Tag Archives: tory

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.

The truth is out there: Debating the council budget

The response from the opposition parties to our budget process proposals and associated press release has been… interesting.

Firstly the Conservatives have been denying they ever planned 2.5% increases in council tax. They’re now claiming they probably would have continued with a council tax freeze. This is not only financially improbable given the 33% cuts to Brighton & Hove City Council’s formula grant funding imposed by central government, but it isn’t true.

At a Cabinet Meeting on 17th February 2011 the Conservative administration approved a report which explicitly included plans for a 2.5% council tax increase from 2012/13 through to 2014/15. Noting this plan was part of recommendation 2 of the report they all voted for, details are online here. Will they retract their claims to the contrary?

Two other points the Conservatives are making also deserve clarification. They make much of the £2.5m underspend delivered in the year 2010/11. However this money isn’t just sitting in a slush fund waiting to be spent. Much of it was allocated by the Conservative administration in the 2011/12 budget before they lost power. What is left of it is there to deal with the risks involved in the huge changes and funding reductions we have to face in the current budget year. That historical, one-off, underspend has essentially no significant bearing on planning for next year’s budget to cover 2012/13.

Tories also are making noise about how much the council spends on funding Union representatives. Yet they were the ones who increased the funding (reasonably in my view) to support work on ‘Single Status’. This was a complex and fraught issue to resolve historical and current pay disparities between male and female employees doing similar roles. There are still a few matters to resolve in that area but any administration would need to have reviewed the union and HR provisions as this work wrapped up. What is notable is that the Green administration have chosen to be more open in spelling out those funding streams, whilst the Tories buried them in the whole HR budget pot.

Meanwhile Labour are banging a drum about how we have broken our supposed pledge to “resist all cuts” by even planning to deal with the imposed service reductions. We are strongly challenging government’s policies and we are the only party locally to be opposing the consensus that the cuts are necessary. However we recognise that central government can force certain things on us, so we did not pledge to “resist all cuts” – I’ve checked every Green leaflet I have a copy of, as well as our web site – as far as I can see we never said “resist all cuts”. Will Labour, specifically Cllr Gill Mitchell who keeps repeating the line “resist all cuts”, either show us the Green leaflet they are quoting or retract their statements?

What Greens did say was that we would “resist, to the greatest extent possible, the service cuts and privatisation imposed [on us]”. And we will…

UPDATE: Labour are also claiming we pledged to “stop the cuts” in a Huffington Post blog, again we never pledged that. I have checked all our publications and our website, the only time that term arises is in relation to the “Stop the Cuts coalition” who we worked with and our attending a “Stop the Cuts” march. Our manifesto is online Labour, so pick something that was actually in it to bash us with!

The Green view on the national debt

Further to my earlier post on this issue, an additional opportunity to set the national debt in context arose last week. The Conservative group of councillors submitted an extraordinary motion using the national debt to justify massive cuts whilst also reassuring residents that ‘Intelligent Commissioning’ and other actions left the council in a good position to handle the cuts.

Well this motion had to be amended, and so I submitted a detailed amendment, as you can see here.

Unfortunately the amendment fell, because Labour sat on their hands for the vote. Thankfully the motion as a whole also fell. Still Labour need to seriously reflect on what they stand for before coming to the next council meeting.

My speech to the amendment is copied below. I got no response to my final question as Conservative councillors ranted on about other things, if you can bear to watch on the webcast.

Speech proposing amendment to Conservative public debt NoM
21st October 2010

Mr Mayor

Yesterday George Osborne announced as part of the comprehensive spending review that not only would, according to the Local Government Association, local authority budgets be cut by 25.5% but that the cost of borrowing for councils would also be increased by 1%.

This authority and its officers are going to be squeezed beyond all reason. Yet, as benefit cuts bite and the economy suffers from the ill-considered government slashing of public services, our residents will need us more than ever.

Our amendment makes abundantly clear that the current UK national deficit is by no means sufficiently alarming to justify these unprecedented cuts. The deficit is not particularly large by historical comparison, the interest charges are a reasonable proportion of our GDP and the repayments are owed over many years. We include a number of ways in which the deficit could be reduced through tax and benefit reforms, but not public service cuts.

To echo a certain high street store – These are not just cuts, these are coalition government cuts. With lashings of hypocrisy and soaked in misleading statements.

What we are witnessing are not just a few efficiency savings. We are seeing the utter abandonment of whole swathes of our society. At the slightest hint of stormy waters the coalition government are chucking people overboard shouting to them “if you can’t afford to survive then you’re on your own.”

Frankly Mr Mayor, the administration have some gall presenting this motion reassuring residents in the face of this economic and public sector catastrophe.

I urge members to support this amendment. And I finish with a question – did any of the members on that side of the chamber actually check the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s lurid claims about the scale of the deficit, or did they just swallow it – hook, line and sinker?

In a pickle? Not with Eric Pickles backing me!

http://www.theyworkforyou.com/video/parlvid.swf

Last Thursday, as I was preparing for the full council meeting that afternoon, a tweet suggested something extraordinary might be happening in Westminster. No, not a new rainbow coalition to stop the Tory cuts, but something still quite unexpected.

Local government minister Eric Pickles MP rose to answer a question about his planned abolition of the Standards Board, which runs the councillor code of conduct under which I am currently ‘guilty’ for my use of YouTube.

Rather than just provide the answer and sit back down again, Mr Pickles chose to cite my case as an example of why the Standards Board regime needed to go. Well, despite vehemently disagreeing with Mr Pickles on many things, I agree with him on this. The current regime for regulating councillors prevents them from doing what most would naturally assume is their democratic duty. The process is bureaucratic, needlessly involved and often abused for political point-scoring. Good riddance I say.

So Mr Pickles joins fellow minister Grant Shapps MP, John Hemming MP and a swathe of others in supporting my cause. I was invited to discuss Mr Pickle’s support on BBC Sussex Radio last Friday, with his colleague Bob Neill MP – you can listen again here. I’m told this was also covered on BBC South Today.

Until the localism bill is passed, the standards regime remains and I am still subject to it – so I continue to prepare for my appeal tribunal on 3rd November. It will be held from 9.30am at the Brighton Hilton Metropole — all welcome!

Letter on licensing in Brighton & Hove

Last week I submitted the following letter to The Argus after having read this article about Cllr Mary Mears’ views on licensing in the city.

Sir,


As a councillor representing Brighton & Hove’s Regency Ward, where the bulk of licensed premises operate, I welcome Cllr Mary Mears’ support for rebalancing the licensing act to be more supportive of residents’ concerns (“Council concern over law” Wednesday October 13th).


However in addition to lobbying Theresa May, Cllr Mears should also speak to her colleagues on the Council’s own licensing committee who repeatedly are observed to be on panels which approve new and extended licenses in the cumulative impact area, in the face of strong objections from residents, councillors and the Police.


Indeed it was the Conservative chair of licensing who led the panel which approved extended hours for ‘Jam’ in Middle Street. This resulted in Sussex Police, for the first time ever, lodging an appeal in court against the council. I’m relieved that the ‘Jam’ case has now been resolved by the hard work of the Police licensing team who have negotiated a new, more restrictive, license.


Those of us working to address the impacts of the licensed trade in the city, including responsible venue managers, would appreciate Cllr Mears spreading the message not just to national government, but to local Tory councillors too.


Sincerely,

Cllr Jason Kitcat

Green Councillor for Regency Ward, Brighton & Hove City Council

Kings House, Grand Avenue, Hove BN3 2LS

Next time a Tory mentions value for money…

… think of the following:

1. Tory councillors pursuing a complaint against me since February 2009 just for putting some already public council webcast video clips onto YouTube. This has taken up a huge amount of expensive council officer time. I’ve appealed and now I hear the council are going to be hiring outside counsel to oppose my appeal. More tax payer money wasted.

2. The council has spent £120,000 on recruiting four new ‘strategic directors’ in a process Greens opposed. This included hiring rooms for interviews in hotels, rather than the use the Council’s own facilities, and spending £84,000 on recruitment agencies. These costs were never approved by a full council meeting of all councillors.

3. We don’t know the exact figure but paying off the former directors who have been replaced by the new ‘strategic directors’ will cost the council up to £1 million. Once again, these costs were never approved by a full council meeting.

4. The Conservative Health Secretary Andrew Lansley wants to move the NHS even further down the path towards ‘commissioning’. This is a process which a Parliamentary Health Committee has said already pushed NHS admin costs up from 5% to 13.5% with little benefit to show for it.

Conservatives nationally and locally are making ideological decisions not backed by any sound evidence or even common sense. Nobody’s perfect, but seriously, how much money tax payer money can they waste?

UPDATE: One more classic Tory money-waster came to mind overnight! They spent £93,000 planning and consulting on a much-needed cycle lane for the Old Shoreham Road, before cancelling it for unknown reasons.

What evidence that Lansley’s plans will improve NHS results?

As I’ve been appointed the local Green finance spokesperson this letter, which I submitted to The Argus, was my last as local health spokesperson:

While the current NHS structures are by no means perfect, Conservative minister Andrew Lansley’s plans for the NHS threaten at least three years of massive change, disruption and uncertainty, with no evidence to show any improvements will be the result.

These changes are being foisted on us because they ‘feel right’ to Lansley. That feeling has probably been helped along by financial contributions to his office by the head of Care UK – one of the firms that stands to most benefit from these reforms.

The sad fact is that the majority of GPs won’t have the necessary skills to organise commissioning and so will end up hiring those who do, the sacked managers who will be selling back their services to the NHS at inflated rates as independent contractors.

GPs aren’t keen on becoming managers running half-year long tendering processes, they are more interested in making people better. NHS workers certainly don’t want to see their pay and conditions threatened by being transferred to private providers. And I see no reason why taxpayers should stump up for corporate healthcare firms’ profits when we are being treated by our great public health service.

Greens firmly oppose these changes, which take Labour’s health privatisation schemes to their distasteful conclusion.

Sincerely,

Cllr Jason Kitcat, Green Group Health spokesperson

Conservative health policy

I’ve been trying to find the time to post an analysis of the Tory draft health manifesto. But the more I’ve thought about it the less I’ve had to say. Not because it’s marvellous but because the essential points are so simple.

Much of the manifesto is contradictory – calling for less government control in some sections and more in others. Their thinking is muddled at best.

I find it astonishing that despite the NHS being clearly a huge Labour achievement the Conservatives several times over claim they are “the party of the NHS”. What an absurd thing to say. As a Green I feel no need to make such claims, just to offer policies that will improve our wellbeing such as more community-based healthcare and abolishing prescription charges.

The absolutely critical parts of this manifesto refer to that old political favourite of ‘choice’:

“We will give everyone the power to choose any healthcare provider that meets NHS standards.”

“To give patients even more choice, we will open up the NHS to include new independent and voluntary sector providers…”

There we have it. The NHS will be broken up and left to compete with other providers. Private providers I would suggest is where they are going. Because for Tories government provided options are ‘bad’ and in their free-market worldview competition is needed to boost the quality of government services.

We already know that marketisation, competition and privatisation in the NHS thus-far has been hugely expensive, resource intensive, problematic and with very mixed quality outcomes. (Read more: On this blog here and here, plus from the NHS Support Federation & Keep our NHS public)

I’m not entirely surprised by a Conservative push for further privatisation of the NHS, destroying public service and end-to-end treatments without changing providers n-times. But the revelation that the shadow health secretary Andew Lansley’s office is being bankrolled by the Chairman of Care UK makes things even clearer. Care UK are a leading private beneficiary of the NHS privatisation work Labour have done already. I’m sure Care UK can see very significant profits to reap from a Conservative-controlled NHS break-up.

I don’t believe that’s what the majority of British people want to happen, I just hope the manifesto’s weasel words will be exposed before people come to vote.

Back from my Halloween Horror

On the Saturday of Halloween I had an unexpected tour of the Royal Sussex County’s Accident & Emergency department. Not that there is an ideal time, but Halloween night is not a good time to be in A&E, it was busy! My Halloween horror was a nasty concussion and back injury after a garage door came down on my head at speed. It hurt. Through my blurry vision I could see zombie face-painted people in the hospital waiting room, most surreal.

Two weeks of doctor enforced rest and I’m now getting back up to speed. I’m not 100% better, but good enough to get back into the blogosphere. I’ll be relying on my osteopath to get me over the last of the symptoms.

So I’m sorry to disappoint readers like Dan Wilson that I wasn’t able to cover the CityClean strikes, but I was laid up. The strikes are suspended and we’re still awaiting full resolution of the detailed issues at hand. I know Green colleagues were working hard on supporting the unions, but I’m not up to speed on the details.

Meanwhile the selection for the new Tory candidate for Brighton Pavilion continues, with Brighton Politics Blogger stirring up an unprecedented number of Tory comments to his/her blog. Good luck to the candidates, selections are a nerve wracking process. I must flag one issue I have with this process which is still being promoted as an ‘open primary’ when in fact it is an ‘open caucus’. The difference? With a primary anyone in the constituency can register to vote resulting in a larger turnout and so greater representation. A caucus is a meeting where those attending the meeting can vote after presentations from the candidates – it’s a much smaller scale affair and so less inclusive. Regardless, I think open primaries are gimmick which don’t solve fundamental issues with politics.

Attacking other parties for not having selected their candidates in that way is pretty weak in my view. How about having a go at policy differences?!

One of the Tory hopefuls, Scott Digby, has a pop at Greens with the rather tired ‘watermelon’ joke which local Tories having been chortling about for rather too long. But Digby rather misses the point, the joke is that we’re supposed to be ‘Communists’ as Tory cabinet member Cllr Ayas Fallon-Khan likes to allege, not Labour! We couldn’t be more different than Labour, disagreeing on: ID cards, privatisation, education, taxation, wars in Iraq & Afghanistan… I could go on!

Wrong-headed Tory CEO-Mayor policy

I was astounded and appalled by Monday’s announcement from the Conservatives that they planned to merge council chief executives with directly elected Mayors.
The Guardian:
Twelve cities across the country would hold referendums to get rid of their council chief executives and hand over the powers to an “executive mayor”, who would take over the role of hiring and firing staff, determining council operations, and directing spending, as well as offering political leadership.
Conflating the two posts would help address public concern about the pay of local authority bosses, said Caroline Spelman, the shadow communities secretary.
Firstly, I agree that many chief executives (in local authorities and private companies) are vastly overpaid compared to their hard working staff. But cutting up to 12 CEO salaries and replacing them with new elections for mayors is hardly going to be saving money. It’s a populist measure because most people won’t think of the cost of the elections when hearing the proposal — they’ll just keep in mind losing another expensive bureaucrat.
But what worries much more is that this announcement shows that the Conservatives are ready to abuse the position of the civil service as much as Labour have. Peter Oborne and others have been scathing of how a trend to politicise and misuse the civil service in the political trenches has gone from occasional in the Thatcher years to out of control in the Blair years.
No matter who is in charge politically, a paid head of the civil service is needed to manage the permanent staff of government who remain whatever changes elections bring. YES local government desperately needs serious reform… but going back on hundreds of years of political evolution by merging officer and politician is wrong-headed, fixes nothing and is just cheap populism.
This is a bad policy and I’m disappointed that a major political party could actually announce something so wrongheaded. It doesn’t bode well for the level of political debate ahead…

I was astounded and appalled by Monday’s announcement from the Conservatives that they planned to merge council chief executives with directly elected Mayors.

The Guardian:

Twelve cities across the country would hold referendums to get rid of their council chief executives and hand over the powers to an “executive mayor”, who would take over the role of hiring and firing staff, determining council operations, and directing spending, as well as offering political leadership.

Conflating the two posts would help address public concern about the pay of local authority bosses, said Caroline Spelman, the shadow communities secretary.

(Also see reports in LGCPlus and Planning Resource)

Firstly, I agree that many chief executives (in local authorities and private companies) are vastly overpaid compared to their hard working staff. But cutting up to 12 CEO salaries and replacing them with new elections for mayors is hardly going to be saving money. It’s a populist measure because most people won’t think of the cost of the elections when hearing the proposal — they’ll just keep in mind losing another expensive bureaucrat.

But what worries much more is that this announcement shows that the Conservatives are ready to abuse the position of the civil service as much as Labour have. Peter Oborne and others have been scathing of how a trend to politicise and misuse the civil service in the political trenches has gone from occasional in the Thatcher years to out of control in the Blair years.

No matter who is in charge politically, a paid head of the civil service is needed to manage the permanent staff of government who remain whatever changes elections bring. YES local government desperately needs serious reform… but going back on hundreds of years of political evolution by merging officer and politician is wrong-headed, fixes nothing and is just cheap populism.

This is a bad policy and I’m disappointed that a major political party could actually announce something so wrongheaded. It doesn’t bode well for the level of political debate ahead…