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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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.

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.


New Charges at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, by Jean Calder

I avoid public loos. I especially dislike the loos in the Pavilion gardens. I don’t care how many ‘awards’ they’ve received (I wonder who gives out these things and what contractors have to do to get them). They’re dark, depressing and terribly cold. And as any woman or child will tell you, temperature matters when you have to disrobe in the lavatory.  So I try to avoid them. 

My habit, for many years, has been to use the toilets in the museum and art gallery, though I admit it’s often just been an excuse to visit the museum. I love walking unimpeded through the stone entrance into the building, up to the purring Pavilion cat that my daughter and I used to feed with coins, past Salvador Dali’s red sofa shaped like Mae West’s lips (my daughter was always convinced she’d one day be rich enough to buy it) across to the stoneware bison and the Lalique table with the heavy glass bust of Beethoven. Then it’s on to the Voysey dresser and chair and brass lamp, a stop at the yellow glazed Minton pilgrim flask then right at the plate display and I’m almost there. Whatever my previous mood, by this time I’m happy. I’m walking on air. 

I look at other people peering at the displays and it occurs to me we’re like a family pottering around a well-loved family home that we haven’t visited for a while – along with visitors who haven’t been there before. I must admit I feel pride and a bit proprietorial. It occurs to me that that these are all our things, given, bought and paid for by previous citizens or by us. Sometimes I go upstairs and have coffee and a scone and read the paper and survey my, or rather our, domain.

As a child in South Africa, I visited the Durban library and museum each Saturday. I was too short to see over the library desk – and too young to understand why the only people there were white – but even then I had the same feeling of belonging and civic pride. The Victorian paintings were awful, but I loved the stuffed animals and birds, the lion and hyena, even an elephant and a hippo – and the model of a dodo bird, with a real dodo egg beside it. 

When I first came to this country in 1972, I lived in London and was terribly lonely and had very little money. Every weekend I’d leave my bedsit and visit the national gallery and the museums. They were all free and I’d mix with the people and look for hours at the portraits, especially the Rembrandts and feel just a bit less lonely.

In 1975, I came to Sussex University as a student. One of the first things I did was to visit Brighton’s museum and art gallery and make the acquaintance of its pictures and artefacts. Then my parents settled here and they too came to love the displays.

All this being the case, imagine my distress when, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to visit the museum, but was turned away. I strode in confidently, only to be stopped at a desk by several officials who told me the facility was no longer free to tourists – and that if I wanted to visit I needed to show proof of residence. A library card was not sufficient.

On that occasion, I rummaged in my bag and I was lucky enough to find a letter from my bank. My address was checked and entered on a computer (not a swift process) and I was allowed in, wearing a purple badge. In some distress, I left the museum through the Corn Exchange entrance.

Two days later, in a dream, I walked in again, only to be stopped again. I said “I’m on your computer”, but that cut no ice. I still had to show my letter. I said “This is an awful hullabaloo to go to the loo. Can’t I just go in?” Could I heck. “When was this decided?” I asked “Was there any consultation?”. “Oh yes,” one replied, while another said at the same time “I think they did try to keep it quiet”. Too true, they did – just before an election.

Two days later I visited again, but this time, I remembered. I went in through the Corn Exchange entrance where (note well) there are no barriers. I looked at the displays and visited the loo at my leisure, noticing with sadness how many people wore badges indicating they had had to pay. I somehow found it hard to meet their gaze. 

As I left by the main entrance, officials insisted on yet again checking my bank letter against their computer, presumably to make sure it wasn’t a fake address. As I walked out into the sunshine, past the sad little queue of people wanting to go in, I did not feel proud of my city.