A Serious Case of Tail Wagging Dog, by Jean Calder

I recently wrote about the tendency of local councils to expand ‘innovative’ new departments, while at the same time failing to safeguard mainstream service delivery (Vampires at City Hall). Ian Healey responded, saying “..without numbers (of posts involved) or examples, it is difficult to see this as more than a partisan grumble. It may all be as you say, but what to do?”

As they say in Parliament, he makes a good point. In reality, it’s impossible to provide details. This is because council officers deny the information to the public, on grounds of staff confidentiality. It’s obviously right that the public should not have details about individual post holders and the exact level of their pay. However, it’s entirely improper that the very existence of these posts, their responsibilities and seniority, and crucially their broad salary grades, are shrouded in mystery.

During the recent public consultation that preceded Brighton & Hove’s budget-making, I telephoned the finance department to ask for more information – in particular about staffing structures and the costs of posts. I said I couldn’t answer the council’s questionnaire about budget priorities, unless I really understood the options. I was told that such detailed information wasn’t routinely provided because “it wouldn’t be fair” to the staff concerned. I persisted and was subsequently informed that more detailed information was available online if I cared to look. Unfortunately, it was not – or was so well buried that only a hacker could have found it.

I was annoyed at the refusal, but thought I’d get round it by speaking to councillors. However, I was stunned to learn from the two councillors I approached – both highly competent and holding senior positions – that they too were routinely denied detailed information about staffing. This was despite the fact that this was a very important and hugely contentious budget, in which cuts were to be agreed. Now, these were politicians and I am not naive. It may be that they actually did have access to the information, but were unwilling to admit that I and other members of the public couldn’t have it. However, from their somewhat confused and even embarrassed demeanour, I suspect not.

The implications of this, if true, are stunning. It means that the councillors we democratically elect to run the city, finalise budgets and agree strategies on our behalf, have been doing so with partial information – and that the people who have withheld key facts are those paid to carry out the council’s decisions. Elected councillors, accountable to us, are being ‘managed’ by people who ought to be accountable to them. If this is the case, I do wonder why we bother to vote. It’s a serious case of tail wagging dog.

I lament the loss of old fashioned senior council officers, who were hard working public servants – and generally accepted limits to their own authority. This all seemed to change in the late 1980s. Senior public ‘servants’ started to study for MBAs, ape the private sector, demand extortionate salaries and tell their workers there was ‘no such thing as a job for life’. Claiming to be ‘managing change’, they decimated services, cut the posts of manual staff who carried out the traditional work of the councils and justified their own promotion and pay rises by developing small fiefdoms of white collar staff, working in new and fashionable fields of endeavour.

Back in the day, senior council officers would have worked in the same local authority until they were 65, left with a secure pension and spent their retirement in unpaid good works. However, since the early 1990s, too many senior managers have taken early retirement at 50 or 55, sometimes with a golden handshake as well as a stonking great pension, then joined quangos and set up consultancy businesses selling their skills at inflated prices to – you guessed it – local authorities.

Where once senior council officers informed and advised elected members, and accepted they had operational not strategic responsibility, this new breed of senior officer, unaccountable, arrogant and well-paid, seeks to lead, not to serve. In such an environment, elected councillors, some new to their roles, reliant on officers and often earning far less than them, can readily be manipulated. Where there is no overall political control, it must be particularly easy for latter-day Sir Humphreys to play one politician off against another.

There have always been council officers who successfully managed, manipulated and flattered elected councillors into submission. However, the present situation in Brighton & Hove, in which senior officers withhold information and politely exclude councillors from crucial decisions about politically sensitive or senior staff appointments, is something new. I suspect councillors are concerned and frustrated, but that a culture may have developed that seems impossible to challenge.

But challenged it must be. A council which operates according to the priorities of an unaccountable elite is a dangerous beast and this is particularly so at a time of service cuts. My suggestion, now the election is over, is that councillors try to put aside partisan loyalties and come together to assert their position as elected representatives. Not for their sakes, but for ours.

Poor Taste for my SpAd, and New Beginnings for Purna Sen and Nancy Platts

One of my over-promoted SpAds, by the name of Andy Winter, has just bought himself one of those new Apple wrist watches. It’s hideous, a sort of bilious blue. My young intern (lovely gel) tells me  it’s like a teenager’s Swatch, whatever that is. I expect my staff to maintain standards at this Blog. I’m terribly shocked. There don’t seem to be any standards these days. Have you seen the way council officers dress these days, slobbing about in jeans? Quite extraordinary.

I hear the lovely Nancy Platts has been elected as chairman of the Labour Party. Well done Nancy. I’m sure the party will do well under your leadership. Bad luck in the election.  As the incumbent, Simon Kirby had a good opportunity of keeping his ‘grip’ on the seat (I said the jokes would be bad). What wonderful hair he has. I do envy men with a full head of hair. 

Tough about Purna Sen too, but what a fantastic job she’s landed at the UN. Much better than being an MP. No constituents to worry about. Purna, you’re moving into the upper echelons of society, but, be advised, I’m very used to that world. if you need any advice just call on me, the humble blogger.

Whatever you do don’t trust that Obama chap. He ate all the cake and pocketed the spoons last time he came to tea.

Siren performing this coming Saturday in Brighton

Siren, the 1980s Lesbian New Wave Band are performing this coming Saturday (13th June) at 8 PM at the Malborough Theatre in Brighton. Fascinating insights into the feminist and gay politics behind their music. I saw them perform last time and it was a fantastic show.

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(Click to enlarge poster)

An alternative view to the Brighton and Hove Independent 100

The Brighton and Hove Independent last week (30th May) published a list of the “100 people who make our city what it is”. The Editorial Director, Greg Hadfield has said he “expects – and even hopes – that almost everyone will disagree” with the list.

Let me be the first. There are the predictable names but it is who Greg has missed that demands comment. For example, why is your Humble Blogger not included? No politician can hope for recognition and success without endorsement from this awesome blog.

It is all very well to have Martin Harris from the bus company, but what about former Mayor, Brian Fitch, who singlehandedly, in a career stretching back to when Methuselah was a boy in short trousers, has saved bus route after bus route, most recently the Number 5, from being callously axed without a second thought to those isolated on our estates. What hope is there for them now that Brian has moved to Eastbourne?

More seriously, in the media section, there is no mention of anyone from the Brighton Argus. I just can’t imagine why not! Adam Trimingham, at least, should be there.

Three politicians from each of the main political parties are listed although the Green, Major Druitt, is listed because of his business influence, and Katy Bourne appears to have transcended her party political affiliations to be listed under Public Services.

But how does one make a judgement on who has made a contribution to make our city what it is. When reviewing the list, I was hard pressed to say for over half of them one thing they have done to make or change the City. Merely holding a position, elected or otherwise, doesn’t mean that you have helped to shape a place.

A better list would be who, over the last 25 years or more, has helped to make Brighton and Hove what it is today. Who is the modern day Herbert Carden, Margaret Hardy, Lewis Cohen, Dorothy Stringer, John Morley, Denis Hobden, Tony Hewison, Asa Briggs, or Richard Attenborough? Their influence on the City remains even though they are no longer with us.

I could mention people like Linda Pointing, Dani Ahrens and Melita Dennett, who (amongst others) were pioneers in the movement for lesbian and gay rights and recognition, and opposition to Section 28. Or Shirley West who was, for many years, the backbone of the Women’s Centre. Jess Wood from Allsorts continues this work, particularly with children and young people.

For fifty years Patricia Norman was central to the Friends Centre and to its adult education arm. Into her nineties she continued with a group for pensioners run from the Friends Centre, as well as being involved in the work of Brighton Housing Trust for over 45 years, most recently as its Life President.

Kate Page has been at the Resources Centre for almost 35 years, helping countless community organisations shape their communities. And Faith Matyszak provided the backbone of BME services throughout the 1980’s, 90’s and noughties.

Local domestic violence services were saved by a group including the above-mentioned Shirley West and Jean Calder, who subsequently became the first Director of the Women’s Refuge Project (now Rise). Jean later led the successful campaign to save St Peters Church as a place of worship, alongside Janet King, Isabel Turner and others. (Jean now has the honour to be a regular contributor to this esteemed blog.)

Interfaith activities were championed by Tehm Framroze, and now by Anthea Ballam. They should be on the list. Andrew Manson-Brailsford and Ian Chisnall continue to make the Church relevant in the community. Rabbi Elli Sarah does likewise for Progressive Jewish community.

While he will no doubt write a strongly worded letter against his inclusion, Tony Greenstein should be included for being a public irritant of gargantuan proportions but, more so, for being one of the most consistent anti-fascist in Brighton and Hove.

What about the campaigners who helped to close down the Dolphinarium? Or Duncan Blinkhorn and Mark Strong for getting the needs of cyclists acknowledged.

Mushtaq Ahmed was pivotal in establishing Sussex CCC as a force to be reckoned with. Dick Knight could represent all those who helped secure a stadium fit for the 21st century at Falmer.

Michael Chowen, a local businessman and employer, has been a philanthropist with a particular commitment to women’s services. Peter Field has had a long history in charitable work, not least in nurturing and developing housing services for homeless people.

I could go on and on, and I usually do, but those named above would be 25 of my 100.

The Flight of the Fitches

Each autum in Brighton and Hove we witness a murmuration of starlings as thousands prepare to fly south for the winter. I recall a riddle from my childhood: “Why do birds fly south in the winter?” The answer, “Because it is too far to walk”. (When we relaunched the Politics Blog we didn’t promise to improve on the level of humour).

I like collective nouns. We have a Flight of Swallows, a Covey of Partridges, a Parliament of Owls, a Congregation of Eagles, a Committee of Vultures and, of course, a Murder of Crows – which naturally brings me on to Brighton politics.

What would be the collective noun be for the political groups? A Division of Greens, a Complication of Conservatives, and a Warren of Labourites. Perhaps it is too obvious to mention an Absence of Lib Dems.

I used to believe that it was a Charm of Finches. However, my team of underpaid research assistants and over-promoted SpAds has discovered it is really a Charm of Fitches.

In this post I lament the Flight of the Fitches. The departure of Brian and Norah Fitch to the more finely-twigged nests of Eastbourne, and Harris Fitch to the penal colony of Australia, will leave the Brighton, Hove and Hangleton political landscape all the more bleak and boring. It had been hoped that Harris would become the latest in a thousand generations of Fitches to join the Council and defend the No 5 bus.

The bus users of Brighton hope he will return soon.

I am sure we haven’t heard the last tweet from the Fitches of Brighton and Hove.

The Vampires at City Hall, by Jean Calder


When a government takes into public ownership something that was previously privately owned, it’s called nationalisation. Privatisation is the opposite process, whereby something that was previously publicly owned, is sold off into private hands. I’ve been struggling to define a rather different concept, somewhere between the two.

I’m looking for a word to describe how local authorities have come to use the work of charities and some statutory organisations as a means of income generation – not for the charities and other organisations, but for the local authorities themselves. Perhaps ‘vampirism’ might describe it best.

Once upon a time, local authorities did what they did – ran libraries, maintained parks, built and let out houses etc – and charities performed good works councils couldn’t do. The only substantial area of overlap between the two was in education, children’s and homelessness services and that was of longstanding. Both ran valuable services, but they did it separately. Councils employed one or two grants officers. Charities went to them for funding and either did or didn’t get it.

Some time around the early 1990s, everything began to change. Charities were told they had to compete for contracts, as if they were private sector companies, and be accountable to local authorities to ensure ‘value for money’. You might think this fair enough – except that many good charities went to the wall and the costs to the public purse increased – especially when central government funding was in the frame. Councils made bids for government funding, which, if successful, delivered some limited benefits to charities and community groups, but at the same time brought  additional layers of bureaucracy to councils – and a demand for liaison and ‘partnership’ with other statutory agencies, such as the police and health services, which was hugely expensive of time and money. 

Over a period in which many vital manual jobs disappeared, there was an eye-watering increase in white collar posts. Dedicated council officials and grants-officers were replaced by an army  of commissioners, development officers, co-ordinators, strategy and policy officers and financial administrators – all much better paid than the charity workers they were very often there to fund and monitor and, in many cases, with not enough to do. The result was interference and duplication – not just in the work of the charities, but increasingly, also in the mainstream work of other agencies and even departments of the council itself – and meetings, lots and lots and lots of meetings. Forums were set up to progress the work which, of course, needed ‘coordinators’ and if there were equalities implications – and inevitably there often were – yet more staff were employed. Every passing fad would be seized as an opportunity for ‘innovation’ and to employ more staff, set up more groups and hold more meetings. Partnership and community groups and local action teams provided a rich seam of opportunities for ‘liaison’ – and time-wasting – with councillors, colleagues, police officers and community leaders. 

The result has been that in many areas of endeavour, there has developed a parasitic ‘shadow’ structure, which delivers nothing, but, giving the appearance of expertise and authority, interferes, commentates and even investigates, while writing policies and attending meetings. Instead of supporting the real expertise of specialist organisations – and, in the case of charities, paying them properly for it – these grey shadows cannibalise other agencies’ work to justify their continued existence.

When cuts come, who can touch them, these well-paid, clean-fingered professionals? Productive  lower-paid posts may be lost, but not their jobs – for are they not engaged in vital work? They write the strategies that say as much.  Well no, they’re not, and it’s about time councillors realised this. If the money that has been spent on liberal fads and worthless posts had been used to fund real service delivery by traditional council departments and established specialist agencies, the city’s people – especially the very young or old, the sick, the vulnerable and the victimised – would have been far better off.


The Campaign Trail – Highs and Lows, by Cllr Emma Daniel

This item was first posted on Cllr Emma Daniel’s own blog on 26th May 2015. She has kindly agreed to allow us to repost it on the Brighton Politics Blog.

It’s been ages since I blogged because campaigning took up every drop of physical and mental and emotional energy I could find. The by-election was quite time limited and, though like a bomb going off in my life, it was in effect a sprint. This last few months has been hitting the wall in the marathon and keeping going, taking a massive amount of optimism and hope to do so. I have never done this before. My colleagues have done it, and won and lost and got back up and done it again. I think my admiration for those with this experience couldn’t get any higher. Nor can my admiration for those with no election experience at all who rose to the occasion. There is nothing like it. If you haven’t volunteered for a political party I genuinely can’t recommend it enough.

I was chased out of a block of flats by a man calling me a war criminal and a paedo. I sprained my knee jumping down entrance steps as a big dog jumped out at me … canvassing with an existing fear of dogs is an emotional resilience mountain, I can tell you. (Yes, I know your dog just growls because he is being friendly, honest!)

I was told that the Greens would have been fine on the council if only those LABOUR MEANIES had supported them and that the i360 was ours (!!) also Valley Gardens (!!) and I mostly sucked that stuff up with good humour because I am good humoured. It goes with the territory. I did once, get a bit snappy with a morris man though which was probably the campaign nadir for me.

Overwhelmingly, though, people were LOVELY. Really and truly. Many were really supportive of political activists and I am lucky to work in one of the most politically knowledgeable and engaged wards in the city … which makes it really good to canvass.

In Hanover and Elm Grove, the campaign was a Labour vs Green council and parliament battleground, though there are a strong and loyal cohort of voters for other parties. It was good natured and I particularly commend David Gibson for his good humour and gentle nature displayed during both elections I fought with him. And next time, I do hope to bring at least one more Labour councillor with me. If we do a fair job on council I think that is possible.

The Parliamentary campaign was less good humoured, with many voters and activists decrying our candidate, Purna Sen, for even standing against Caroline Lucas. I felt this was unnecessary. Surely better to win the argument rather than be handed the seat? And fair play to her, she increased her majority. Our Purna is now working on global women’s issues for the UN and based in New York for the year. A fair and just tribute to her skills and experience. I hope she returns as a parliamentary candidate in future as parliament will be the richer for her participation.

On polling day I ended up sun burnt again! When will I ever learn? But we did an amazing job in Hanover and Elm Grove with a much more politically engaged and genuine relationship with the voters on the small council estates in the ward and an increased membership which just keeps going.

And then it was dark and I was stumbling home with very stiff legs when I saw the exit polls on twitter. It was like being run over. How had we lost the argument nationally so badly? Now there are endless articles explaining it of course – we weren’t left enough … we weren’t centre ground enough. But the thing is, we did lose the argument nationally.

A few days later and we were at the count with new Labour MP Peter Kyle for Hove (a massively cheering feature of the national results) and the former PPC for Kemptown, the lovely Nancy Platts, who despite her own grief at her narrow loss in the parliamentary elections came to stand by the local candidates.

On polling day, and at the count, I was convinced that the Caroline Lucas surge had wiped out the good work we had done in Hanover and Elm Grove on our council campaigning as I spoke to many voters who never normally vote who were going to vote for Caroline and had absolutely no idea there was even a council election on. But I held on and that was absolutely amazing. I am so grateful for the campaign volunteers, the party support and the support of the ward residents who do really care about who runs the council and provides them with a voice.

Going to a count is probably the most amazing and most brutal experience of my life. Seeing experienced and decent councillors wiped out, seeing talented colleagues voted in. I think I hugged everybody. I can’t really describe the count … the amazing officers plugging away with the ballot papers, the scrum of party activists and candidates checking the count and calculating results as they came out. The tears. I cried. And the jubilation. I think it’s the closest I will come to understanding football emotions.

Going through that process it’s clear that the voters of this city haven’t felt that one party has won the argument, and that many vote for councillors they personally believe in. But, they have marginally supported a Labour vision for the city but also giving us the message that they want us to be collaborative with other parties. To seek consensus where we can. And to consider the views of residents in developing schemes and projects.

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