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.

Time for Labour and the Conservatives to stop personal attacks and to present their alternative budgets

I am back from my Rip van Winkle hibernation. Regarding the future of this blog, I have paused, listened, reflected and … You know the rest. I will continue for the time being. This decision is down primarily to the daily pleas for me to continue from my three regular readers, Grizzly, Doris and Biker Dave.

I think there has been enough now on this blog about Christopher Hawtree and libraries. As Geoffrey Bowden posted at 1.05 yesterday morning, everyone with views on libraries should contribute to the consultation by visiting the council’s consultation portal.

Moving on. Where are we at. Unlike me, Lord Bassam appears to have gone for at least 2 weeks without sleep as he attacks the Greens in Brighton and Hove for Tory imposed cuts from Westminster. It is a shames that Labour continues to see the Greens as the enemy. All I can think is that by attacking the Greens in such an unrelenting fashion Labour hopes to deflect attention from their absence of policies.

Ed Balls has made it clear what we can expect:

“My starting point is, I am afraid, we are going to have keep all these cuts. There is a big squeeze happening on budgets across the piece. The squeeze on defence spending, for instance, is £15bn by 2015. We are going to have to start from that being the baseline. At this stage, we can make no commitments to reverse any of that, on spending or on tax. So I am being absolutely clear about that.”

Look at Scotland, Labour hitched its wagon to the ill-thought through Tory referendum quicker than you can say Alex Salmond. Why didn’t Labour find a position somewhere between the Tories and the SNP? It is because Labour cannot see beyond trying to protect its own short term interests by attacking those to the left, be it the SNP in Scotland or the Greens in Brighton and Hove.

So why vote Labour …..? What does Labour offer that is different from the Tories? It no longer offers an alternative when it comes to pulic spending. If I want to vote for a party of austerity, I might as well vote for the one that is enthusiastic about cuts, about small government.

Locally, just Lord Bassam, There’s-only-one-Caroline-in-Hove, Warren Morgan and Craig Turton seem to be fighting for Labour, but their focus appears to be purely on the Greens. It must be difficult to be in the Labour Party when Ed Miliband is failing to make an impact, and Ed Balls is signing up to Tory cuts. I would appeal to Labour activists locally to say what there alternative is to the cuts imposed by the Westminster Tories. Please list what services you intend to put forward for cutting, how many jobs will go, and how you intend to make up for the shortfall in income resulting from buying into the Tories’ Council Tax freeze gimmick.

The Greens have published their draft budget, and are consulting on it. I do think their approach has been the most open, consultative approach to budget setting that I can recall. Credit to them there. I don’t agree with everything they are proposing to do, but anyone in control locally, Green, Labour or Tories, would have no choice but to cut.

So what is Labour’s alternative? Each time you oppose a Green cut, it is required of you to put forward an alternate cut. It is what you demanded when you were in control locally. Or are you saying you would not cut, that you would set a deficit/illegal budget? It is time Labour locallyshows it has an alternative (assuming it has one).

And the Tories, you too need to list your cuts. There are many who want to know how exactly you will obey your Westminster Masters and make the cuts required in Brighton and Hove.

One reason I considered closing down this blog was because politics locally is about to become very nasty indeed. I hate the prospect of the closure of services, making people redundant, new hardships.

So, Labour opponents of the Greens, please stop the attacks and let’s hear from you what you would do.

Greens must make the most of their backbenchers

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But can this be said to apply to the Greens who now control Brighton and Hove City Council? 150 days or so since getting the keys to the Town Hall, the Greens have been accused of selling out.

It is rumoured that a Green councillor has asked that the use “sustainable” be used rather than the word “green” in Council reports and publications because the word “green” is too political.

I don’t know if that is true, but the Greens are now entering the most challenging period of the administration – their first budget.

Tory leader Geoffrey Theobald sent me a statement in which he said the new administration was being “green” as in being “inexperienced … in their approach to running the council so far”. He wrote: “u-turns on issues such as the work programme contract, building on Toad’s Hole Valley and the ‘meat-free Monday’s initiatives show that they have got a long way to go, however they chose to label it.”

The reality, though, is that the ups and downs of the new administration is not much different from the first 5 months of any new administration. There have been no u-turns on any matter of substance. And neither the Tories or Labour have managed to lay a decent glove on the Greens. None of this is a surprise. Where the real battle will commence is the budget.

Most Green Cabinet members have been impressive in getting out and about and engaging with the business, third sector and community groups. Green leader, Bill Randall, in particular, has impressed the business community, and the feedback from the voluntary and community sectors has been very positive.

But for the Greens to continue to thrive they need to think about the role of backbenchers. Cabinet members and a single MP cannot, alone, carry the party and help maintain the Big M, momentum. They are likely to be the ones who will drawn negative coverage when the cuts are announced and implemented. Unlike other parties, the Greens are more likely to tolerate dissent in their ranks. Backbenchers can have a constructive role in presenting the Greens as a party of hope and aspiration while the Cabinet members take the flack for the inevitable compromises that they will have to take.

The names of a couple of Cabinet members have been suggested to me as possible candidates to take on Mike Weatherley. If the election was this week I would think that they would not be unreasonable choices. But after the budget the responsibility for being candidate must pass to a backbencher.

But part of the problem for the Greens, with one or two exceptions, their backbenchers (particularly newly elected ones) are largely invisible. To effectively challenge Weatherley in Hove, and more so in North Brighton and Hove, a lot more is needed from backbenchers who are needed as the eyes and ears of the Party.

Simple arguments for the Tories and the Greens, an impossible argument for Labour to make in Brighton and Hove

The Noble Lord, Baron Pepperpot, has disagreed with my analysis of the political implications of Thursday’s Budget votes at Brighton and Hove City Council. He writes: “I find it very difficult to believe-despite today’s Argus headline, that any Conservative-apart from those in those leafy outwith suburbs, will be laughing to the polls. Sometimes we over estimate the average persons interest in the intricate nature of these issues. Most people, however, will have heard about the proposed 1% reduction in council tax, most people will know about the cuts. It is my conclusion, from those I have spoken to, that people see the 1% reduction as a gimmick and that people know cuts are coming and are, whether rightly or wrongly, resigned to them. From this conclusion (and some people on here will agree, some not) I see that no damage has been done long term to either Labour or the Greens. Both can sell an alternative argument. And most people don’t have the time or inclination to draw an in depth conclusion.”

I don’t agree, Baron. The Tories will emphasise the fact that Labour and the Greens voted against the cut in Council Tax. Theirs is an easy (if sloppy) argument, one that ill-informed voters miught buy. Imagine the line on the doorstep/on leaflets: “We put forward a cut in Council tax but Labour and the Greens voted against saving you money.”  No mention of amounts, a simple, accurate message.

There is damage for Labour.  The Greens message will be: “We could have voted down the Tory cuts budget, but Labour abstained and allowed the cuts to go ahead”. Again, a simple, accurate message.

As for Labour, what will its message be? At best “While we don’t like the cuts, we had to abstain to allow a budget to be set to avoid chaos”.  Huh? A confusing, not so accurate message.  Floating voters like me won’t be convinced.  (Before I am accused by Labour activists of being pro Green, I intend to split my votes in May. Whether it is 2 Green and 1 Labour or 1 Green and 2 Labour is yet to be decided, but Labour’s abstention encorages me towards the former).

Warren Morgan makes a brave attempt to explain Labour’s position: “We co-operated on some amendments, we made a difference in what was passed. There was a disagreement over whether to vote out the amended Tory budget or let it go through with the changes we had agreed.  The Greens had other amendments that they put in which they will use on election leaflets to differentiate themselves from Labour, and chose to make a stand and vote against the Budget. Again they are using that position to differentiate themselves from Labour. We could have done the same, and would have had to do the whole thing again next week. That may or may not have enabled further changes, or it may have lost the changes already won. We could not, lawfully, have continued to vote it down and deny the reality of Tory govt imposed cuts.”

That’s a complicated argument, less still a convincing argument that will be difficult to make in response to the simple message that the Greens will be making.

Allie Cannell thinks my views about the future prospects of Labour-Green co-operation is too pessimistic: “Labour and the Greens are always going to disagree about things, thats why they are seperate parties! You can’t expect them to get along all the time, what is encouraging though is that they found so much stuff that they did agree on so that they could significantly change the Tory budget so it wasn’t quite as bad. There is some overlap and I think the collaboration in this budget shows that mostly both parties can work with that overlap and that politisicing hopefully wont get in the way.”  I hope you are right, Allie, but the tone of exchanges of late (well, since Thursday night) suggests some activists are less likely to stab others in the back, it is an all-out, full-frontal assault!

Christopher Hawtree says that the Budget is largely a non-issue: “I spoke with a lot of people yesterday, and did not hear the Budget mentioned.”  I doubt that the Tories or the Greens will allow that situation to last long.

The Greens blame Labour, Labour blames the Greens, and the Tories laugh all the way to the polling station

Yesterday I was upbeat and positive about the collaboration between Labour and the Greens.  Tonight they are back at each other’s throats.  This is how I see it. It was great that there was a shared approach to the Tory budget.  Labour and Green councillors were joined by Lib Dem Paul Elgood and independent (former Lib Dem) David Watkins, in voting through some amendments.  So far, so good.

It was right to amend the Tory budget, but that did not mean it was no longer a Tory budget, in spite of what the Grizzly One might say: “I am very disappointed that the Conservative budget proposal was voted down. It was, on the whole, excellent.”  The tens of millions of cuts remained.  Labour and Green councillors were then faced with a choice of what to do.  Together with Elgood and Watkins, they had more than enough votes to throw the whole budget out.  And there would have been enough time to review the Tory proposals and to come up with some alternatives.

But when push came to shove, all 13 Labour councillors abstained. All 13 Green councillors votes against the budget along with Watkins and Elgood.  A truly courageous group of Labour councillors would have seen this as an opportunity to make a real stand against the ConDem Coalition.  But it was not to be. The Tory budget, mildly amended, was comfortably carried. Andy Richards writes: “The opportunity which is being missed here by all of the non-Coalition councillors is to say to an increasingly weak and divided government, ‘we are not going to pass on your cuts’.”

There is a debate about whether it is ok to vote against a motion you have amended. It is no difference than abstaining if the vote goes in favour of a cuts budget.  Dani, as always, speaks sense: “The amendments were just tinkering at the edges of a £23 million cuts package. They restored less than £3 million – welcome, but not enough to make the overall budget acceptable.  Amending a motion you are intending to vote against is perfectly reasonable. It means you are saying that you don’t want to do what is proposed, but if you are defeated and it ends up being done, you would prefer it done in a different way.”

I entirely disagree with Ian Chisnall who writes: “If the Greens and Labour were not happy that the final budget was adequate they should have either tabled more robust amendements or tabled no amendments and voted against the unamended budget.”  Wrong.  It is right that Labour and Green try to make the best of a bad deal, but that doesn’t mean they then have to vote for that bad deal.

What will the consequences be? Immediately the prospect of any form of reconciliation between the two parties of the left has been lost, the likelihood of co-operation after May’s local elections gone.  The blame game has begun. Labour activists accuse the Greens of being unrealistic, the Greens blame Labour for selling out.  While I tend to take the latter view, the one party that will be laughing all the way to the polling stations is the Conservative Party.  They have their headline – a Council Tax being voted down – along with the defeated cut in the cost of parking permits.  Geoffrey Theobald ended with some egg on his face over the cycle path, but that is small change compared to the vitriol that is being expressed between the two opposition parties.

I am sorry not to have responded to the record number of comments left today, but the debate rages on in the Comments section of my last post which gave my knee-jerk reaction immediately after the end of the Council meeting.

An immediate, knee-jerk reaction to the Brighton and Hove City Council Budget Meeting

And so there we have it: the Brighton and Hove City Council budget for 2011/12. Here is my immediate and largely unconsidered knee-jerk reaction (nothing new there).

The amendments put forward by Labour and the Greens have been passed. That’s some good news at this time of harrowing cuts elsewhere. There are two ways of looking at this. One, put forward by @sandyd68 on Twitter, is that it is soft cuts as opposed to hard.  (Those supporting this view were calling, until the final vote, for Labour and Green councillors not to vote in favour of the amended budget.) The other, put forward by some Tories, is that if the Tory budget had remained unamended, elsewhere in the country people would be jumping for joy.

The reality is that the substantive budget put forward by the Tories was a clever election budget. There are 3 key matters that the Tories will now latch onto in the election campaign. One is the reversal of the Council Tax cut. It provides them with a useful headline and a rallying point for Grizzlies and the Estate Agent Tendency in Goldsmid. Two, the defeat of the parking permit cut will be used by the Tories in town centre wards, now the stronghold of the Greens. Fortunately, the Greens are too strong in these areas for this to make a difference. Three, the cutting of grass verges – £100k cut from that budget. Tories in the leafy suburbs will make hay while the grass grows. It could cost some votes in one or two areas of Hollingdean and Stanmer, but then that is largely a fight between Labour and the Greens. It could, however, make a difference in Labour / Tory contests in areas such as Hangleton and Knoll (now that Dawn Barnett and Brian Fitch have found common cause on the top deck of the No 5 bus).

For the Greens, the victory regarding the cycle lanes in The Drive and Grand Avenue is a two-edged sword. It preserves two cycle lanes (although not the greatest in the world) but denies the Greens a fantastic campaign issue for their campaigns in Central Hove and Goldsmid.

For Labour, they have the comfort of being part of something that wasn’t defeated by the Tories. However, they ame across as the minor partner in this budget coalition. On the whole, the Green councillors made stronger and more impassioned speeches. Some of the Tory speeches were ill-tempered and amounted to name-calling. It would have been better had more Tories made speeches that were positive about their budget rather than speak about Labour’s 2007 budget. Who the heck cares if it was Simon Burgess or Gill Mitchell who presented Labour’s last budget (it was Simon, for the record). Garry Peltzer Dunne is a very amiable chap to spend time with, but his speech was something else, not sure what, but something else!

The final twist of the evening came with Labour abstaining on the final vote on the budget (thereby ensuring it was carried).  The Greens voted against.  The Greens will be seen as carrying through its principles with Labour allowing the Tory budget through.  The Tories, of course, voted for the amended budget since it was largely theirs.  On balance, it was a good night for the Tories, Greens and, to a lesser extent, Labour. For the Lib Dem Group of One, opposing the Tory budget at least avoided political suicide.

The final word to @sandyd68 on Twitter.  “Labour sell out. Left wing coalition, my arse!”

The crucial votes of Paul Elgood and David Watkins in today’s Brighton and Hove Budget vote

‘Clive’ is right. He said that my comment yesterday, in respect of the Labour/Green Alternative Budget, that the Lib Dems were “floundering somewhere in the middle” is “just lazy. It a) ignores the political reality of the last ten years, pre May 2010 anyway, and b) ignores the important point that Paul Elgood’s vote is pretty crucial on this budget and the amendments, as is that of the former Lib Dem, David Watkins.” Fair points, all. Their votes are important, and yes, it was a sloppy comment by me. Usually I try to provide a better analysis, particularly in regard to the Lib Dems, as well as Labour, Greens and the Tories. (I trust I will be given some blogging licence when it comes to UKIP and the Estate Agents in the Tory Party!).

Today’s budget vote is fascinating. Of the 54 councillors, the Tories are down to 25 councillors following the untimely death of Hangleton and Knoll councillor David Smart, there are 13 Labour councillors, 13 Greens, one Lib Dem and one Independent (following David Watkins resignation of the Lib Dem whip), with one seat vacant.

Assuming that all 53 councillors are present, Labour and the Greens voting together would outvote the Tories if Elgood and Watkins abstain. If either votes with the Tories, and the other abstains, the Tory budget will be carried one the casting vote of the Tory mayor, Geoff Wells. What is most likely, though, is that one or both will vote with Labour and the Greens. I agree with Clive that it is most likely that Paul Elgood will vote for the Alternative Budget. To vote against would be political suicide. Paul has an uphill battle to retain his Brunswick and Adelaide seat. He hardly wants to be defeated AND become known as Hove’s Nick Clegg!

I understand that you can watch the Budget debate on the internet now that the public gallery has been cleared. Did you see me in the Public Gallery? …… I was the one with the red bow tie, glasses, scraggly hair wearing no more than a sheet and a smile!