Tag Archives: politics

Where’s the sense in the energy bill outrage?

Recent weeks have seen incredible inflation in not only energy bills but in the soundbites that both Labour and Tories are hurling around. On energy costs, the big six energy suppliers and the supposed costs of the ‘green’ elements of household energy bills we’re getting a lot of hot air, but not much sense.

It’s all been rather disheartening as none of the key issues behind the ongoing painful price rises have been addressed. With a likely cold winter ahead meaning more and more will have to choose between heating or eating, we deserve better than the rather poor attempts at electoral positioning that the current policy debate is turning out to be.

This woeful debate follows a trend by successive governments, including the current one, of singularly failing to tackle energy as the huge national challenge and opportunity it genuinely presents. The Tories are in a complete morass over what future energy sources should be: Fracking and nuclear power seem to be their top priorities. Putting aside the environmental madness of these two choices, in the UK they are decades away from producing new energy on a commercial scale for British consumers.

Meanwhile Labour have opted for the electioneering gimmick of an energy bill ‘freeze’ post-election. Labour must think they’ve got a nice bit of candy to offer voters but on the slightest bit of consideration, it doesn’t really make much sense. Firstly pre-announcing a bill freeze means the suppliers are far more likely to edge price increases higher now to give them more bankable income should a freeze really come in play. How much of a ‘Miliband factor’ is in this month’s ~10% price rises I wonder? I also am curious to know what happens during the price freeze if wholesale gas prices skyrocket, especially through a very cold snap when demand greatly increases? Will the government have to use taxpayers’ money to pay the higher costs? I can’t imagine a government forcing shareholders (including our own pension funds) to bear gargantuan losses in the face of genuine raw material cost inflation would last very long in court.

Practicalities aside the bill freeze doesn’t really achieve a whole lot. Yes above inflation energy cost increases hurt the poorest hardest, no doubt. But with the freeze pre-announced I expect price changes before and after the freeze will cover expected losses for the energy firms. And frankly a two year breather after years of increases is hardly a lifeline if you are already choosing between heating and eating.

No, what is needed is massive investment in our energy systems to provide resilient, local, renewable energy that is truly affordable. It’s notable that this month green energy supplier Ecotricity announced that they now have built enough of their own renewable sources to start undercutting the big six suppliers’ prices.

Secondly, and just as important, we must take action to proactively deliver serious energy efficiency for all citizens. This has to be in a way that is cheap and works for everyone, including those in the private rented sector. In Brighton & Hove our work on council blocks has resulted in the first energy bill decrease ever for tenants living in those blocks. Those in fuel poverty need this kind of action to permanently reduce their energy bills far more than they need a short-term freeze which holds no longer term solutions. Of course creating more energy efficient homes not only cuts bills permanently, but also makes the warmer better places to live, which all the health and wellbeing benefits that entails.

Cutting demand through energy efficiency will reduce the strain on supplies, reduce our overseas dependence on unreliable sources of fossil fuels whilst creating lots of jobs for those doing the work. I’d much rather be ensuring that homes are permanently warmer rather than faffing about with billing tweaks. If given the proper funding, councils have a huge role to play in delivering energy efficiency programmes, but only central government can tackle the big six suppliers.

Energy is vital to our health, happiness, economy and national security. A few overheated sound bites and electioneering gimmicks are doing great disservice to the huge importance and potential genuine policy action could make for our citizens. I hope voters, media and the third sector will demand better from the national debate; I promise to do my bit as a Green voice for Brighton & Hove.

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.

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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.

Modernising the council and responding to Tory opportunism

During our term of office the Green administration has been working hard to keep lowering the council’s costs and reducing our carbon footprint. A major part of this work has been focussed on the buildings we use.

Brighton & Hove City Council was formed from the merger of a number of different councils which themselves had amalgamated others bits of councils further back in history. So it’s no surprise that there was quite a spread of properties, of varying quality and value, in us. As the government continues to cut council funding our staff numbers are declining through voluntary severance and recruitment freeze. This and technology allow us to dramatically reduce the number of buildings we need to provide council services.

This programme of rationalising buildings is called ‘workstyles’ and began under the previous Conservative administration. Greens have accelerated this work, linked in more IT and service modernisation plus greater ambitions for sustainability.

The final phase, number three, is the biggest and most important. It covers a very significant number of staff and some of our largest, most high profile, offices in a programme that will take 3-4 years to complete. As we are a no overall control council and this work will extend into the next 4 year term, all party leaders have been briefed on the plans. This started in earnest just over a year ago leading to a decision at Policy & Resources Committee in October 2012 which set the principles for this phase. The key principle being that the entirety of our Kings House offices would be sold to fund either moving entirely into Hove Town Hall or into part of Hove Town Hall plus another unidentified building. Either way the decision was clear that savings (in cash and carbon emissions) could only be made with the investment of the capital that selling Kings House would provide. This was agreed with the support of the Conservative councillors on that committee.

The very significant work that decision required has now been done. The clear recommendation from all the analysis is to move remaining staff entirely into Hove Town Hall. As this programme is key to saving the council money, enabling major service redesigns and essential IT investment, we didn’t want to delay. So with cross-party agreement I called a special meeting of the Policy & Resources Committee for this month specifically so that we could crack on with the Workstyles phase 3 programme (otherwise there wouldn’t have been a scheduled meeting until mid-October).

Last Monday the party leaders met for our monthly Leaders’ Group meeting and we discussed Workstyles. There was no suggestion of any concern about the report, just some questions about some of the planning that would need to happen whilst building works were underway and what the refurbished Hove council chamber might be like.

So it was with considerable disappointment that on Wednesday I learnt of a Conservative amendment to the plans through Brighton and Hove News — the next day the Tory leader Geoffrey Theobald sent me the full text of the amendment which aims to tear up the workstyles programme by putting a school on the rear half of the Kings House site.

It somewhat renders the year of briefings and discussions pointless if a party is going to then opportunistically seek to amend at the last moment via press release. Even more so when the Conservatives voted for the principle of selling all of Kings House off less than a year ago!

Workstyles is essential to the council’s financial future as well as its ability to meet the challenges of changing demand. You’d think Tories, who started it, might understand that! Instead they want to offer up the most valuable part of Kings House to a free school who I understand they have already lined up a sponsor for. If their plan went ahead it would totally shatter the financial savings and it would eliminate the opportunity for a significant amount of much needed affordable housing to be built on the site. Furthermore, because of the nature of the Workstyles programme’s need for works to happen elsewhere first, the site couldn’t open as a school before 2017 at the earliest.

Having had discussions at the end of last week I’m pleased that the Labour group leader Warren Morgan has confirmed that he, like the Greens, will oppose the Conservative approach thus allowing this important project to move forward unimpeded.

Yes there is currently pressure on school places in the West of our city. But lots of work is underway with school expansions and already approved Free Schools getting going. A last-minute Tory attempt to make an essential and very long-term programme about schools is deeply opportunistic. It also undermines the whole point of repeated cross-party briefing to find consensus in our times as a no overall control council.

As Council Leader I will keep working hard to find open and consensual ways of working cross-party so that we can put the needs of our city first, and politics second.

Rewiring Public Services – Local Government’s battle cry for the future

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This past week I spend a productive few days at the Local Government Association’s 2013 annual conference in Manchester. It was great to discuss the issues facing councils with friends old and new. Passion and innovation were on display in spades thanks to a strong presence from the LGA Improvement Board, NESTA, Public-i, MySociety and many others.

Some of the best sessions for me included an extraordinarily frank speech by Lord Heseltine, insights into NHS re-organisation from Lord Victor Adebowale and a good overview of the financial challenges ahead from Professor Tony Travers. Most, but not all, of these and much more are online through the conference webcast.

Also at the conference saw the formation of the Key Cities group, of which Brighton & Hove is a founder member. This grouping of major urban areas will prove to be a major voice in lobbying central government, especially as many are in the bidding process for City Deals. This work along with associated sessions hosted by the Centre for Cities were hugely positive for shared understanding and learning. It’s important to note that this group is resolutely aiming to be supportive of the LGA and remain within the association, in contrast to some of the noises made by the group of 8 Core Cities.

But by far the most important outcome from the conference was the launch of the LGA’s powerful ‘Rewiring Public Services’ campaign and the associated reports that back it up. This campaign was produced following extensive engagement across the public sector and with support from all four political groups on the LGA (Conservative, Labour, LibDem and Independent – which includes Greens). If ever there was a time for solidarity amongst councils, this is it, which is why I strongly encourage all councils to remain in the LGA despite the pressure from some to save on the annual fee.

The campaign is superbly put together, well designed and with a clear set of asks. In essence the campaign first shows that through financial modelling that we cannot continue as we are, that the funding shortfall will hit £14.4 billion by the end of this decade. Given this and that the ‘big three’ parties in Westminster all accept current spending plans, the campaign then makes a clear bid for a sustainable alternative. This alternative includes financial independence for councils, enshrining a constitutional right for local government to exist, simplification of the relationship with central government and lasting resolutions to the key challenges, such as social care.

I was delighted to be invited to speak at the opening plenary responding to the campaign’s launch along with the RSA’s Matthew Taylor, Graham Allen MP and some fellow council leaders. The mood at that session epitomised the whole conference: Defiant, positive and united in championing local government as the best way to lead solutions for local needs.

Local Government Minister Eric Pickles was dismissive of the whole thing when he spoke to the conference a day later. But this was hardly unexpected. He is but one voice in the political sphere, there are many others to be persuaded.

In one sense, as work by the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee has shown, the Rewiring Public Services campaign’s asks are eminently reasonable and deliverable. Indeed they are only asking for what local government in the rest of the developed world already has – freedom. But given how long England has struggled under centralism, the cross-party consensus on campaigning for these changes is quite remarkable. That extraordinary consensus now has to be maintained and pushed upwards from councillors and officers to MPs and civil servants.

Local government’s future is in genuine crisis. If now is not the time for fundamental change, then when will it ever be? This is a once in a generation opportunity to achieve a sustainable foundation for local government. Everyone who cares about local services needs to set aside party allegiances, as the LGA leadership have, and lobby to achieve the change we desperately need. I certainly will.

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Squaring the circle in Brighton and Hove – the full picture on pay & allowances

I need to set the record straight on claims about the pay and allowances negotiations currently underway at Brighton & Hove City Council. The long overdue proposals being consulted on deal with historic issues we inherited from Labour and Tories that have to be resolved to complete the move to single status, which is the process to ensure fairness for all staff pay every council has had to do. The majority of staff, about 90%, will see little or no change to their total pay, and of those affected more will gain than see detriment. Any detriment will be compensated and we expect the total wage bill to rise slightly.

Why are we having to consult staff on this at all? We need to go back to the founding days of the city council I serve on. Brighton & Hove City Council was formed in 1997 from the merger of Brighton Borough, Hove Borough and parts of East Sussex County councils. This, along with changes over the years since then, has left a complex arrangement for staff pay and allowances.

Previous Labour and Conservative administrations made a number of abortive attempts to resolve what unions themselves have called a ‘mish-mash’ of allowances which all agreed need resolving. Whilst basic pay was eventually reformed, the final part of single status in the form of allowances was always ducked leaving the council in a risky and unsatisfactory position.

When Greens became the largest party on the council in 2011 this was one of those incredibly difficult issues which we had to address. Sadly external factors mean the council cannot legally delay any longer, we must negotiate a new set of clear and fair allowances this year. Of the council’s £180m a year pay bill, these allowances make up £4m however the implications of these changes affect all staff.

I make no apology for seeking to introduce fair pay and allowances for all staff from care workers, social workers to gardeners and waste operatives. Since Greens formed the administration our lowest paid all have and will retain bigger pay packets through our introduction of the Living Wage, where we have led the way in local government. Senior management pay is at its lowest level in over a decade. As a result we’ve closed the gap between highest and lowest paid in the council meaning it’s far more equal than when Labour ran the council.

We have spent months exploring every possible option and reviewing how other councils handled similar issues before beginning negotiations with the recognised trade unions. Most councils handled changes to pay and allowances at the same time. Previous administrations took away that choice from us by dealing with basic pay only, leaving the allowances issue unaddressed.

Along the way, up to the formal decision to begin the process, all three political group leaders on the council were regularly briefed on progress. At no point did any of them object to the process continuing. Labour are now retrospectively claiming that they did object vociferously, but I never witnessed this. Form your own conclusions as to why they now say they did object.

The Green Group of councillors were briefed by officers on the plans before voting as a group to proceed. Hence a report was put to the council’s cross-party Policy & Resources Committee authorising the start of negotiations to be led by officers, as is appropriate for such a complex issue with weighty legal and financial implications. We had understood that none of the parties would vote against the report, though some councillors might abstain.

As the meeting proceeded the two Labour councillors on the committee were deep in conversation and appeared to decide a new position then and there. Come the vote they unexpectedly voted against whilst the remainder voted for the report.

Negotiations began in February and continued, on and off, until this month. This Tuesday 7th May the council’s offer as the employer was formally sent to the unions, staff and councillors. This marked the beginning of the ninety day staff consultation period with a huge array of group briefings, every employee receiving a detailed pack and one-to-one meetings for everyone with their manager.

It is very clear that this is not about budget savings and not about ‘austerity’. In fact, based on the offer under consultation, the pay bill is likely to go up slightly. Which other Council in the country can claim that?

With input from officers and unions, we have moved heaven and earth to produce the best possible offer which absolutely minimises detriment whilst remaining within legal and financial constraints.

What is the offer then? The offer includes three key aspects:

  1. A new fair and simple set of allowances which is easy to understand and helps the council meet the needs of our citizens.With these new allowances 90% of staff will see very little or no change at all in their take home pay. Of those that do, the majority will actually see an increase and a minority will see some detriment. Most of those seeing detriment will, it is estimated, lose less than £25 per week. I recognise even that is a lot to some people, but not the headline figures being used by some individuals.
  2. Anyone who is unfortunately suffering detriment will be generously compensated for that loss with a lump sump payment. For example someone losing between £1,001 and £1,250 a year is proposed to receive £3,550 in one-off compensation.
  3. We are keen to provide new opportunities for staff. We hope that, if agreed at a future committee, changes like Bank Holiday working can increase opportunities for waste and recycling staff whilst improving services to the city by eliminating changing collection days every time there is a Bank Holiday.

We shouldn’t prejudge the consultation: Staff need to be given the chance to consider the proposals, how it might affect them and offer their feedback. We also need to be mindful of any negotiations which might happen once the consultation period ends.

We have to resolve these allowances now. To do so without any detriment to any member of staff would sadly be totally unaffordable, even with Council Tax rises that would certainly not be supported by Labour and Conservative councillors. It is also important to remember that Brighton & Hove is the second worst-cut council of its type in the country. Being simply against any detriment to anyone might be ideologically pure, but doesn’t offer any solutions to the immediate situation the city council finds itself in. The Labour Party are not interested in the rights and wrongs of this important issue, and are cynically using it as a stick to beat the Green administration whilst knowingly not telling people the whole story.

It is worth re-iterating that this is not about saving money, the offer will cost more. Most staff are unaffected and the majority of those seeing changes will benefit. Those seeing detriment will be compensated. Despite the incredibly difficult times for our council, facing brutal Tory-LibDem cuts to our funding, we know how important it is to resolve this matter so we are funding the compensation and the slight increase in the wage bill to deliver a fair outcome.

During the consultation period I know that everyone involved remains open to any suggestions from staff and unions which could further improve the offer.

Change is a difficult process for staff affected and to bring in those changes as a minority administration, but it is absolutely the right thing to do for the long term wellbeing of the council, it’s employees and everyone it serves. Nobody who knows all the issues denies that it has to be done, and that other parties have failed to finish the job when they had the chance. With the success of this process I believe that once and for all we can have a council with a clear and fair pay and allowances system. At last.

 

Jason Kitcat is a Green City Councillor. He is writing in his capacity as Convenor of the Green Group of councillors on Brighton & Hove City Council. You can read more about the offer being consulted on here.

Speech to Green Party Spring Conference 2013

Here is the text of the speech I delivered to party conference this morning:

Good morning conference.

I’m happy to report to you that your Green councillors in Brighton & Hove are working hard to keep delivering Green policies for the city.

As I speak a city-wide 20mph limit is being rolled out for a healthier, safer city while wonderful new cycling and walking infrastructure is being installed to improve some of our major routes and most difficult junctions.

We are building new affordable homes and we have ended council tax discounts for second homes.

Our City Plan for the next 20 years has been passed, embedding Green thinking in the heart of every planning application the city will see for decades.

The city council is working to annual carbon budgets and is on course to lead the world’s first One Planet City.

We continue to lead the most open, participative and inclusive council we can. This leadership, with our neighbouring councils, has just won us a City Deal for the Greater Brighton region which will bring new devolved powers and investment opportunities.

This is all in the face of a coalition government that is hostile to our values in so many ways. We reject government austerity measures which are harming local communities.

Take their so-called ‘welfare reforms’ for example: So much time and energy has been wasted on countless cuts just to appease Daily Mail journalists who think this is where public funds are being wasted – on benefits.

But that isn’t the truth. The shameful truth is we have the outrage of government cutting benefits to those least able to afford whilst spending billions on new submarines, aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons we do not need.

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.

Meanwhile Liam Byrne MP has confirmed that Labour too would have a benefit cap and would keep cutting the benefits bill. Other Labour MPs confirm cuts to local government too. We have all three mainstream parties committed to backing rich over the poor.

Despite the occasional glimmer, Labour does little other than remix Conservative policies in the same toxic vat as the one Blair, Clegg and Cameron tried. It’s a travesty that this country lurches from one government to another on the basis that they’re not quite as bad as whoever is in power… until they are.

We cannot let them get away with this.

So we need to speak out and ask “What kind of society do we want to live in?”

The Tory vision of people going hungry and cold in our country, with shameful levels of child poverty and families turfed out of their homes? One where wealth is transferred from the poorest to the richest?

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

This conference we remember that 40 years ago Europe’s first Green Party was started by our colleagues in this country. A party with a clear vision for the future. One that believes and does localism.

The only party serious about real localism, so we should shout about it.

We are the only party with a coherent vision on welfare and sustainable local government.

A reversal of the privatisation of the NHS, and an end to the scandals it’s already brought to communities like Lewisham

True local taxation and powers to help protect local services from mad national austerity measures.

We must speak out, and give people the hope of a genuine alternative.

I’m passionate about local government. Municipal pride and creativity are Green values that we need to rekindle in town halls across the country. Councils need to be more self-confident, bold and demand greater local freedoms.

But we must always remember councils will exist in contexts beyond our immediate control. While national government remains able to re-write the rulebook and take away resources at a whim, it will always be difficult

Being in administration of a council, as in Brighton & Hove, is like taking the captaincy of a ship. We cannot control the waters ahead, whether they be stormy or calm. But we must complete the journey, safely transporting all aboard, whether battered by storms or baked by the sun. We will not founder. Guided by our Green principles and by pulling together as a party, we will continue forward, delivering progress for residents in Brighton and Hove and showing the real change a Green-led council can achieve.

Comment on Welfare Reform from a Council perspective

I had the following comment piece published in The Argus yesterday as a ‘Thursday Soapboax’:

The government is continuing to impose its austerity cuts to welfare support and local public sector budgets.

 

I believe what Philip Jones referred to in his soapbox piece (The Argus 14th February) as a “Sick Tax” is the government’s 16% real terms cut to what was once Council Tax Benefit. From 1st April it has been localised to councils as a council tax discount labelled by government as “Council Tax Reduction”.

 

Like everywhere else, our council has no choice but to locally administer this slashed scheme, whilst also coping with yet another year of huge government cuts to our funding. The Green administration’s budget proposals have, despite huge financial pressures, absorbed almost half the cut to council tax benefit and set aside up to £600,000 in discretionary funds to help those worst hit by these and other government cuts to benefits.

 

We have had to prepare for this at breakneck speed – producing a legally correct local scheme and software to manage it in very short order. Indeed all the council leaders in the South East, most of whom are Conservatives, have repeatedly written to ministers objecting to the speed and scale of these changes. In spite of these pressures Brighton & Hove City Council have been widely praised for the extensive consultation we have done since last summer on our scheme. Meanwhile we have proactively contacted all those affected by phone and letter to help advise them on how we and our partners can help.

 

With our scarce funds we have been able to ensure nobody affected by Council Tax Reduction will pay more than £3 extra a week this coming year, and most will pay far less. It’s worth remembering that council tax is assessed on a household basis and not individual. So Mr Jones is wrong to say that we are in any way targeting sick people, quite the contrary.

 

Ultimately we are all victims in the face of very poorly implemented, heartless Conservative-led government policies. Come 1st April our city will be hit with the cuts to council funding including council tax benefit, the bedroom tax and cuts to housing benefit too. Liam Byrne MP says, if in government, Labour too would continue to cut benefits spending and the city’s two Tory MPs don’t seem to understand what they are doing to their own constituents. It’s tragic that the three largest parties in Westminster all seem to think building nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers whilst cutting support for our poorest is the best way forward for our country. Greens utterly disagree.

Peter James and the Mobile Library

Online and on paper there are some references today to renown local author Peter James’ views on the mobile library. What isn’t explained in reports is how he acknowledged the Green administration’s arguments. Last week Peter wrote to Cllr Geoffrey Bowden, chair of the Economic Development & Culture Committee, on the subject of the mobile library. Geoffrey is responsible for the library service amongst many other things. With his permission, and Peter’s too, I publish below their email conversation which speaks for itself…

 

On 14/02/2013 05:49, Peter James wrote:

Dear Mr Bowden

I understand that there will be a debate about the Mobile Library today.

Both as a local author and in my capacity as Chair of the Crime Writer Association, I write to you to implore you, from the bottom of my heart, to please look favourably on saving this valuable part of our library network.

If it had not been for the libraries, when I was a child growning up in Brighton, I don’t think I would ever have become a writer, for was in those that I discovered my love of books.

In today’s harsh economic times, fewer and fewer people are able to afford book, and libraries are their lifeline. The mobile serves so many people, including the elderly and equally importantly youngsters with decreasing access to books, as more and more high street bookstores close.

I think that a city like ours really must support literature in every possible way. I know resources are stretched, but the cost of this service is very small in the overall scheme of things, and what it brings to the community is something quite priceless.

All my best

Peter

————
Peter James (Hons) D.Litt

 
On 14 Feb 2013, at 09:32, Geoffrey Bowden wrote:

Dear Peter

Many thanks for taking the trouble to write to me. Like you I am a great fan of mobile libraries, but there are some rather steep costs involved in keeping one on the road. We have been exploring all kinds of ways to achieve this but, in the end, have been forced to concede that it is simply not possible.

Here are some facts which will provide you with some of the background to the reluctant decision to end the service.

  • the current vehicle is coming to the end of its natural life and is getting more and more expensive to maintain
  • a new vehicle will cost £125,000 to purchase
  • the annual running costs exceed £80,000
  • Less than 800 people are currently registered to use the mobile library
  • 78% of the current users are also registered at and also use one of the static libraries near to their homes
  • 98% of the population live within a mile and a half of one of our static libraries, which are well served by buses and contain far more books
  • one of the possible options we examined to keeping the mobile on the road was to find a partner with whom to run it. No one in the voluntary sector or other public services (police, NHS or fire services) were interested or had the funds available either
  • at one point capital was identified to purchase a new vehicle, but with running costs taken into account, it would only have been possible to run a reduced service for three days a week stopping off at only the most popular locations. This would not have passed any independent value-for-money test (a test required for such expenditure) so was therefore voted down by the Policy & Resources committee which has ultimate sanction of expenditure over the £50,000 level
  • the mobile is therefore being replaced by a home delivery service, which has been particularly welcomed by the truly housebound, who are currently excluded even from visiting the mobile library. 500 people have already been identified for this service and they will now be given access to up to 500,000 books (instead of the very limited number held on the mobile) via laptops and tablets taken to their homes by volunteers and a dedicated member of staff, who will guide them through the online book ordering process. The books will then be delivered and taken away once read

We live in extremely difficult financial circumstances and if the Government was not stripping out £30 million from the council’s grant and restricting us raising money via the Council Tax to pay for all vital services, we would be able to contemplate purchasing a new vehicle and keeping it on the road six days a week. Sadly that isn’t the economic situation in which we find ourselves.

The upside of this otherwise sad tale is that, unlike Labour and Conservative run councils throughout the country who are closing down libraries wholesale, having long abandoned their mobiles, the Green administration has managed for a second year running to keep all its static libraries open. In fact we are about to build a new one in Woodingdean (replacing a 50 year old temporary Nissen hut with a state of the art library and medical centre).

I am sorry this is not the answer you hoped for, but sometimes we are forced into making tough decisions and this, sadly, is one of them.

With best wishes
Geoffrey
Cllr Geoffrey Bowden
Green Party Councillor Queen’s Park Ward
Chair, Economic Development and Culture Committee

 
On 14/02/2013 10:44, Peter James wrote:

Dear Geoffrey

I really appreciate your taking the time and trouble to respond in such detail, thank you very much.

Certainly your points and argument here make sense, and it is at least encouraging to know about the home delivery service.

Meantime on a very positive note, you do all have to be congratulated on keeping the static libraries open, and it is extremely good news to hear about Woodingdean.

All my best and again, thank you for such a reasoned and thorough explanation.

Peter
—————-

Peter James (Hons) D.Litt

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.