unfortunately, that’s not always enough… For example earlier this week, despite very strong objections from the Police, the council noise team, residents and myself as ward councillor, a panel of licensing councillors agreed to extend the hours and operations for Jam (formerly the Water Margin) in Middle Street. Their decision seemed to run contrary to council’s own policies and furthers the rush to later hours, as it seems only a matter of time before other venues nearby try to extend their hours to keep up with the competition. There’s more in my release.

With limited Police resources, Operation Marble (which handles night-time economy issues Fri-Sat) can only cover so many streets and, at best, runs until 4am. However more and more premises are being allowed to open beyond that, meaning people leaving clubs after the visible Police presence has gone.

The Cumulative Impact Area (CIA) policy is supposed to go a little way to balancing the problem that each license application is supposed to be taken on its own merits. Without the CIA it’s virtually impossible to refuse applications just because there’s already too many licensed venues in an area already. However it’s not enough and East Street is a good example of where a high density of venues in one small area can cause serious problems. We need to preserve Brighton & Hove’s attractiveness for visitors, but we need to do that in recognition that it has an old town centre with a significant residential population.

Working with the residents I’ve created a film of what a Friday night is like for them. Along with the launch of this film I’m calling for a summit to bring together the council, Police, venue managers and residents to find solutions. We’ve already had some small wins by just improving communications between venues and residents. I know we can build on that. Until the licensing laws get properly sorted out by Parliament, we’re going to need a lot more of this kind of joint working to ensure that the needs of businesses, visitors and residents are sensibly and successfully balanced.

notes from JK

Why to vote for Caroline & Adrian

[Apologies to non-Green party member readers, this post is about the Green Party’s leadership contest, which is held every two years]

Caroline Lucas and Adrian Ramsay are seeking re-election as the Green Party’s leader and deputy, and I’m supporting them in their campaign.

Our party’s leaders must be serious, frontline politicians. Some have been arguing in the webosphere that Caroline and Adrian are too busy to do the job properly. I disagree. Of course they are busy, they are high profile, respected Green politicians – a credible and hard working leadership team, who’ve delivered results.

However they do not have a fraction of the office and staff support that other party leaders have. This is due to our more limited funds but also inexperience in supporting our leaders. We need to work to provide better support for them, not elect less busy leaders with less experience or profile! (Jim Jepps touches on this in his post)

Ultimately I believe that if they are to lead us as a party, they greatly benefit from being publicly elected representatives who understand the hard choices that need to be made when in office. And, as just two votes on the national party executive, they have a strong track record in improving the party’s position in terms of membership, finance, profile and elections (Peter Cranie makes the case in more detail).

Let’s discuss the support and structures we provide them at conference in September. In the meantime I’d encourage new and old members alike to vote for Caroline and Adrian, for another two years of growth and increasing influence.

notes from JK

Why Greens refuse to participate in the council’s ‘Intelligent Commissioning’ reforms

This week, on the day of George Osborne’s emergency budget and Brighton Trades Council’s anti-cuts protest, Greens announced our opposition to a council restructure process known as ‘Intelligent Commissioning’. We will also not participate in the recruitment process to find new ‘Strategic Directors’ to push this process forward.

As I spoke about this to the gathered protestors there were strong cheers of agreement. The unions understand that, as has happened in the NHS and the education system, commissioning tends to result in privatisation, poorer working conditions and reduced democratic control of public services.

However the other opposition parties, while they have been critical of the £125k + benefits packages for these new directors, were quick to criticise our position. They felt we should be ‘inside the process’ of recruiting these people and so on.

I don’t agree. When the council’s new Chief Executive John Barradell was recruited, Greens participated in the process. Barradell spoke then, I’m told, of his desire to improve the council’s reputation amongst residents, make it more customer service orientated and more efficient. Who could disagree with that? After starting work he continued to expand on his ambition to improve the council. We share that desire.

However it wasn’t until recently that he explained that he wanted to do this through a process of ‘intelligent commissioning’ led by a set of new directors, a series of delivery units and so abolishing the existing council directorates. As I’ll explain below, we oppose commissioning in the way proposed. We won’t get to vote on these proposals as the Tory cabinet supports them and Chief Exec Barradell doesn’t need council approval to re-organise his staff. So to show our opposition to this process, to make our stand clear, we have refused to participate in the recruitment process.

I have no strong desire the retain the directorates as they are. However the thinking behind commissioning is flawed. As I understand it from the reports I’ve read and how it works in our local NHS, this is the proposal: A service is defined, such as waste collection, day care, tourism promotion or licensing enforcement. What the council wants delivered for that service is specified and then put out to tender. Council teams can bid to run this service (alone or in partnership with other groups), private firms can also bid as well as the ‘third sector’ such as charities and co-operatives.

What’s ‘intelligent’ about this process is the way the service is specified with ‘customers’ in mind, that it will be results orientated, that charities and other groups can get involved and we could jointly tender for services (so pooling budgets and saving money) with other local public sector organisations such as NHS Trusts.

What could be wrong with that? Well as the Health Overview & Scrutiny Committee found with local NHS commissioning, these processes tend to favour large corporations who can afford to participate in these complex bidding processes. The staff used to provide the services are usually on less secure, less well paid contracts with worse pensions. Quality can also be an issue.

Additionally, the evidence so far with NHS contracting, is that the costs are often higher. This is because the tender process is not that competitive (the same big players are the only ones pitching around the country for the same types of contracts), the tender process itself is time-cosnuming and costly plus for some services private companies demand premiums for the risks involved which the public sector would have otherwise regularly borne.

Of course there are cases when partnership working makes sense, and using the expertise of private companies and the third sector can absolutely be the right thing to do. But government, the public sector, is about providing those services for all sectors of society which a market has failed to do, need to be managed in the general public interest or that individuals alone could not possibly afford, such as expert social care or careful management of our seafront.

Furthermore, as we’ve seen time and again in the NHS, once the services are contracted out it’s much harder for democratically elected representatives to hold them to account. We get told basic information is ‘commercially sensitive’ or that we’ll only find out more once a formal target review is held. We can’t hold managers employed by private firms to account. If things go wrong there is little option other than trying to terminate the contract – which can prove very costly. We’ve been here before locally, our waste collection contract went to two private firms before being returned in-house for a much improved service.

I believe that we should be focussing on running a council that is proud of its staff: A group of people expert in what they do, striving for excellence and delivering public services at decent value for the tax payer.

By keeping services in-house we can give staff the job security they need to do their best work, develop their skills and also train new generations to serve their city. Sometimes it will make sense to go for private help, such as for expert restoration of specific historic artefact or construction of a major project. However, as I saw when a private consultant was used to negotiate rents for seafront traders, once an in-house surveyor was hired a much more reasonable and long term approach was taken.

It’s my view that we can take this city from good to superb only with a strong commitment to council staff. They do many wonderful things already. But I believe they can deliver even more. To get there it would help if they were removed from being under the constant threat of tendering that ‘intelligent commissioning’ would bring.

notes from JK

Thoughts on incineration after visiting Rabbit Skips

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the facilities of Rabbit Skips in Lancing.

They are an independent local company who service many businesses, particularly construction and events, in the Brighton & Hove area.

I was very interested to know about how they are reducing their environmental impact. I was impressed with the clear passion with which staff did their work and pride in what they had achieved.

Rabbit’s process is a microcosm of what the city council, to an extent, do with residents’ waste.

Waste comes into the site and is sorted. Most of the sorting is done using a variety of electro-mechanical systems and magnets very similar to the Hollingdean Materials Recovery Facility used by the council. The difference being that while the council only put recycling through their system, Rabbit put everything through theirs (other than obviously re-usable large items like doors and girders!)

The sorting is impressive for what it can retrieve from the waste: Soil, wood, metal (even the tiniest screws, springs and nails), plastics, aggregrate and so on. Many of these materials, such as metals, plastics, are sold onto the market for recycling or re-use.

The remaining ‘residue waste’ is broken down into small pieces for use in an incinerator. I’m told it was the UK’s first incinerator using waste to be classified as using biofuel due to the amount of wood-chip and other organic materials that goes in there.

That a relatively small, independent local company managed to get through all the legislative hoops and pull together the financing to build these facilities – which are highly automated – is in itself impressive.

It seemed to my untrained eye that the incinerator has more machinery to clean the exhaust than anything else. Currently, when running both lines, they can generate up to 2MW which is sold as green energy onto the national grid. They would like to sell their heat too, but so far have not found any buyers.

While the majority of waste, when the mix is right, is burnt, they are still left with several tons a day of residue which has to be handled as hazardous waste. They also have a quantity of ash collected by filters which goes into road building – so it’s not a totally zero waste affair.

Let’s be clear, in my view incineration is very much second best to some other waste systems such as digestion technologies and pyrolosis. No process is perfect but in terms of efficiency and emissions they are clearly preferable to incineration. In my view incineration is not much different from landfill, you stick it in the air rather than in the ground, but at least you recover some energy in the process.

It is my goal to see Brighton & Hove using the most efficient, environmentally friendly waste processes possible. Nevertheless firms like Rabbit have a role to play because councils do not handle or process commercial waste. If incineration is to be pursued (and I hope not) it’s certainly better to have smaller, local installations than large mega-sites as for Veolia’s in Newhaven where emissions will be heavily concentrated in one area.

What I can support wholeheartedly is the waste sorting Rabbit are using. We could be using it on the bulk of our waste to push far more of it into the recycling market. The technology is there… but is there the will from the the Tories locally or nationally?