Yesterday a full meeting of Brighton & Hove City Council decided the City’s budget for the year ahead. The public gallery was full, mostly of Green Party members but there were a few Tories, some members of the press, an impressive advocate for the local allotment holders and the Labour Party had scraped together three members to make up the empty seats. The minority Green administration presented its budget. Arguments raged between the Green councillors and the Labour councillors as to whether or not the latter had colluded with the local thieving Tory bastards on the amendments proposed to the budget. In an evening populated by Churchillian quotes, Councillor Duncan prayed in aid the heritage of Nye Bevan to make that allegation most cogently. (ConservativeHome’s open proposal that they entertain a formal pact with Labour is probably more designed to wind the Labour Party up than it is an offer of talks.) A peculiarity of the party numbers and the order of the agenda meant that the amendments proposed by the Conservative Group on the council were voted on first and the smaller Labour Group’s amendments were voted second. This allowed the Labour councillors to reject the Tory amendments safe in the knowledge that the Tories would then vote for nearly identical Labour amendments. This sort of gaming is exactly the type of behaviour which turns the public off politicians. The Labour amendments were passed, with the result that Brighton & Hove’s Council Tax will not be raised this year and there will have to be bigger cuts in local services than the Greens had wanted. Having previously posted the terms of the council tax debate, I’ll not rehearse them again today. When the amended budget was put to the full vote every councillor voted for it bar one: Alex Phillips, the Green Councillor for Goldsmid, for whom the council tax freeze was apparently a bridge too far.
Ms Phillip’s decision to break ranks with the Green Group was taken with their full knowledge after long and impassioned debate about how the Green councillors should deal with having their budget plans wrecked by an unholy alliance between the Labour and Conservative Parties. Unsurprisingly, there were many different voices in that internal party debate but, in keeping with the fact that the Green Party expects its councillors to act in unison on important issues, the other dissenters swallowed their consciences and voted with the rest of the group. Today serious questions will be asked in the local party as to whether Ms Phillips was right to break ranks publicly. Her vote against the budget was never going to change policy but had a majority of councillors joined her lonely wicket, the budget would have fallen. The law for that situation dictates that, after a series of intervening steps, a central government civil servant would set the City’s budget for it because the councillors would have abdicated their legal responsibilities. Ms Phillips independent stand demonstrated the long established tradition that Green councillors are not bound by loyalty to a party whip but also begs the question as to whether she regards herself as an independent councillor notwithstanding her having used much party resources to fund and support her election campaign. Many Green Party activists have much sympathy with her decision and she was warmly received in the post meeting pub debriefing. Many others, myself included, are saddened that someone as capable, as successful and as high profile as her would make such a choice. It may well be that her decision is the turning point in her political career. Her star may have stopped rising.
Most of the councillors who spoke did so from prepared scripts which they simply read aloud. This made for a poor quality of debate. If you’re reading from notes held below you, you cannot make the eye contact necessary to obtain rapport with an audience. Scripted speeches are not dialogue. They frustrate the ability to respond to points made by others. The highly educated population of Brighton & Hove could expect higher standards of intellectual engagement from its elected politicians. Listening to one tiresome tirade after another, delivered in this orchestrated fashion left at least this public observer wishing that they had all just circulated their speeches in advance and cut the meeting short. Luckily the debate was not entirely dominated by this unimaginative approach. Notable amongst the exceptions was Chris Hawtree. His performance in the Council Chamber yesterday would never win any prizes for public speaking but he certainly won everyone’s attention. He’s the sort of fellow who doesn’t change his truly idiosyncratic character to fit the occasion. He’s the same in person as he is on a podium. This goes a long way to explain why he unexpectedly outperformed his political opponents fighting for office in Central Hove, winning the seat without Green Party funds and resources to assist him. British politics needs more characters like him: hard hitting, politically mature and yet very much more human than so many of the policy wonks modern political life seems to favour. Brighton Politics Blogger (whose posts and comment threads contain much of the local political debate) described his tussle with the Conservative Councillor Janio as “fast becoming the matter of legends”.
There were other notable exceptions too. Councillor Fitch heckled with ready wit and acumen from the Labour group. Mr Fitch’s skill with the well-timed interruptions are so well known that at one point a Tory accused him of heckling even though he had been silent, as if the speaker had imagined a biting put down from Mr Fitch and feared to let it pass unchallenged. On the whole the Labour benches were subdued. They were clearly uncomfortable sleeping in the same bed as the Tories. When Councillor Kitcat spoke, introducing the Green budget and defending it with a dexterity and thoroughness more commonly seen on the national stage than in local town halls, they bristled with animosity. Their dislike of Kitcat is nothing compared to the visceral hatred the Tories have for him though. Mr Kitcat is exactly the sort of person the Tories are desperate recruit but apparently cannot. He is young, handsome, clever, highly motivated and very well organised. He appears to live in shiny shiny land, maintaining excellent good humour despite relentless attacks on his integrity.
As if he isn’t challenging enough for them, he has been joined on the Green benches by his wife Ania Kitcat. She is exactly the sort of head turningly attractive young woman that makes up the most sordid of elderly Tory wet dreams. When she gave her maiden speech, her chastisement of the Tories for their xenophobia was as politically astute as it was indicative of the cultural chasm between the local Tories and most of our local population. One of the Tory councillors (I forget whom), in the midst of a meandering speech on the issue of whether a particular number plate should be sold or not, angrily denounced the Greens as lacking sufficient members “born and bred” in Brighton. When Ania Kitcat rose to speak, she admitted that she had not intended to add to the debate but that she could not let this offensive comment go unchallenged. In slightly halting English she pointed to the fact that she had come from the furthest away out of all the councillors (she is Polish). The room fell silent. Even the quietest of whispered conversations terminated, expectantly. Everyone understood what the issue she was raising was: our local thieving Tory bastards are openly racist. We waited with baited breath for her to enunciate this but she’s far too clever to make that point so bluntly. She paused and the silence deepened. She made a couple of minor points promoting the people who have come to Brighton from far away, praising their contribution to the City and paused again. It was beautifully timed. Suddenly she declared that the Tories should want people like her to join their community because “it prevents inbreeding!” This brought the house down. However, the Tories were not laughing. They understood that the insult was aimed directly at them, that they had asked for it and that they’d been sucker punched.
The most baffling debate was over whether the Greens should be allowed to sell the number plate used by the Mayor’s car. The Tories returned to this again and again, insisting that the Greens wanted to sell off the City’s heritage. In a nutshell, the number plate dates back to the days when vehicle registration plates were issued according to the town where the licensee lived. Each town was allocated two letters; Brighton got “CD”. This plate is “CD1″ because it was the first plate issued in town. One Tory described the proposed sale as “vicious”. Several accused the Greens of selling the family silver. This claim fell apart when Councillor Hawtree pointed out that a previous Conservative administration had sold off much of the contents of Hove Museum in the 1960s. Bizarrely, the Tories heckled him with the news that those sales were in the 1970s, helping Mr Randall’s case. Even the most casual of political observer could easily discern that the Greens are no fan of car culture. Faced with a choice of selling the plate (which is worth £120,000) and cutting jobs & services, no bookie would take bets on the Greens keeping the plate. The plate itself is plastic – it’s the right to use ‘CD1′ that was in dispute. The Green Cabinet Member for Transport & Public Realm, Councillor Davey has embarked on a massive redevelopment of the City’s cycle lane infrastructure which will make our City the envy of the country. Despite the local Tories recent form for repeatedly attacking the Greens for being ideologically fanatical, they do not seem to grasp that the Greens value the heritage in this plate at the very bottom of their list of priorities and cash for local services as higher.
Many observers, myself included, were much alarmed by the Green decision to raise the fee for allotment holders. Unfortunately the factual matrix of this debate was framed by more frantic campaigning and less on facts. The Green administration had listened to the vigorous campaign mounted against the fee change. The proposed rise was lowered but this wasn’t acknowledged in the campaigners’ conversation with me. Curiously, a campaign of that magnitude could be mounted precisely because the Green administration had launched a consultation on the budget four months ago. This unprecedented approach allowed the debate to range far and wide. Had the Greens favoured the allotment holders, their political opponents would have accused them of giving their natural constituency special privileges. By raising their fees, instead they faced the ire of many of their own voters and the ridicule of their political opponents who accused them of being hypocritical on Green issues. However, the proposed hike in fees would have amounted to less a fee of less than £2 a week, which is easily offset by the cost of buying food from supermarkets. This fact got lost in the debate entirely. That said, the allotment campaigners who sat behind me in the public gallery pointed to the land rents charged to local farmers as being lower. I don’t have any figures to verify this. Perhaps the campaigner I spoke to (Mark) can provide me with the figures? I’d like to set the record straighter than I have managed. Essentially both the Labour and Conservative party supported the allotmenteers cause, with the result that the successful Labour amendments resulted in a lower hike in allotment fees. Whatever the best policy should have been, the Greens must surely reassess their relationship with their grass roots supporters, of who many grow food on allotments.
Councillor Summers delivered the best speech; her first in the Council Chamber. Unscripted, she illuminated both the difficulties brought down on the local councillors by the vast cuts in funding from central government and the torture of being responsible for deciding where to cut as a consequence. The rhythm and delivery of her speech quietened the chamber. Her appeal for calm debate and the abandonment of personal attacks was a master class in authoritative political commentary. It jarred a little when she cited her own religious beliefs as being relevant to the point she was making (she is a Christian), as if to suggest that formal spiritual guidance would better the rest of her Green colleagues, who sit out the pre-meeting prayers. Nevertheless, the exceptional clarity with which she addressed everyone was unrivalled and received with rapturous applause from all sides. Her speech was a game changer for the mood of the occasion. Although there had been much good humour, there had also been many personal slights. After Ms Summers sat down, the mood calmed. She gave the debate a professionalism it much needed. Although the Greens had spent much time appealing to Labour to change their political stance on the proposed council tax rise, they had not really attempted to be persuasive. Far too often the appeal was framed in terms of an attack. The Greens repeatedly accused the Labour Party of selling out. Whatever the chances had been of breaking the Labour ranks, they would have been bettered had more of the Green councillors followed Ms Summer’s impressive example.
The amendments to the Green administration’s original budget proposals for 2012/13 included preventing any rise in council tax and the following:
- Bringing forward savings of £250,000 in management and administration
- Bringing forward savings planned in the human resources budget
- Stopping City News, the council’s quarterly magazine and a reduction in spend on communications
- Reducing funding for the sustainability team
- Keeping the downland management contract with the existing provider for another six months while retendering
- Bringing forward planned savings in the asylum seekers budget
- Reducing the parking budget used to support community events
- Providing an additional £25,000 to help fund and secure the future of the mobile library and further funding to purchase a new mobile library
- Lowering the proposed increase in allotment fees so that the standard fee is £35
- Withdrawing £200,000 funding for work to bring back empty private sector properties into use
- Withdrawing £1.2 million one-off funding to support future workstyles programmes and customer access initiatives
- Finding an additional £3.7 million savings for the 2013/14 financial year
Full details of the budget and the amendments can be downloaded from here. The Greens continue to manage the City’s administration, albeit with a budget that has been chosen for them by the Labour and Conservative Parties. Doubtless they will make much of their political success on the night but this short term political gain will be paid for by the people of the City, whose services will have to be slashed far and wide.