Friday, 30 July 2010

Privatising the police in Brighton?

I've just had a remarkable call from local rag the Argus suggesting that one idea identified by senior officers for overcoming the massive cuts faced by Sussex Police might be to get local businesses to sponsor PCSOs and even police officers directly.

Seriously: it has been mooted that companies with spare cash, and even wealthy individuals, could pay for police officers to patrol outside their businesses.

I can hardly think of a worse idea if I try, really: the police officer concerned would hardly be likely to arrest their sponsor for crinimal behaviour now, and those of us without the cash to buy our own privatised police would just have to wait our turn for a response if we became the victim of a crime.

It wouldn't just be raising the spectre of privatising the police - it would be doing it, wholesale.

Decisions would be taken by sponsors, for the benefit of themselves, their employees and their customers, rather than for those in their neighbourhood, let alone society at large. (Sound familiar - isn't this the principle behind academy schools?)

The richest would, effectiveley, buy immmunity from future police investigation - and their own private police force all at once.

I hope it never comes to this - but, actually, the idea of replacing comprehensive schools with privately-owned academies has support of Labour, Tory and Lib-Dem MPs and councillors. We Greens opposed that, and we'll oppose privatising the police too.

But if we remain a lone voice you can expect to see more police in wealthy neighbourhoods, and less in areas suffering deprivation, sooner than you think.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

The reality of Tory cuts: police abandon localism in West Sussex

Today Sussex Police Chief Constable Martin Richards has announced how he is going to manage the massive cuts imposed on the force by the government - £50m over the next five years, on top of millions slashed from their budget's by the previous Labour administration.

In a nutshell, the thin blue line is going to get a lot thinner, as the force is set to abandon localism, especially in West Sussex.

The two divisions managing policing in the county will be merged into one: a super-sized management unit will centralise decisions about policing in an area stretching from Chichester through Bognor and Worthing, north through Haywards Heath and Crawley to East Grinstead.

At the same time, major crime investigations will share resources - and their management - with the Surrey force.

There is a commitment to saving money by cutting carbon emissions by ten per cent each year - something I've been calling for ever since I took up a seat on the police authority in 2007. I hope annual emission reductions at this level can be sustained.

But any savings this delivers won't be anything like enough to rule out police and PCSOs losing their jobs - and the public noticing a real reduction in local police visibility (and therefore risking a reversal of recent decreases in fear of crime that is keeping many vulnerable residents of the city virtual prisoners in their homes after dark).

The truth is this Tory government talks a good line about giving control of police to local communities but these cuts will make the management of local police more remote than ever: coupled with Gov't plans announced earlier this week to replace police authority members representing local communities with a single US-style sheriff representing all of East Sussex, West Sussex and Brighton and Hove, today's announcement really spells the end of locally-delivered policing in much of Sussex.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The anti-theft sandwich bag: new trust-building kit for Sussex Police?

Last week I spent four days conducting interviews for Independent Custody Visitors - the volunteers who drop in, unannounced, at Sussex Police's privately-run custody centres - to check that the police are following the rules, that detained persons (many of whom will end up being acquitted, or even released without charge) are being treated with respect, and according to the law.

The role is an essential cog in the machine of scrutinising the police, and, broadly, the police themselves very much welcome the visitors, and are happy to take any advice given and sort out most problems on the spot.

Everyone involved recognises that the system helps give the public confidence that everything works as it should do in the brave new world of privately-run suites of cells, ensuring both the police and the detainees have their rights protected.

With the recent death of a woman being held at Worthing custody centre, it could be argued that the scrutiny of the way prisoners are held in Sussex is more important then ever.

Whoever ends up being recruited to perform the roles, I think it's fair to say there's an urgent need to rebuild trust between the visitors, and among the police themselves, in Worthing.

We spent two days there, and found the fridge locked. Everything in the kitchen that could be 'borrowed' was, literally in many cases, bolted down.

It was clear that none of the police staff and officers using the training centre at the police HQ there trusted each other not to pinch their lunch.

Maybe some of theses bags would help!

Monday, 26 July 2010

A slap in the face for small business: Brighton Council to go head-to-head with local PR companies

I can't imagine Tory Brighton Council's latest money-making wheeze will get past the regulators - but if it does there are serious implications for the future of public sector PR and communications across the country.

It seems the council is to launch its very own PR company and bid for work from other public sector organisations.

Local PR firms and communications professionals are already worrying about the implications of a state-backed competitor entering the market: in theory EU rules designed to protect firms from state-subsidised competitors should block the move but given the Tories' ammbivalence to the rules when it comes to making money out of public service provision I'm sure a loophole will crop up.

The only silver lining for local small businesses who are about to see themselves going head-to-head with Brighton Council's communications unit is that they don't seem to be very good: just last week a senior council officer was telling me how awful it was that the local paper only seemed interested in reporting negative stories about the council.

Well, in my experience, a local media outlet churning out knocking copy about a local council is caused by one thing and one thing only: a poor relationship between the organ concerned and the council''s communications team.

Direct police elections: a recipe for vigliantes, racists and homophobes

Home Secretary Theresa May is set to unveil her plans to replace police authorities with directly elected or police commissioners today: a move that will cost the taxpayer millions and allow extremists to take control of policing in many of our communities.

I'm all for democracy and accountability of policing, of course, but do we really need another set of elections, just as millions are being slashed from police budgets?

We already elect the majority of members – I, for example, was elected to represent the Queen’s Park area of Brighton before being appointed to Sussex Police Authority – and these are balanced with independent members, including magistrates, lawyers and criminologists. This means the management of the police in Sussex is not dominated by party politics.

Introducing direct elections as the Government has suggested will mean an end to this. All elections to public office in this country are dominated by political parties and police authority elections would be no different. Before long, the appointment of senior police officers would be more about party allegiance than ability to do the job.

This is exactly what we have seen in London, with the last Commissioner Ian Blair resigning not because of a policing failure but a political one – that he did not enjoy the patronage and support of the new mayor. Is this what we want to see here?

Neighbourhood policing in Sussex has been a great success.

People like having a beat officer team to serve their communities, giving our police a human face – and the same one every day.

But just as we should be increasing our budget for neighbourhood policing, the Government has thrown the whole approach into turmoil by slashing existing budgets and proposing an expensive new tier of elections without explaining how they will be paid for. Will the millions of pounds it will cost be found simply by taking officers off our streets?

But perhaps worst of all, direct elections to Sussex Police Authority will allow single-issue campaigners to be elected on the back of vigilantism, racism or homophobia.

I daresay a “No Travellers’ Camp In Brighton” party would pick up a few votes, judging from recent coverage in The Argus, but it would hardly represent the views of the majority and would drown out the voices of our city’s distinct and vulnerable groups and communities.

Of course we need communities to become more involved in decisions about policing. The way to do that is to allow them to participate in spending decisions, with a more participatory style to budgeting.

The reality is that talk of these elections is a smokescreen designed to obscure the fact this Government wants to centralise and politicise decisions about crime, policing and human rights while slashing budgets - and is more committed to saving cash than to giving neighbourhoods any real control over policing.

If we want to make our communities safer we need more money for neighbourhood policing and some spending decisions should be devolved to the communities themselves.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Kissing goodbye to new council homes in Brighton

The hopes of the 11,500 waiting for a council house in Brighton and Hove receded a little today when it became clear that Government cuts had brought to an end any prospect of building new council-owned homes in the city.

Cash earmarked to help councils fund the building of new homes has been slashed by £450 million - and the scheme closed to new deals.

Brighton and Hove's failure to submit any bids early enough means there will be no new council homes here - creating a perfect storm of future homelessness, as the value of Housing Benefit falls and housing associations' building programmes in financial meltdown.

Bill Randall, the Greens' Convenor on the city Council, warned the move would also hit the city's economy.

“The news will dash the hopes of homeless and poorly-housed people in the city who believed new council homes could offer them a housing lifeline. Tenant groups who championed a new building programme will be deeply disappointed.

“The shortage of good quality and affordable homes in the city is likely to be with us for a long time and jobs will be lost in the building industry. The implications for homelessness apart, the shortage will also damage the city’s economic prospects.” 

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Coalition to axe environmental watchdog: the greenwash stops here

The Tory-LibDem coalition seems to have abandoned the notion of running a 'green' Government once and for all with the decision to axe its own environmental watchdog.

David Cameron today has said the Sustainable Development Commission is to be axed - despite its remit being to help the government cut its greenhouse gas emissions and save money by offering policy advice on efficiency savings as well as environmental matters.

The move will save about £3m a year- but cost a great deal more in lost efficiency savings (advice from the SDC has already saved the Government upwards of £10m in reduced energy, water and waste management bills, some say), and anger environmentalists along the way.

Friends of  the Earth was quick to condemn the decision, and Green MP Caroline Lucas said the agency was essential if the government was serious about improving its environmental performance.

It was only a few months ago that we were promised the 'greenest government ever'.

Well, as the old joke goes, that was when Cameron was still trying to woo the Lib Dems - he was campaigning then. Now he's won and, it seems, the greenwash stops here.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

'Crackpot' Brighton Council to suspend councillor - for posting footage of council meetings on the web

I meant to blog about this last week, but this really is a journalists' dream yarn: a story that seems to mature, rather than diminsh, with age.

Brighton Council held its first ever standards board panel hearing last week, and it decided to suspend Green Councillor Jason Kitcat for the heinous crime of... wait for it... drawing attention to public council meetings!

Yes, you read it right. After a 21-day period for him to decide whether or not to appeal the decision, Cllr Kitcat will be suspended as a councillor for up to six months, or until he apologises to Tory Geoffrey Theobald for posing a clip of him addressing a city council meeting on the video search engine YouTube.

The move will, of course, leave Regency residents a councillor down, and the Green Group without one of it's finest speakers and value-for-money firebrands.

More importantly, it will give the Tories (who lodged the initial complaint) a working majority with which to foist public service cuts and hikes in charges on those living in the city.

That the decision was taken, effectively, by two councillors, one of whom admitted not having viewed the clip in question (Jeane Lepper), and another (David Watkins) who appeared to be asleep for some of the hearing, just shows how open to political interference is our fragile local democracy.

That the council can over-ride voters' wishes so easily, inappropriately using a standards and complaints system when the ballot box didn't give them the result they sought, is nothing short of a scandal.

If you're interested, here's the clip in question. It shows Tory Councillor Geoffrey Theobald speaking at a council meeting last year.

I have used the footage from the Argus report into the whole fiasco, so I'm pretty sure I'm safe from a similar complaint being made against me for telling the tale!

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Brighton Tory proposes putting families on streets to cut housing benefit dependency

I am rarely surprised by the attitudes of Brighton's Tories: just when I'm beginning to get lulled ito a false sense of security and think that, actually, their hearts at least are in the right places, one of them does something completely mad and quasi-fascist, lke calling for a bike ride to be banned, or declaring van-dwellers to be 'unacceptable' or something. They really are, when it boils down to it, just the nasty party of old.

I had one of these moments on Thursday when, at a public council meeting, cabinet member Maria Caulfield, during a debate on housing benefit, actually proposed ending benefit dependency by withdrawing housing benefit from the poorest in our city, even if that means families end up on the street

During a debate on the Government's plans to cut housing benefit limits (to the extent that, according to housing experts, the benefit will be insufficient to meet rent costs in the private sector by 2020), Green councillor Bill Randall called for the council to formally ask the PM, and the city's MPs, to abandon plans to cut the benefit, and instead work with housing and homelessness charities and the Citizens Advice Bureaux to make sure every family has a secure, affordable, roof over their heads instead.

Maria, all heart as usual, said that while homelessness in the city was falling the costs of housing benefit were more than society could afford, and that she couldn't support Cllr Randall's call to protect the benefit.

In the end she persuaded enough of her fellow Tories and Lib-Dems to scupper the proposal, and it fell.

I can't imagine that's what the folk of Moulsecoomb and Bevendean voted for - I bet they're delighted she's decided to abandon them in favour of seeking a 'safer' Tory seat in next year's election.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Jobs for the boys

Brighton and Hove City Council has just announced who will get four new £125,000 a year director jobs wielding the knife delivering the Government's public spending cuts in the city.

Green councillors refused to take part in the selection process, arguing that the whole business of re-organising the council at a cost of more than half a million pounds a year (it seems even the job ads cost £14,000 - about as much as an experienced teacher earns in half a year) should wait until after next year's local election - and the full extent of cuts has been revealed.

So far we just don't know what the impact on local services will be - at a council meeting last week we learned that this year's budgets would be reduced by about £3.5 million - but we were given no details at all about which services - or, more importantly, people, would be affected.

Can it really be right to spend about a fifth of that sum on new strategic directors - even without considering the rredundancy cost of the curent directors, none of whom will keep their jpbs?

Local people are still picking up the pieces from the reported £500,000 redundancy package given to the last Chief Executive, Alan McCarthy, who trotted off to a new job running local NHS services after falling out with ever-more-out-of-touch Tory council leader Mary Mears.

But whatever the rights and wrongs of recruiting the new directors now, I can't help noticing that all of them are white, and all of them are male.

I thought the whole point was to buck the Status Quo? Nothing personal: I wish the new directors well in their new jobs, but I can't help thinking the appointments show the life at Brighton Council's King's House HQ will be pretty much the same as it always has been...

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Anti-war protestors acquitted

Great news: Nine anti-war activists have been acquitted of conspiracy to damage the Moulescoomb-based EDO/MBM arms factory after a three week trial at Hove Crown Court.

The judge agreed with the defendants that the £200,000 damage they caused to the EDO/MBM weapons component factory in Moulescoomb was committed in attempt to halt production of weapons being exported illegally.

And as such exports would have meant components from the factory would be likely to have been used by the Israeli army to attack - and even kill - civilians in Gaza, the defendants' actions were entirely justified as an attempt to stop a much larger crime taking place.

The ruling comes on the backof similar judgments in cases relating to damage to UK-made fighter jets being exported to Indonesia - and raises the question of whether the factory'ss days in Brighton are now numbered.

If the courts now accept that components made at the factory seem to be destined for illegal export for use against civilians in an illegal war, perhaps it's time to prosecute those responsible for that instead.

Meanwhile, I hope that Sussex Police and Crown Prosecution Service do some real soul-searching about their reasons for pursuing this case - which many had predicted could only really result in acquittal at the cost of thousands of taxpayers' cash - in the first place.

The case was, after all,  pursued at great expense to the public purse, at a time when police budgets are being cut across the board.

All the money wasted on this could have been used to try to defend the neighbourhood policing style which is working well in Brighton and reducing both crime and the fear of crime - if the Tory cuts being imposed from  on high aren't going to mean job losses, fewer police and an increase in crime, we're going to need every penny we can get.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

New planning guidance could see ban on fast-food outlets near Brighton schools

Planners in Brighton and Hove have received a new set of instructions today after a court judgement earlier this month overturned planning permission for a fast-food take-away yards from a London school with a 'healthy eating programme'.

The court found that a school's desire to improve the nutritional welfare of its students should have been viewed as a 'material consideration' - and the application for a fast-food joint turned down.

Coming hot on the heels of a decision by Bristol's planners to reject a plan for a newpower facility as its use would require the unsustainable import of biomass from around the world, it looks as though the environmental sustainability and ethics of planning decisions could be starting to have as much importance in the shape of urban communities as economic factors - and the occasional dodgy deals between developers and planners - have in the past.

I hope so: the new guidance issued to members of Brighton and Hove's planning committee shouldn't take too long to filter down into decision-making: shame this sort of thinking didn't prevail when the bizarre decision was made to allow a new supermarket to be built on the site of the community garden in Lewes Road.

Alas though it won't have any impact on McDonald's, should the rumours of their impending arrival in St James's St prove well-founded: the site at the centre of reports already has planning permission to operate as a restaurant, so they won't need to ask anyone's permission anyway.