Cuts to Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, by Jean Calder

Visitors to Brighton’s Museum and Art Gallery have dropped by over a half since introduction of a £5 entry fee for non-residents. Just 33,000 visitors went to the Museum and Art Gallery between 5th May and 5th August. This compares to 71,000 in 2014 and 87,000 in 2013.

It was no surprise to me to read of this reduction. In May, I wrote in the Argus, of my horror at the decision to introduce fees, given that, in London and in almost all other parts of the country, such basic services are free. I also highlighted how difficult the council had made it for residents to gain ‘free’ entry, by requiring them, at each visit, to queue, provide proof of residence and be checked against a computer list. 

At the time, I thought the queues for residents were a glitch in the system and that very soon the Council would allow residents to move freely in and out – for example, by showing a library card. However, no changes were made. In subsequent weeks, I queued a few times, then gave up. In the 40 years I’ve lived in Brighton, I’ve probably visited the museum on average about four or five times a month. Now I don’t go at all.

Back in May, I had no idea the Council planned to introduce charges. Still less did I know that, before making this decision, the Council officials predicted that a 50 – 75% reduction in visitors would result. I find it extraordinary that Council officials and elected members – whose job is to protect our heritage – proceeded with this policy in the full knowledge that many thousands fewer people would benefit from facilities previous generations have taken for granted. I recall no publicity about this and no debate.

Councillors recently warned council officials against using falling attendances to justify reducing opening hours. This immediately made me fear that this was exactly what was planned – particularly as I was subsequently contacted by an anonymous informant who told me that council plans were well advanced to put the museum service and art gallery out to tender and to close the much-loved Hove Library. An Argus investigation has now confirmed this – almost certainly well before the Council intended the information to get out. 

My cynical soul tells me that it’s a classic tactic to deliberately run public services down, suggest they are ‘failing’, then use this as an excuse to cut them and even sell valuable assets, while putting potentially profitable services out to tender to private companies – often leaving insufficient time for the public to examine proposals and mount protests. 

I fully understand that the museums and art services need to make £200,000 savings this financial year. However, this is a tiny amount when set against the millions that the Council this year failed to collect in parking fees. Coin Co International (CCI), the company contracted to collect the fees, collapsed earlier this year owing the council £3.2 million. The loss was not insured and the Council is believed to be unlikely to recoup more than £25,000.

CCI was paid almost £300,000 a year to collect more than £11 million cash from Brighton and Hove’s parking meters and £8 million cash from Council offices and schools. The company was allowed to hold the funds for up to ten days, enabling it to earn interest in addition to its fees to the Council. The money should have been paid into a separate account by CCI, but was not. The debt was allowed to build up over several months and at one point reached £4.7 million. Little action seems to have been taken to protect the Council. This is despite the fact the council’s previous cash collections contractor, Estate Security Southern, also collapsed.

There are two things which strike me about these events. The first is that, even in a time of austerity and threatened cuts, officials seem not to be held accountable for catastrophic loss of public funds. The second is that serious reductions to key public services have been planned in secret, without any regard for public consultation. This is no way to run local democracy.

I call on councillors of all parties and committees to act to protect our heritage and key services and to consult fully and in public. Above all, I ask them to realise Council officials are the public’s servants not its masters – and to hold them to account when they lose our money and threaten our services.

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Letter to Jeremy: Listening to the People, by Jean Calder

Dear Jeremy,

I enjoyed listening to your speech at this year’s Labour Party Conference. It was good to hear a Labour leader so obviously rooted in his community, address moral issues once again. 

Throughout the conference – and during the leadership campaign – much of your focus was on being prepared to listen to ordinary people. You said formulating policy would be a ‘bottom up’ process, dominated not by focus groups and MPs, but by ordinary members and supporters.

I’m no longer a member, but I like the idea of ordinary people being able to influence Labour policy. However, I’m sceptical. There is such a strong tradition of limiting free speech in the party, I find it hard to believe you and your team really will listen. 

I did smile when I heard your Blairite opponents in Parliament predict that your leadership will bring ‘punishment beatings’ and deselections of right wing MPs. In the past, I recall that it appeared always to be the left, not the right, that was disciplined for behaviour ‘likely to bring the party into disrepute’. The same rules never seemed to apply to rightwing MPs – who seemed free to break party policy at will and viciously criticise fellow members and their leaders.

Those of us who were on the left of the party in the mid 1980s and early 1990s, recall all too well the ways in which the leadership of the party limited our freedom. Many members were expelled or disciplined. As a Labour councillor in Brighton, I was one who had the Whip removed and therefore couldn’t stand for Council again. Our local party was closed down for two years, while investigations by the national Labour Party were carried out. Twenty six party members were investigated by the national party which, after many months, organised ‘trials’ at the Royal Albion Hotel. Many people believe this period of dislocation led directly to the rapid growth of the Green Party in Brighton.

You may say that that if the left gains ascendency they will behave better. However, I wonder. I’m very familiar with the Labour left ‘script’ – a set of views you’re ‘supposed’ to have and many others that you’re not. I wonder what will happen when people – ordinary people – ask questions that don’t fit the script or use ‘unacceptable’ language in doing it. Will they be subject to insult and hostility, the indrawn breath, the shocked silence, the turned shoulder – if they ask the awkward questions that liberal progressives don’t like?.

It’s not as if there are just a few areas of sensitivity. Rigid convention binds and stultifies left debate on most areas of policy from immigration, the NHS, education and patriotism, to nationalism and Europe, defence, foreign affairs, religious tolerance and equalities. 

It seems to me that if Labour is to win elections, it must be prepared to engage with issues it finds difficult – and abandon its script. There’s no point in saying you’ll listen, if you then silence ideas you don’t like or avoid speaking to opponents. In this regard, it’s disappointing to hear you recently chose not to speak to local TV stations, but did carry out an interview with Al Jazeera.

I’m glad you’ve spoken out against political abuse and sexist trolling and that you’ve condemned the demonstrator who spat at a journalist at the Conservative Party Conference. However, there’s much more you could do. There is a culture of macho insult and abuse in sections of the left, which makes it very difficult for anyone to disagree. Without dissent, there is no possibility of real democracy.

In 1956, when Mao Zedong said “Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend” he refused to accept the ideas the Chinese people subsequently expressed and arrested many dissidents. Some suggest the whole exercise was just a ploy to flush out his critics. 

You are judged to be a man of principle. It’s really important that, having raised people’s hopes, you don’t stifle ideas or crush dissent – or permit your supporters to do it for you.

Yours sincerely

Jean Calder