Collaboration between Labour and the Greens on the Brighton and Hove Budget is a positive sign of things to come

What excellent news that the Greens and Labour are collaborating on challenges to the Budget at Brighton and Hove City Council. There is now a sort of clear greeny-red water between the parties of the left and the party of the right. The Lib Dems, as always, are floundering somewhere in the middle.

The Greens and Labour will try to force through two amendments at the Council meeting tomorrow (Thursday). The first seeks to raise £1.4 million by reversing the Conservatives proposed 1% cut in Council Tax (and other measures such as reducing the mowing of grass verges and not implementing the 5% reduction in the cost of residents’ parking permits. Instead, more will be spent on a range of Council services including the Community Safety Team (£150,000), the youth offending team (£90,000), the community and equalities team (£230,000) and advice and support to schools (£250,000).

The second amendment seeks to raise £1.1 million by scrapping the Conservative proposal to remove the cycle lane in Grand Avenue. The money saved will be used for items such as a co-ordinator for school’s equality and bullying work for one year (£30,000), to maintain certain bus routes (£50,000 – can this be counted as a victory for Brian Fitch in his campaign to save the No 5 to Hangleton?), and £400,000 to create a city-wide financial inclusion strategy to help those struggling with debt and avoid “loan sharks”. However, most of these measures will probably survive for just 12 months as they are being funded by a one-off saving.

The city-wide financial inclusion strategy is probably the most important item on the budget agenda for tomorrow night as it would, if agreed, help the most needy in the City. I would urge councillors of all parties to support this item.

The collaboration between Labour and the Greens is a monumental shift forward, and a tribute to the work of Green Convenor Bill Randall and Labour Leader Gill Mitchell. If, as is likely, no one party has a majority in May, then a coalition of the Greens and Labour could see an administration formed under the leadership of Bill Randall since the Greens are likely to have 4 or 5 more seats that the Labour Party.

But it is the politics of the two Budgets that is fascinating, and how matters will be played out on the doorstep. The Conservative proposal to make a 1% cut in Council Tax and a 5% reduction in residents parking permits will lead it’s election campaign, and will lead it big time. The Council Tax cut is, largely, symbolic but a good headline grabber and has galvanised Tory activists of a big society, small government mindset (such as Grizzlies and Estate Agents). Ironically, it may well be the reduction in residents parking charges that is more likely to appeal on the doorstep in town centre wards

The challenge for Labour and the Greens is to convince people that the amount being committed to protect ‘policy officers’ and ‘community safety teams’ isn’t coming at the expense of front line service delivery. Ask your average parent in the Queen’s Park playground, or the park in Marmion Road whether they would prefer a park warden or community safety partnership team, there is likely to be just one answer.

As for the Tories, the challenge they are facing, and losing heavily, is the plan to remove the cycle lane in Grand Avenue and The Drive. Credit here goes to Green councillors Alex Phillips and Ian Davey. The more the Tories defend the proposal, the deeper they dig a hole. Labour and the Greens should make this proposal the issue to counter the parking permit issue.

While I am not totally convinced by the Green / Labour alternative budget, the co-operation between the two parties is a sign of maturity and will probably have an impact longer on life in Brighton and Hove than a 1% cut in Council Tax.

The Greens trying to Juggle Council finances with both hands tied behind their back

The Green’s alternative budget for 2011/12 has been published. I can recall various alternative budgets over the years but this must be amongst the best presented I can recall. It starts with a condemnation from the Convenor of the Green Group of Councillors, Bill Randall. (By the way, I wish the Greens would just agree to have a Leader rather than a Convenor. It has done away with ‘Speakers’ nationally in favour of a Leader, currently Caroline Lucas, and it has done them the power of good!). In his opening comments, Bill Randall, a man characterised by sober thought and expression, says: “The massive and damaging spening cuts imposed on Brighton and Hove City Council by the Conservative and Lib Dem Coalition Government will perpetuate inequality in the city, victimise the vulnerable and penalise the poor. We believe the cuts go beyond necessity and are fuelled by dogma …”

In what sounds a bit like New Labour-speak (sorry Bill) he says “Fairness is at the heart of this budget. We have restored the 1 per cent cut in council tax proposed by the Conservatives, for instance, because we think the £1.1 million it yields will be used more effectively and fairly to protect services and jobs for the general good of the city as opposed to giving every household a very small reduction in what they pay.”

Green Finance supremo, councillor Jason Kitcat, “Cutting local government budgets is an ill-considered policy which will harm the most vulnerable. It runs contrary to the views of the Green Party, many leading economists, fairness and common sense. Cutting spending while the economy is fragile risks a further downturn and reduces services for those most likely to need them.”

So what are the Greens proposing? You can read the whole Green Alternative Budget here. Amongst the highlights are:

  • £924,000 of recurring funding being put back into services for Children, Young People and Families including Educational Psychologists and the Connexions careers and advice service.
  • £500,000 to kick-start investment in solar panels for council homes and offices, which would create free electricity for tenants and new revenue through the ‘Feed in Tariff’ for renewable energy generation.
  • £450,000 for a new reserve to deal with the risks of the major changes proposed to services for Adult Social Care and Children, Young People and Families.
  • £40,000 to pilot a residential food waste collection scheme.
  • £25,000 to fund extra noise patrol shifts in the city.
  • £15,000 more in grants to voluntary organisations in the city.
  • £26,000 saved from removing catering for meetings councillors attend and £18,000 saved by reforming the system of councillor allowances.

These proposals put clear green water between the Greens and the Tories. One or two items are populist (extra noise patrols which people in town centre wards, i.e. Green wards, will welcome this) or tokenistic (£15,000 more in grants to voluntary organisations – it won’t even pay for a fill time worker).

The Green Alternative Budget shows that the Greens are a credible alternative. We now wait to see what the Labour alternative budget will look like.

A final word to Dani, who says “I haven’t studied this, or the Tory budget, in detail, but I think I prefer the Green priorities to the Tory ones.”. You don’t say, Dani! With someone with your political background it is like me saying that I think I prefer strawberries and cream to root canal treatment. But I applaud her sentiment when she says: “I would rather see a defiant budget that doesn’t pass on any government cuts to local people, and this isn’t that, but it’s an improvement.” But I sympathise with all councillors when trying to juggle Council finances with both hands tied behind their backs.

Brighton and Hove City Council Budget: A ‘Desperate Budget’ or ‘Balanced and Fair’?

Last week the Conservatives on Brighton and Hove City Council unveiled their Budget.  Council Leader Mary Mears said she was delighted to present a budget that when “compared to other councils we feel this is balanced, fair and offers something to the whole city.”  She sais that  she and her coleagues “understand how much people are suffering at the moment so wanted to offer them some much needed relief.”

The Conservatives have announced a 1% cut in Council Tax, the first ever cut in the history of the City Council.  For a Council Tax D property, this amounts to a £13 cut for the year. The amount itself is negligible but it will, as I have said before, galvanised Tory activists, especially those on the Estate Agent wing in Goldsmid ward.  This Council Tax cut relies on the use of £10,000,000 of reserves.  That means that it is not sustainable unless it receives a massive increase in government funds or it makes that level of cuts in future years.

Green convenor, and the person most likely to replace Mary Mears should the Tories lose the elections in May, Bill Randall, said that he does not support the cut in Council Tax.  He said: “This Council is asking us to accept that it can cut £35 million and no one will suffer.  I am afraid I don’t buy that”.  There will, of course, be cuts, with adult social care and children’s services being expected to make the largest ‘savings’.

Labour leader Gill Mitchell described it as a “desperate budget”.  She pointed out that inflation rises of up to 5% have beem predicted and that that could have a severe impact on future budgets.  “It is a risky budget, making cuts in the wrong places and making risky assumptions.”

The budget will be decided at a full council meeting on March 3rd at Brighton Town Hall starting at 4.30pm.  It will be interesting to see if Labour and the Greens can co-operate on making amendments to the Tory budget and what alternate budget each will propose.

The Mears Master Plan: More reaction

Jason Kitcat is not a happy bunny.  He is unhappy about the BBC coverage of the announcement of the Tory budget: He writes on Twitter “Couldn’t BBC News even get a single opposition quote? Weak reporting”.  He is, of course, right on that. 

But of more importance is his reaction to the draft budget itself: “Cynical, irresponsible, gimmicky – take your pick!”. He describes the budget as “breathtaking. It slices HUGE chunks of budgets for children’s services and social care. Almost £5.5m from Children’s & Families services, about £6.1m from Adult Social Care as well as smaller but harmful cuts from planning, licensing and central services including, for example, health & safety support work. Additionally the Tories propose to spend £1.1m capital funds removing cycle lanes from Grand Avenue & The Drove. Yes, that’s right, removing cycle lanes. They also wish to borrow just over £4.5m to refurbish car parks.”

Interestingly, Jason says that “My colleague Bill Randall and I have asked to meet Labour councillors to discuss any joint amendments we might be able to agree on.”  This could be the first real test of whyether Labour and the Greens can work together.  Some how, it is something I doubt.  The anamosity between Labour and Green hacks runs deep, particularly amongst Labour activists and several councillors.  Some long standing Labour councillors still believe that it is their right to control the Council and have the City’s MPs, and they cannot stand these Green upstarts!  Come the first Friday of May, there will remain just a small rump of Labour councillors.  The Greens, I believe, are willing to work with Labour.  They, of course have everything to gain, nothing to lose.

How do others see Mary Mears’ ‘Master Plan’?  Dr Faust doesn’t think its will wash with the public: “I would have thought it likely that any proposed cut from the Council could be more than wiped out by a rise in the police precept – so people might see an overall rise anyway. However the move does present a challange to other parties – how much will they propose to raise Council Tax in order to save jobs and services? The reduction from the Tories just makes the gap larger, and a harder sell. Arguing for a 1% difference is far easier than a 10% one.”

‘Clive’  thinks that the council tax cut is the equivalent of an irresponsible giveaway budget – “it is the kind of behaviour that the coalitionistas are trying to pin on the last government, with very little basis in fact.  It only has to be hoped that enough people see through it – fortunately B&H voters are pretty clued up, in my experience. One percent is not much, either, and it won’t be enough if the opposition parties remember that the Tories are in power here (barely) and it is their seats (the winnable ones) that ought to be targeted.”

Momma Grizzly (Rachael Bates) as you would expect, thinks the Tory plan is just grand: “I am indeed extremely pleased with the plans to reduce council tax. I join Rob Buckwell in saying that I hope that those in opposition don’t block this sensible plan which will help hard-working people to retain more of their own money.”

But ‘Steampunk’ disagrees with Grizzly and is united with Dan Wilson’s comment reported in my last post: “Dan exposes the cynicism of the 1% tax cut succinctly with the concrete example that for most ‘hard-working people’ this amounts to around £10 cash back per year (admittedly more for the better-off). To pretend that this is going to help families – or in more abstract terms help the local economy – when the reality is that you would be shutting services and making hundreds of people redundant is totally dishonest.”

More to follow …..