Tag Archives: hove

Reject the Benefit Cap

Due to lack of time, we didn’t get to debate my motion on the Benefit Cap during January’s council meeting. It was passed in a quick vote, which was excellent news, though the Tory councillors didn’t support it.

I’d like to just put down some of the points I had hoped to make in the debate.

I had noticed in the last fortnight the government has announced tens of billions of spending on arms, submarines, jets and aircraft carriers.

Which really raised the question “What kind of society do we want to live in?”

The Tory vision where we have people going hungry and cold in our country, and shameful levels of child poverty.

Or a progressive vision where nobody is left behind, where those with greatest need receive the most help.

The government’s benefit cap policy is a cynical, populist move which will mostly hit large families, many with members struggling in low-paid work.

In Brighton & Hove we estimate, on the latest data, that 300 families will be so badly hit by this that they will most likely be made homeless. The Department for Work and Pensions confirm that councils will be responsible for housing these families at a cost of £1.1m a year to our city council. The coalition cabinet has agreed that new burdens on councils must be funded.

Yet we hear silence from government when we ask how this will be funded… there will be no saving to the public purse from this awful policy. Councils, already with squeeze budgets, will be left to pick up the pieces.

The result will be hurt, heartache and homelessness for struggling families.

I strongly oppose this cap and hope sense will be seen in time. Failing that it is unacceptable for yet another cost to be thrown on councils whilst government cynically claim they are saving money off the backs of the poorest through this policy.

In every sense – financial, policy and moral – this cap offers nothing good for our city.

A lasting contribution to our city’s future

January’s full council meeting was busy, as usual. But one item in particular stood out: Agreeing the City Plan, the twenty year vision for the city’s development. A once in a generation decision.

The plan, a huge collective piece of work by all parts of the council and partners, sets out the thinking for how all future development, whether offices, schools, homes or business space, will be planned and where.

Three years ago the previous Conservative administration had made an abortive attempt to pass a plan. It attracted hundreds of amendments from both Green and Labour councillors and was rejected by the government inspector before formal examination had even begun.

Now with a Green administration in place we took a fresh, far more inclusive approach. The plan had support from a very wide selection of environmental, business and other organisations in the city. As a result the new Green City Plan only saw very minor opposition amendments included, which did not change the fundamental policies we had proposed. What has now been submitted to the government inspectors is a robust strategy which balances the intense needs for housing and employment on limited land.

Critically the whole plan is built on the One Planet Living principles and enshrines high standards of sustainability. Meanwhile changes have been put in place to increase the amount of affordable housing that will be built, improved transport connections and allocations for new schools.

Every development proposals that comes forward from now until 2030 will be judged against this plan, ensuring that they will be built to Green ambitions. It’s a great, lasting Green contribution to our city’s future.

A progressive majority in 2015?

Yesterday was a significant day in politics for many reasons. The most reported reason was the awful passing of the welfare bill which caps benefit rises to 1% for three years, well below inflation. So in real-terms working-age people are having cuts in their benefits imposed. This is on top of the other cuts they will be experiencing to services, to council tax benefit, the total household cap on benefits and so on.

 

It is an attack on the poorest and only furthers the snide false idea that somehow those on benefits are luxuriating at home whilst others work hard. Sadly, as the numbers are in Parliament now, the bill was always going to pass. Caroline Lucas, some LibDem rebels and Labour did vote against the bill. But, as the Economist said in relation to their vote on the EU budget position, Labour are playing a dangerous and cynical game. They knew this bill was going to pass and they’ve ruled out repealing it should they win in 2015. So their vote against the bill last night was a hollow gesture. Only more so when one hears that they are willing to accept the government’s (diminishing) spending envelope for welfare but debate the priorities within it. In other words, Labour too would be cutting benefits but just in ways they don’t want to specify until after an election. This is similar to their admission they too would cut local government funding in government but won’t be drawn on the detail.

 

At times like this I find Labour’s cynicism breathtaking. I also find myself incredibly disappointed when I know so many Labour councillors around the country do not support the positions of their national leadership. Perhaps against reason and experience, I hope for better from the Parliamentary Labour Party.

 

The country desperately needs a progressive majority at the next election to reverse the damage of the Coalition government. It’s a political reality that this would absolutely have to include Labour. Indeed a progressive coalition’s formation could well pull the current Labour leadership back towards their more progressive roots.

 

So on to another reason yesterday was politically significant: The Labour Party published a list of their target parliamentary seats. This publication was telling as it seemed to completely ignore the electoral reality that the share of votes going to Labour and Conservatives has been in consistent decline for decades. Membership of those parties has also been in long-term decline. Mirroring politics in much of Europe, the British are now voting for a greater diversity of parties. This appears to be an irreversible trend which Labour utterly ignore by suggesting that they alone, despite their dire finances, are going to win a complete majority in the next Parliament.

 

Major groups like Compass recognise the need for a progressive majority which is why they have opened their membership beyond Labour to anyone with progressive (‘democratic left’ they call it) values.

 

Recall that in 2010 Labour lost all their parliamentary seats in Sussex, indeed they were almost completely wiped out in the entire region. Yet their list targets all three parliamentary seats in the city and more beyond.

 

In 2010 it was quite plain that Labour could have retained at least one seat in Brighton & Hove if they had targeted their resources instead of trying to hold all three seats. I can understand choosing which seat to target may have been difficult to decide on within the local party. But now they face a clean sheet. The Green Party is going to throw everything we have at Brighton Pavilion, our flagship constituency with Caroline Lucas as our superb MP. Labour could well risk spending huge resources across all three seats again without the results they are hoping for at the end of it.

 

We have a progressive majority in our city. The vast majority of our residents do not support the Coalition parties and their policies. We see this in election results time and again. However they don’t always get the MPs or councillors they hope for because of our electoral system, uncertainty over how to vote tactically and party tribalism.

 

All progressives in the city should be seeking to oust Conservative MPs in 2015. This will only be achievable locally, and nationally, through a broader electoral effort than just the Labour party. Greens, Trade Unionists, disaffected LibDems and more all have a role to play in ensuring progressive MPs are elected. Labour’s announcement yesterday was very ‘old politics’ and does the city no service in trying to reject the coalition’s policies. I hope other political leaders locally will join with me in seeking a progressive majority for the city in the 2015 elections, and avoid reverting to party tribalism.

The draft Green budget for 2013/14 – protecting essential services

This week we have published our draft council budget proposals for 2013/14. Despite almost weekly changes from Government, we are continuing with our ‘open book’ approach and have published the bulk of our plans now – much earlier than previous administrations have done.

This will enable an extensive period of public consultation, including a council scrutiny process involving representatives from all parties, the community & voluntary sector and the business community. Last year our budget was all the better for this extensive input, and I’m confident that our commitment to openness will pay dividends again this year. You can find out about ways to influence the budget at http://www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/bhbudget

This year the Coalition government have continued their increasingly harmful austerity measures, targeting local government more than ever. While Whitehall have reduced their budgets by 8%, councils have already reduced spending by 28%. Delivering around 800 services, more often than not it is the council that gets new homes and classrooms built, supports local business innovation and improves quality of life through transport, public health and planning. Despite experts lining up to tell government that wildly cutting council resources only damages our local economies and local services, the government is refusing to listen.

We are seeking a 2% council tax increase, which is below inflation and will cost 43p more a week for the average household in the city. This will help offset 10% of the government cuts. This funding is particularly important as we are committed to offsetting as much as possible of the government cuts to council tax benefit. In Brighton & Hove, we have put set aside over £1.5m to support those least able to pay while capping the amount anyone will have to pay to no more than £3 per week. By definition this discount supports those on the lowest incomes in our city, and it’s important that we keep protect those

However government announcements in recent months have taken a further £10m from the city than we had expected when work started on the 2013/14 budget in June.

Thankfully our introduction of a 2-year budgeting process and the forward-planning it encouraged, meant we could bring forward some proposals from 2014/15 to help meet this growing challenge. We also are on track to deliver a significant underspend for the second year running, because of our excellent officers and our commitment to managing every penny spent carefully.

As a result we have been able to protect all branch libraries and children’s centres for another year, despite Coalition austerity measures. We have set aside £100k to provide business rate incentives for the kind of firms we want to attract to our city. We’ve identified £300k of funding to support third sector finance advice services that are seeing demand skyrocket due to welfare cuts. By investing in these services we know we are preventing bigger problems in the future for those struggling to make ends meet, whilst also supporting valuable third sector organisations in our city.

We are working hard to find new ways of bringing external money to the city, such as the commercial deal with the i360 where a loan from the national Public Works Loans Board will generate income for the council.

We will maintain a significant investment in transport improvements, including a pilot scheme to control verge parking, and a new, more accurate real time bus information service. Thanks to our clear commitment, we are attracting significant external funding to make our own money go further.

This is a digital, creative city, which hosts an incredible range of businesses and research, We will be investing in the digital infrastructure needed to keep us  at the cutting edge of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Our city has had a raw deal from government, but we’re committed to doing as much as possible to protect services for the benefit of everyone who needs them. I believe the draft budget sets our council on the right course for reducing our spending while delivering for our city.

UPDATE:

Some handy links for finding out more on the draft budget proposals…

Trust the process and put City First

Without political differences there wouldn’t be much point in doing politics. Debating those differences is a key part of what all politicians do of whatever colour  – we do it to explain why our ideas are different and deserve more consideration than the others.

That’s all understandable and as it should be. But a balance is needed. Because elected politicians, including councillors in Brighton & Hove, also have a duty to their constituents. We have to run the city council to the best of our abilities in the best interests of the residents. We naturally won’t always agree on what the right thing to do actually is, but by agreeing to participate in the rules and processes of local democracy, we understand how the final decisions will be made.

We argue; we make our case but if the democratic process comes out with another result we must accept it and move on.

Unfortunately in Brighton & Hove we are straying into territory where not only is the debate over political differences overshadowing too much of the decision-making and actions of the council, some players seem to be seeking to undermine the democratic processes we have to collectively depend on to make decisions.

For example the council is currently engaged in the very important task of recruiting a new Chief Executive. Unfortunately, someone sought to leak some of the candidates’ names, including those of some candidates who didn’t make it through the shortlisting process. If I were a candidate for any job, let alone such a senior and high profile one, I would expect my application to remain confidential. And the panel also deserves confidentiality as it frankly debates the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. This leak was a very serious breach of sensitive information, with serious consequences, and an investigation is underway.

Leaking sensitive information such as this seeks to undermine the process agreed by the whole council in its constitution and the laws regulating local government. The recruitment depends on a cross-party panel which has councillors in proportion to our overall political group sizes. It is this proportionality to how voters chose to elect parties that maintains the democratic mandate. While the decision on the shortlisted candidates wasn’t unanimous, it was agreed properly as with any council decision by committee or panel.

A council statement was then prepared for media enquiries, which said:

“The recommended shortlist of candidates was agreed by the interview panel. Following the interviews the recommended candidate for the post of chief executive will be subject to Full Council agreement on 25 October.”

Unfortunately Cllr Gill Mitchell (Leader of the Labour & Co-operative Group) was quoted in The Argus saying: “The statement from the council press office is not only misleading, it’s untrue. There was no unanimity in the selection of shortlisted candidates.”

As a result of this the council statement became the matter of some controversy on Twitter. In the hurried discussion on Twitter I mistakenly implied that I hadn’t approved the statement but realised soon after this was incorrect and that I had in fact done so. As soon as I became aware of my mistake I corrected myself on Twitter, openly, for all to see. Bearing in mind that I sign off many statements every day, it’s actually an easy enough mistake to make, and as soon as I realised the error, I corrected it.

Let’s be clear that the council statement was correct, it doesn’t suggest unanimity, just that the shortlist was agreed in line with the standard process for the council’s panels and committees. To say that a committee or panel “agreed” something is perfectly normal practice, and I’m not aware of an opposition leader ever questioning this type of wording before, it’s just the usual democratic process. We need to accept these processes and focus on the best interests of the city.

Let’s not be distracted from the fact that someone sought to undermine a clear, fair and proper process to recruit a key role for the city. I welcome the local Conservative party also condemning the leak, but am deeply disappointed that the local Labour party won’t join us in the condemnation.

The city needs and deserves a constructive, workable political culture. We have to accept political differences exist but also agree to be bound by the democratic processes of our council. I call on residents to help politicians change the political culture in the city – challenge us when we slip backwards and demand productive cross-party relations from all parties.

This week we will be interviewing shortlisted candidates for council chief executive. My hope and aim is to find cross-party consensus on a candidate to bring to full council for approval. To do that successfully all parties are going to have to work together, trust the process and put the interests of our great city first and foremost.

Subsidised buses – services all running, money saved

The work continues on subsidised bus routes for Brighton & Hove. You can read the story so far in my previous posts. We made some important decisions at yesterday’s Policy & Resources Committee.

In summary: To cope with government cuts the council budget, agreed by all parties, included the need to find a saving from the bus subsidy budget. Combined with the pressure of increasing fuel costs and a government cut to bus operator subsidy this made for a challenging, pressured issue.

Strictly speaking the law requires bus companies to not run any routes or parts of routes which are unprofitable. This was probably intended to prevent anti-competitive ‘loss-leader’ services by one company to undercut another. The result however is that some routes don’t operate without a council subsidy.

Two key issues at hand were school bus routes, some of which were costing the council over £1,000 per child per year (plus the £240/year parents pay for a pass) while child numbers are declining and also some non-school routes which were costly to keep going.

As we have long said, we are working on alternative approaches to school transport. So yesterday Greens proposed, and the committee agreed, that we procure one year contracts for services on the 74 and 96 school routes. These will be for smaller vehicles under more flexible terms which we estimate will be half the cost of the services as they were currently run. These will be funded from one-off funds.

For the other services, as I have said many times, only by proceeding with the procurement as we did last month could we flush out which services could continue commercially, without subsidies. It was a strong approach which has shown that a number of evening services will now continue without council taxpayer support.

The one change to the services previously run is the 52 route which will now terminate at the Marina. There was also a very unfortunate administrative error which resulted in one route being given to the incorrect operator – that is being corrected, and everything has been reviewed by senior officers to ensure it’s all now proper and correct.

Still now with the information we have from the commercial bus companies, which was only possible by the approach we took, we are in a position to keep services going on all routes that were previously subsidised but with a saving of £230,000 per year.

The opposition, particularly the Labour group, have been continuing to claim that they did ‘deals’ with the largest bus company to ‘save’ routes and also that their ‘campaign’ including a petition had pressured us into changes. This continues to be complete nonsense. We said we’d do what we have, and we have. No deals have been done with the bus companies – Roger French has made absolutely clear that there hasn’t been a deal. Indeed it wouldn’t be legal, the bus companies have to make their own commercial decisions on which routes they run. The remainder have been procured through EU rules.

Both opposition parties have been in administration and know the way you have to negotiate procurements with bus companies, as we have successfully done. Their comments and campaigning indicate that they are either naive over these processes or being intentionally misleading about how they work. Either way it’s not good for them. They’ve been completely wrong-footed by our actions.

So let’s remember, we’ve delivered on what we said we do and all the services keep running with a significant saving for council tax payers.

Labour dishonesty on buses serves nobody

There has been, understandably, some controversy since the council proceeded with a reduction in bus subsidies. This was a reduction agreed at budget council which we have now had to implement at a recent Policy & Resources Committee meeting. The impact was exacerbated by a government cut in the bus operator subsidy as well as increasing fuel costs. Still we have proceed with the smallest reduction in subsidies we’ve been able to identify compared to any other council, affecting less than 0.33% of bus passenger journeys in the city. You can read much more on this in my previous posts.

Two points to re-iterate from my earlier posts are that:

  1. We have been saying since January that we will be looking to provide school transport in different, and lower cost ways. Some school bus routes were costing over £1,000 per child per year (in addition to the £240 their parents were paying for a bus pass each year).
  2. We have always said during this bus subsidy procurement process that it was likely we would see some services being continued by the bus operators on a commercial basis, even after the subsidies were withdrawn.

Despite the decision on the procurement having been properly agreed by a committee of the council, the opposition have been threatening to suspend the rules at the next full council meeting, ignore administrative law and revert the committee’s decision to save the services at risk.

This would be a very foolhardy approach by the opposition, for reasons I am likely to need to go into in another post soon. However, as I also did before the Policy & Resources Committee meeting, I have been speaking to the opposition group leaders to see if there was another way through all this. Now, as is usual, these are private discussions and negotiations. Regardless of whether they succeed or not, they are not for public consumption. Those private conversations are key to successfully finding productive compromises and seeking out agreement. Sadly that privacy was breached today.

I rang Cllr Gill Mitchell, leader of the Labour & Co-operative Group, to discuss an offer in reply to her opening pitch. She asked me to explain my reasoning, and I did so. She then said that she would “get back to me” on the offer. She didn’t. But Labour then put out some tweets and a press release partially quoting what I said in that call.

This was a clear breach of trust. I am left with the need to explain what has happened. The confidence has been broken so I will expand on discussions I would ordinarily not have explored publicly.

In seeking to negotiate the opposition haven’t budged their positions one inch and were looking to commit the council to almost £200k more of spending each year for the next 4 years (the Tory request was marginally cheaper than the Labour one, but the same order of magnitude). I couldn’t commit to spend that much extra money as we don’t have that amount of spare cash in the budget as recurring income. One-off spend from last year’s underspend or capital investment could not be used to support such a four year commitment.

The offer I made this morning was just over £55k a year being used to procure more cost effective school transport for the 96 and 74 routes. (I seek to treat each opposition leader equally. However I had not been able to speak to Cllr Geoffrey Theobald for the Conservatives, but managed to speak to Cllr Mitchell, who I was told was at work.)

It seems to me that Labour had no desire to find an agreement nor common ground, otherwise they could have responded to me with a counter-offer or some kind of comment. But they didn’t, they went straight to the press.

Not only did they partially report our conversation, Labour also claimed that they had negotiated a ‘deal’ with Brighton & Hove Bus Company to save a number of routes at no cost the council. Yet this was completely untrue. As I confirmed this afternoon with Roger French, who heads the bus company, no deal was done with anyone. He was going to make a commercial decision, on his own, to keeping running some of the services after the subsidy went. Just as I have been saying was likely for some time, and indeed happened before in the past when subsidies were withdrawn.

For Labour to suggest they had made this happen was simply untrue, and not in their gift. There was and is no deal there, and the bus company have confirmed this to the media. The council ran a procurement, companies won different subsidised routes to operate out of that, then they make commercial decisions on what else they run. This is the proper and legal way in which buses have to operate outside of London in this country.

It’s sad that Labour are seeking to make short term political points out of the bus issue, even more disappointing that they’ve done so by attempting to mislead.

These are difficult times for the council and our local economy, all parties should be putting the city before politics. But there is good news… so far since the new parking charges came in Roger French reports a 4 to 5% increase in bus journeys on an average week, and visitor numbers continue to go up.

Why our city’s political culture needs to change or how Labour and Tories are misleading residents

The Labour Party via twitter are suggesting that Greens are ‘diverting’ money from buses to support One Planet Living.

Other than the fact that this continues to show that they don’t understand, support nor appreciate the benefits of One Planet Living for improving this city and saving the council money, it’s an outright lie.

The buses budget is a recurring budget – that is money that we spend each year on contracts with bus companies. For this financial year it’s about £1m funded from parking income.

The One Planet Living (1PL) money they refer to is how we have chosen to allocate £250k of the council’s £4 million underspend generated in the last financial year.

So you can see they are very different beasts – buses is recurring money, 1PL one-off money left over from the last year.

You cannot run a 4 year contract for buses with a sliver of one-off money. But you can save recurring money we spend each year on our water and energy bills with the input of a one-off funded spend to save project. Is that so hard for Labour to understand?

Misleading statements

It is downright untrue and misleading to the people of the city to suggest money has been ‘diverted’ from any budget to 1PL and Labour should be ashamed of making such a suggestion.

Just to run down the full history of the issue in addition to my previous post and one from my party. Back in 2004 I’m told the then Labour administration tried to make cuts to bus subsidies, including the 96 bus when times were good for councils.

Now we’re facing harsh austerity measures and yet we’ve managed to affect less than 0.33% of passenger journeys in the face of cuts and fuel inflation. And both opposition parties Tories and Labour had lots of time to engage with this issue.

Back in September & October 2011 they participated in the ‘star chambers’ for budget proposals including saving money from the bus subsidies budget was mentioned. The draft budget was then published in December 2011 and a scrutiny panel did examine buses as well as school transport. The Green administration made clear then, as we have now, that we were reviewing school transport to ensure it was as cost effective and sustainable as possible in the face of cuts.

No objections from Tories or Labour in October or February

Furthermore in October 2011 a public Cabinet Member Meeting discussed the criteria through which the bus subsidies would be reviewed and re-procured. For the first time this created a systematic process for ranking services open to public scrutiny and thereby not vulnerable to ‘pork barrel’ politics of councillors being tempted into saving services to their wards even if they were not financially justifiable (see especially appendix 2 of the reports for that meeting). The minutes show that opposition councillors present at that meeting raised no objections to the criteria which has produced the decisions we have now had to make.

Come budget council in February 2012 the opposition councillors presented a number of amendments, but none of them sought to remove the reduction in the bus subsidy. They voted for the budget including this reduction. It’s a basic concept of administrative law that you only vote for something if you support it, otherwise you abstain or vote against. Bizarre claims in recent days that the opposition “didn’t really support this” don’t wash.

As I’ve mentioned previously, both opposition leaders had two briefings at which they could have further raised issue with any aspect of the bus procurement process, but they didn’t. Then they both chose to present last minute amendments on the day of the committee meeting where we had to decide.

The Labour one failed to recognise that we did a 4 year procurement to get better prices – the £226k they wanted to raid wouldn’t even get them a year’s worth of the bus services they wanted, and we would have needed to spend months on a new 1 year procurement process. As this would take 3-4 months we would then be in a situation of having less than a year until having to do the procurement again. All costly, expensive and un-costed by Labour.

The Tory amendment was calculated by finance officers to cost at least £508k which they had not found whatsoever, and also they hit the issue of needing to do a new 1 year procurement which would result in much higher prices.

Playing around with the council’s democratic decision making

Now Labour have in a press release said that they will seek to overturn this decision somehow at a Full Council meeting. Legal advice confirms my own view that committee decisions are final (other than the call-in procedure which at most can only force a decision to be taken again). This was explicitly discussed with Labour’s deputy leader as part of the constitutional reforms: committee decisions have to be final otherwise the system won’t work, and basic principles of administrative law.

Ultimately a four year procurement was the best way to get value for money, trying to push one-off money into one year services is not going to go very far in resolving these issues which all parties long knew were coming. I’m saddened that the Coalition Government has forced councils in to this situation where services are reduced . But in times of limited cash, we cannot justify the cost of over £1,000 per pupil per year on one of the school routes that wont be subsidised any longer. We can now look at other options such as smaller, cheaper school transport options and bus companies seeking to run services on a commercial basis on the routes where subsidies have been withdrawn.

Opposition councillors haven’t found the money to ‘save’ services over the 4 years of the procurement we’ve undertaken, and none of us know how much more expensive the prices would be for 1 year contracts – but we know it will take months to complete that procurement which seems hardly worthwhile for just a year. Rather than creating more uncertainty for contractors and all those people affected, as Labour have done with their latest statements, we should be spending that time and resources on finding solutions.

Short-term media ‘wins’ at any cost

Just as at the budget-setting this February, we see the opposition parties going for a short term media ‘win’ at the long term expense of residents and council services. In February it was the £3.66m hole they added to next year’s finances so that they could force the council tax freeze into the budget. Of course they failed to identify how that £3.66m would be paid for nor which services would have to be cut to do so. Now with the buses there will be at least a £0.5m if not more cost over the 4 years of this bus contract if the opposition have their way. Once again there is no mention of which council services they will cut in the coming years to pay for this.

It’s a shameful way of behaving, it does a disservice to local politics in this city and all those who depend on us to make the difficult judgements necessary to balance competing needs for services in times of ever decreasing budgets.

I recognise that most people will never read this level of detail, but those interested I do think it’s important that there is an awareness of what is truly going on. We need to change the political culture in this city and I’m doing what I can about it. Thanks for reading.

The June 2012 Policy & Resources meeting or how Labour & Tories connived to campaign against bus cuts they voted for

This week saw the first full meeting of Policy & Resources committee under the new system of decision making on Brighton & Hove City Council.

There were many important issues on the agenda including revising the corporate plan for the next year and agreeing a letter to government in support of equal marriage proposals. You can read the full agenda here.

However the vast majority of the meeting and the interest was focussed on two reports. The first was the final budget update on the last financial year which ended this April. This showed that in its first year the Green administration had, despite biting government funding cuts, been able to carefully manage the council to a £4.37m underspend. This was good news as it gives us a bit of flexibility in dealing with the unexpected. But context is important as this amounts to being just 2% off a fully balanced budget (one that was neither under nor overspent), so not much in the grand scheme of a large council like ours.

Much of the report was on the detailed management and accounting logistics needed when projects run over two financial years with grants needing to be carried forward. It also noted that we achieved £7.53m in savings from the Value for Money Programme in the last year. Which rather took the wind out of the sails of the opposition who had been focussed on attacking Greens for being reckless, idealistic and unable to manage things.

So of course rather than acknowledging the the first year’s finances had gone well (and I should admit a personal interest here having been the Cabinet Member for Finance in that year!) they took a new tack by attacking the underspend.

Now most of that underspend, £3.187m to be precise, was already spent in the February budget-setting meeting to help with the budget year we are now in. The opposition were more than happy to raid it for their amendments back then. This left £1.183m to be allocated at the committee this week.

It is important to note that this underspend is one-off money, it’s not a recurring amount we can count on each year like income from rents or council tax. So when it’s spent, that’s it. Our report proposed leaving £521k to cover costs relating to Saltdean Lido and to help with unexpected pressures in the 2013/14 budget-setting.

Then we sought to put £662k into a number of areas (full details are at the bottom of this document) including one year cover for a childcare service associated with Brighton Womens’ Centre until a new government funding stream comes through and funding to support the huge number of events we will be seeing in the city this summer. Vitally we allocated £150k to fund a bid for £5m in government grants to get ultrafast broadband in the city. We hope to tie this in with free wifi in the city and continuing to support the high growth digital sector we are lucky to have. Unfortunately there are some very complex legalities associated with the bidding process, which is why need to put money aside for it, but it will deliver huge benefits for the city’s economic future.

Our long term thinking vs opposition’s short termism

We also allocated £250k for projects including automatic water metering and energy audits of key council buildings. These projects will be led by the sustainability team and help us meet our One Planet Council targets, but ultimately they save us money. With pilot work in the Brighton Centre we’ve already saved the council tens of thousands by changing how energy and water are used.

Regardless of the good sense of these plans, unfortunately the opposition decided these were ‘pet’ or ‘vanity’ projects and sought to attack them suggesting saving money and resources, and the economic development of our city, were unnecessary distractions. Personally I want to see a vibrant, digital city and I would rather be spending council funds on positive things than wasted water and heat!

Labour councillors proposed an amendment to take all the money from the sustainability projects and spend it on buses apart from £24k on the Mobile Library. This related to their amendment to the budget in February which only partially funded a new Mobile Library back then. They’ve been hoping someone else will step in to fund the gap in their amendment, but so far we’ve had no offers. The one-off £24k they sought in the amendment was still not enough (it’s recurring annual budget we’re short of) and we cannot buy a new mobile vehicle if there’s no annual budget to run it – that would be utterly irresponsible.

The sum for the bus budget was also unable to make much of a difference because we were about to be debating a 4 year contract which a one-off sum of £226k Labour wanted to throw in didn’t make much sense, but more on that in a moment.

The Labour amendment, despite Tory support fell. But rather than vote for the positive items in this budget report such as on ultrafast broadband, childcare, summer events and so on all the Tory and Labour councillors voted against the report so I used my casting vote as chair to ensure it passed.

The bus issue

So, as colleagues have explained on this blog post, we had to review subsidised bus contracts. The government has cut its support to bus operators by 20%, fuel prices have increased and councils have had their budgets cut substantially by government.

Even if we had been able to keep our budget unchanged, the increased costs bus operators were experiencing meant we’d have only ever been able to afford to support fewer bus services. But sadly we had to reduce our budget. Why? Ultimately because the central government are cutting council funding harder and faster than for any other part of government.

In spite of the scale of the cuts, we sought to take a much smaller reduction from the bus subsidy budget than other areas of the council budget, because we know how important buses are. At the budget council meeting this February both Labour and Tory groups presented an array of amendments – none of which sought to change our proposals on the bus subsidy budget. Furthermore all the opposition councillors very unusually voted for the whole budget including the unamended bus subsidy section.

They absurdly claimed this week that this didn’t mean they supported everything they had voted for: if you don’t support something don’t vote for it! Opposition groups usually abstain on the council budget and they could have done again so this February.

So let us be absolutely clear that both Labour and Tory groups voted for these reductions in the bus subsidy budget. Then both leaders of the opposition groups more recently had the offer of one-on-one briefings with the officers on this topic. Additionally they attended a meeting that I chaired with officers to review the draft agenda for this week’s Policy & Resources committee.

They were even shown extra print-outs of all the bus route data and tendering process at that meeting. Did they ask a single question, raise any concerns or seek to amend any of the reports? No, they had absolutely nothing to say, they agreed that the papers should proceed to publication.

If they were genuinely concerned about the principle, the detail or the process they had been given many opportunities to do something about the bus subsidies, but they didn’t. However in the last few days suddenly they have decided to “save the buses” and continue now, such as with this Labour online post.

Let’s call their behaviour what it is – cynical positioning to seek political capital. Their amendments, as the copious notes from the Finance Director showed, were highly problematic and short-termist (see here and here). Robbing good spend-to-save plans such as on water usage to show that they wanted to be seen to save the buses, in ways they knew couldn’t and wouldn’t succeed. Major procurements are difficult and complex procedures which cannot be altered by amendments submitted on the morning of a meeting. Again, when they had so much notice of what was happening why did they not prepare amendments earlier?

We have sought to cause the minimum harm possible in the face of cuts and inflation. So while other authorities are slashing millions from supported bus routes, and some counties are seeing 47 schools lose services, we kept it to a minimum with less than 0.33% of passenger journeys affected. Overall less than 2% of all routes in the city are subsidised, but we ranked them all to ensure those we did stop supporting would cause these least harm possible.

School routes are particularly difficult to arrange. They are costly, the 96 which was the source of some controversy this week would be costing us each year about £1,000 per child plus the parents were paying £240 a year for a pass. Most big operators aren’t interested in running school buses which are just one way in the morning, once, and a single-homeward trip. But we have been saying for months, I note including at the Budget Scrutiny meetings this January, that we are reviewing all school transport options. I said it again at the meeting this week. Not all school transport has to be by a large bus with a route number associated. Only those big spending routes need to go through the procurement we discussed at committee this week.

There are other options for transport, which we will keep discussing with parents, children, schools and providers. But of course people were understandably very concerned and if the service that runs by your home is affected, that it is only one of 0.33% is small comfort. It is also worth keeping in mind that in the past commercial operators have sought to continue some services even when the subsidy ended, because they found a way to make it commercially viable. So the end of a subsidy does not always mean the end of a route.

It was a difficult meeting and I take no pride or pleasure in moving these challenging items forward. The government is intent of forcing communities into fighting over scant resources, which is so damaging to our resilience and sense of collective wellbeing. Even the Tory chair of the Local Government Association recently called some of the cuts to councils “impossible”.

I know that Greens are working hard to manage our city as sensitively and responsibly as possible in the face of the austerity agenda we oppose. But what pains me most is how Tory and Labour councillors cheapened the debate with their empty posturing. They had every chance to do something more about this if they really cared, and their respective governments too. Of course we’re not going to always agree, but the public deserve informed debate not last minute posturing. Transport is a difficult issue for our city, and the council is only one part of the picture. I intend to keep working with everyone to find the best, sustainable and affordable solutions possible in these tough times.

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.