Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Verdict on the first few months of Brighton & Hove's Green Council

As people start drifting away for their summer breaks, the dust is settling on the first three months of Brighton & Hove's new minority Green Council. Now the fake war of words around protest camps in the city and the petty politiking around Traveller encampments has died down, we have started seeing the emergence of real issues that will make or break this Council. Speaking with Councillors, watching streamed Council meetings and following the twists and turns of debate between our political opponents and the local media, we can already see the contours of battles ahead that hold both promise and warnings for my colleagues.

In the last few weeks, we have had some real cause for celebration. The Council is now intending to bring forward the introduction of a living wage for it's own workers and establishing a Living Wage Commission for Brighton & Hove to examine the opportunties and challenges in rolling this out across the public, private and third sector in the city. With rising inequality hitting women and the vulnerable more savagely as the national cuts bite, this is a discernable step forward and a rallying call for what Greens can achieve if given political authority.

Work is moving forward on a number of other crucial fronts, such as a new city-wide climate change plan, an increase in house building and a re-examination of our strategy for the South Downs. The latter change could be one of the more lasting achievements of the Green Council and I would encourage the Cabinet not to take their eye off the ball here. Alongside good governance, it will be essential for us to have flagship, visible and lasting policy successes to our name by 2015. Linking up our new National Park more robustly with the city has the potential for expanding our attractiveness as a tourist destination for new audiences away from the city centre, bringing revenue and jobs to the outer wards. Broadening accessibility, infrastructure and communicating this well are essential pre-requisites for making this work, but could serve to secure our reputation as the green capital of the UK.

The other positive improvement we are already seeing to the work of our Council is that consultation and participation are now definitely key elements to our work. With each announcement from the Green Cabinet, we are hearing a great deal about how we will be consuting more widely with community groups, unions, business and third sector organisations. If we are to achieve policy changes in Brighton that stick, we need to be basing our decisions on informed debate with the community. So far our record has not been without it's missteps, but there does seem to be a sea-change from the approach taken by our precedessors. As a new administration with limited experience in running a Council, this strategy doesn't hurt us either, because the process will throw up potential political problems at quite an early stage of discussion.

So, where are the problems? We are now at the mercy of our manifesto and public statements before the local elections. The realities of holding power mean that with the best intention in the world, there will be times when we need to take a different route to that publicised earlier. The charge that we will continue to hear, at least for the next 12 months or so, is that we fought on a platform of resisting all cuts. I'm seeing this regularly thrown back in the face of the Cabinet during meetings as the detail starts to emerge of how the Council budget is balanced. The truth is very clear. In our city-wide GreenLeaf newspaper, we explicitly promised to "Resist to the greatest extent possible, Government cuts" and talked of areas that we could cut without hitting front-line services. This was echoed in our Alternative Budget, which clearly laid out areas where funding would need to cut in order to protect front-line services for children, older people and the vulnerable.

We need to challenge this distortion every time it is uttered by our opponents. Common sense, let alone the written evidence, dictates that we need to still balance a budget with more limited resources. We have our local MP, Caroline Lucas, fighting the cuts on the national stage - the Green Council needs to blunt the impact from voters as much as we can. Two areas that we haven't started tackling yet are our pledges to cut £0.7M of management costs from senior Council Officer roles (especially as this funding was earmarked to go back into Connexions) and the cutting of Councillor allowances. Whilst I personally support decent Councillor allowances, so that running for these elected positions are practical options to more than just the independently wealthy, I am nervous that a lack of movement on these points is leaving us open to charges of acting in self-interest once in power. Politically, this is especially dangerous right now.

I've been impressed with the leadership shown by our new Council Leader, Bill Randall and the command of detail shown by Jason Kitcat as Cabinet Member for Finance and Central Services. In these initial months, it has been essential to have credible figures fronting the Cabinet during a difficult transition. That they have managed to do so with grace and good humour is to their credit. Whilst other members of the Cabinet have taken to their new roles with real confidence and energy, there is the impression from some that they are still finding their feet and are uncertain in their portfolios.

The summer break will give a short respite, but we need everyone firing on all cylinders by autumn, because I have no doubt a savvy opposition will start targeting weaker performers once they have had time to regroup. The Conservatives are already going for the jugular in a particularly unsubtle way, with regular digs at our naivety or lapsed pledges. Labour are playing a better, more dangerous game. Gill Mitchell is taking a consensual, team-player attitude and raising opposition to our policies without rancour, always putting the low paid first. Taken together, this will be a potent mix and could cause problems for the unwary.

Overall then, a strong beginning from the Green Council, with several of our key manifesto pledges inching closer to being fulfilled and the outlines of a strong distinctive policy offer to the public. This is tempered with a need to keep mindful of our flank on some lesser manifesto pledges and internal support to less confident Cabinet members. Yet that said, there has never been a more exciting time to be a Green Party member!


  1. I think Brighton will make or break the Greens. If we fail we will be disregarded as a 'fad party' by many. If we triumph, there is a real opportunity to capture the centre left ground abandoned by Labour and the Lib dems as they race to the right.
    Nice blog though, keep it up.
    I started my own one a few weeks ago, as a sort of young green members' view on political issues

  2. Thanks for the comment, My Two Pence! I'd agree that the stakes are high, but confident that the local party is putting as much energy into delivering on it's promises as it did during the election campaign. There will be problems along the way, but my knowledge of those people leading the Cabinet means I'm confident in their ability to pull it off.

    Oh, and thanks for the kind words about the blog. I've just had a read of yours - like the level of analyse you are bringing to bear!