Saturday, 22 October 2011

Council Tax - how the Tory Government is holding a gun to head of town halls up and down the country

Yesterday Local Tory leader Geoffrey Theobald had the nerve to ask the Leader of the Council Bill Randall whether he'd be accepting Government cash to freeze Council Tax for the next year - even though doing so would cost the council about £3m a year for ever more.

To my mind, this is about more than about an argument over one year's Council Tax settlement in one city - it's about a fundamental principle: whether local councils should be able to make their own decisions, informed, of course, by a local democratic mandate, about how much money to raise - and spend on protecting the most vulnerable from the impact of the cuts.

Basically, the Government's offer to fund a one-year Council Tax freeze is an attempt to hold a gun to the head of town halls up and down the country by making them a bit of a lose-lose offer: hand control of you financial decision-making to us, and set yourself up for even deeper cuts in the future, or else we'll tell everyone that you're imposing unnecessary tax rises on local residents to make a point of principle.

The fact is that, as far as we know so far, the Government's offer is for one year only  - this means that, after inflation, the council tax base (the total amount of council tax collected by the council) will be 2.5% lower in every future year. In Brighton and Hove, that'll mean about £3m worth of EXTRA cuts we'll have to make in every future year - just to stand still.

That means there will be job losses - and service cuts - as a direct result of taking the cash.

Of course, Council Tax bills would be slightly cheaper next year, but that windfall wouldn't be felt at all by the thousands in receipt of Council Tax benefit, and it would be largest for those living in the most valuable properties in the city - usually (but not always, of course) the best off.

In other words, it would represent a transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest in the city: a classic Tory tax wheeze.

Of course a council committed to reducing inequality - and protecting the most vulnerable from the impact of the cuts the Government is unnecessarily forcing on us - couldn't possibly countenance such a thing.

But of course the Tory spin-machine will describe this as ideology costing local taxpayers cash.

In other words, we'll be the bad guys whatever we decide! Clever politics indeed.

Of course, we're not the only council facing this issue, and I'm delighted that others have made similar arguments - and that, localy, it looks like the Labour group will be directed by their national political masters to support our position.

An interesting debate looms on the horizon, that's for sure...

Friday, 21 October 2011

Labour and Tory councillors join forces to feather their own nests..

Today's meeting of Brighton and Hove City Council - amazingly, one of only six a year at which issues facing the city can be discussed by all councillors - saw one of the ugliest examples of local politicians misjudging the public mood I've witnessed in a while.

Topics discussed ranged from provision of ice rinks in the city, enforcing the law preventing driving and parking on pavements in Elm Grove, the future of the wonderful Saltdean Lido, using mobile devices to send 'Tweets' in meetings, academy schools, the Government's 'Developers' Charter', roadworks and public-sector pensions.

These debates were, as usual, dominated by party politics, but were pretty good-natured, and were certainly informed (on all sides) by honourable intentions and genuinely-held opinions.

But then we discussed the allowances paid to councillors. Personally, I don't think this should be a matter for councillors at all. There's an independent panel who decide what appropriate payments to councillors are, and I think we should listen to them. After all, they're the experts and, crucially, they're independent, and don't stand to gain - or lose - whatever they say. Most Green Party councillors agree.

Unfortunately, though, the Labour and Tory groups didn't. They presented, jointly, an amendment to the independent report to reinstate special cash payments of just over £2,000 to seven councillors the experts decided weren't really justified. The total cost, just over £15,000, will have to be met by making slightly deeper cuts to other budgets than the Government is already forcing us to make.

I don't know what I think is more shameful: that Tory and Labour councillors are so out of touch with the public that they think it's acceptable to divert cash from public services to their own pockets against the recommendation of an independent panel of experts, that they think it's acceptable for councillors themselves to be making these decisions, or that when it comes to feathering their own nests local Labour and Tory politicians are so quick to form a coalition to get their own way.

Friday, 14 October 2011

The latest Tory police cuts - this time to the Sussex Police helicopter

Yesterday's meeting of the Sussex Police Authority discussed a crackpot scheme to cut the number of police helicopters by a third, nationalise the police air support role - and transfer control of the Sussex Police helicopter from Lewes to Leeds, in a move that would mean it would take 15 minutes to get to Brighton - and more like half an hour to reach Eastbourne or Hastings.

It would remove operational control from our local police to a national unit run from West Yorkshire - meaning it would be that much harder to get the Sussex Police helicopter to work with, for example, the Sussex Air Ambulance, or to protect the local coastline from illegal fishing methods - but it would save a few bob: as much as £800,000 a year.

It's hardly a surprise that this Government wants to erode local policing by replacing as much of it as possible with national structures, and it's hardly surprising the force is interested in doing so where there are cash savings to be had - after all, they face the near-impossible job of keeping Sussex safe in the face of £50 cuts over the next three years.

But I was a little surprised that debate yesterday focussed on where nationally-controlled air bases were located, and that I was the only member of the police authority to vote against the scheme and to express the view that this is in principle a bad idea driven by the need to make cash savings, not to improve policing.

I had - wrongly it transpires - imagined that Sussex Police Authority was firmly in favour of retaining control of all aspects of Sussex policing in the county. Looks like defending local policing from Tory cuts is a job that's being left to the Greens.

If you're interested, the whole debate is available to watch here.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

An 'Armed Forces Covenant' for Brighton and Hove

 At this afternoon's cabinet meeting I outlined plans to develop an 'Armed Forces Covenant' for Brighton and Hove.

Ex-servicemen and women suffer some of the worst social outcomes of any group in our society.

They are more likely to be homeless, more likely to end up in prison, more likely to become addicted to drink or drugs, more likely to suffer long-term illness - and so on.

Of course the council has a duty to try and tackle these problems whoever is suffering from them.

The experiences of service men and women after they leave the service that leaves many of them so vulnerable, needlessly creates a group of people whose needs we have a duty to meet, which we of course will strive to do, in the same way we would meet the needs of any other individuals or groups that find themselves disadvantaged.

Of course you could argue that former service personnel are a 'vulnerable' group by virtue of the fact that they have, usually, been abandoned so spectacularly by the state that has asked them, often, to put their lives on the line, then tossed them aside when they are too old - or injured - to be useful.

Let's be clear - our heroes are being abandoned by an uncaring and under-resourced military that fundamentally views them not as people, but as a resource.

I think this is wrong: and that the first step towards improving the lives of ex-service personnel must be for the Government to stop sending young men and women into foreign battlefields to risk their lives for political ends in the first place.

The military could ensure that welfare officers work alongside careers officer - like those based in Brighton - to do two things: look after the welfare of ex-service personnel and to honestly explain the risks of later life exclusion to youngsters attracted by a career in the military.

Anyway, today outlined plans to develop an Armed Forces Covenant for the city, which will look at these questions but set out this council's duties to some of our most vulnerable citizens.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Using the 'standards' procedure instead of the ballot box is costing local taxpayers thousands

Some of you may have noticed that I recently started blogging again, after a few months of 'blog silence'. There's a single reason I stopped - because I didn't want to worsen any punishment given to me for blogging about policing matters.

And there's a simple reason I have started again: because I have been cleared of any wrongdoing, and the threat of punishment lifted from over my head, after over a year, three meetings of the Sussex Police Authority Standards Committee and a lawyer's investigation.

Back in 2010 I was accused of bringing the police authority into disrepute for the threefold 'crime' of blogging about policing in Brighton, being a 'member' of a anti-arms trade campaign group (some of whose supporters have been arrested after taking direct action against the EDO arms factory in Moulsecoomb), and also for attending a peace demonstration.

It didn't take long for the charges to be thrown out - but the (anonymous) complainant appealed, and so it was considered all over again. Second time around the panel decided it needed to commission an inquiry to decide whether I had broken the members' code of conduct or not, so an out-of-town lawyer was engaged and a full investigation carried out.

The verdict: the rights of free speech and free assembly in the Human Rights Act mean that any member of the police authority is free to say what they want, and t to attend any demonstration he or she likes. Oh and the group concerned is a little bit on the anarchist side and doesn't seem to have any members anyway. the whole saga has been covered in The Argus and by the Brighton Politics Blog.

So that's the end of that then.

Except for the vast sums of money spent on the affair - money that, in my view, would be better spent on policing - perhaps offsetting some of the 1,000+ job cuts Sussex Police is being forced to make thanks to Tory cuts.

And for the rather sinister pattern that seems to be emerging out of recent use of the standards and complaints system locally: that people (usually Tory councillors) who object to the things elected officials are saying are making official complaints about them - complaints that seem to get thrown out on appeal, after vast sums of public money have been spent. Just look at the case of fellow Green Party councillor Jason Kitcat, for example: the complaint against him, for posting selective clips of council meetings on YouTube for all the world to see, was thrown out after a grand appeal hearing at a city centre hotel.

Of course I'm not saying we shouldn't have a system for punishing corrupt or dishonest councillors, or ones who, like former Tory councillor Peter Willows, made comments that denigrated minorities - just that there has to be a better system for doing so than we've got now.

Personally, I think cases of corruption, or abuse of minorities, should be dealt with by the criminal courts.

As for councillors who express lawful opinions some people don't like, I reckon the best system anyone's come up with yet for punishing them is the ballot box.

If your elected councillor is saying things you don't agree with - just vote for someone else.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Tory councillor storms out of community meeting after warning of racism...

UPDATE... The Argus has now covered this story here ....UPDATE

One of the most rewarding aspects of my role as Brighton and Hove Council's cabinet member for Communities, Equalities and Public protection is chairing the quarterly Community Safety Forum.

It's a great meeting, bringing together representatives from Local Action Teams and other community groups from around the city, council and police officers, and, at yesterday's meeting, the city's Director of Public health Dr Tom Scanlon and the leader of the Council Bill Randall.

There's always a wide-ranging discussion about crime levels in and community safety issues facing the city. Yesterday we discussed the replacement of Sussex Police Authority with an elected Police and Crime Commissioner (the meeting thought, overwhelmingly, that it would be bad news for us here in Brighton and Hove), reducing alcohol-related harm in the city, the increased use of restorative justice in the city, the need for an LGBT-focussed 'umbrella' community safety group to deal with the police and the council, and Sussex Police's commitment to future partnership working with the council.

We also discussed the, generally improving, crime figures for the city.

But perhaps the most extraordinary moment of yesterday's meeting came during my opening remarks, when Tory councillor Tony Janio (pictured above) decided to storm out of the meeting in what appeared to be a huff after I reminded everyone present that recent discussions about Gypsy and Traveller policy had presented us with a serious community safety problem, that the police were investigating racist remarks and death threats, and that we all have a duty to minimise racial harassment by having informed, sensible debates about such emotive topics.

I reflected that some recent meetings organised by councillors and other politicians had made matters worse (naming no names) and said to all councillors present - of all parties - that we must do better in future.

At which point Cllr Janio decided to decry my comments as offensive and walk out of the meeting.

I can only imagine he felt embarrassed, thinking I was referring to him (for the record, I wasn't actually).

I later heard from The Argus that he told them he wouldn't return to a future meeting unless I apologised for my comments - something I'm not sure I can do without encouraging racism (but I have reproduced them all below so you can judge for yourself!)

I think that's a shame, a demonstrates a lack of commitment to the work of the forum - and its members from across the city. Worse, I think it's something of a dereliction of duty: we are all elected to represent residents on various committees, and I really don't see how he can be raising community safety issues of interest to his constituents if he won't turn up to meetings. Perhaps the Tory leader Geoffrey Theobald will give him a metaphorical rap across the knuckles and that'll be the end of the matter.

Anyway, here, as promised, is the text of my message yesterday which caused such umbrage. I think it's important, and, of course, I stand by it entirely.

Finally, I wanted to take this opportunity to say a few words about Gypsies and Travellers. 
Balancing the needs of the travelling and settled communities is a key challenge facing this city, and indeed every council in the country.
And, although the evidence seems to show that there have been fewer Gypsies and Travellers visiting Brighton and Hove in 2011 than in previous years, the debate has begun to spiral out of control, to the point where racial harassment and violence towards travellers has become a major – some would say the biggest - community safety issue facing the city. 
Some of you may have seen this on the BBC last week, but for those that didn’t, Sussex Police are currently investigating a series of racist remarks and even death threats made to both members of this council’s Traveller Liaison Team and some travellers themselves. 
Of course the national shortage of sites can cause tensions between the settled and travelling communities, but I know that everyone here will agree that the debate about the council’s policy towards travellers must not stray into racial abuse or harassment, but I am increasingly concerned that some meetings and demonstrations in the city have fuelled exactly this sort of language and behaviour. 
I urge everyone here today – especially the councillor members who really should know better, to bear in mind their responsibility to respect both the law – and the principles of community cohesion – when debating these issues.
A good test may be to substitute the word ‘black’ for the word ‘Traveller’ when discussing the issue: for example, a LAT meeting to discuss ‘The Issue of Travellers in the city’ would be as offensive to many as a meeting to discuss ‘The Issue of Blacks in the city’ – and it would probably be illegal too.
More than a fifth of Family & Friends of Travellers clients in Brighton and Hove experience racism: that is clearly unacceptable and we all have a duty to bring that figure down.
To help, the council has launched a consultation, available via the council’s website – and anyone who wants to participate in an off-line way can leave their details with Penny afterwards so we can make sure that can happen – to hear the views of everyone in the city about the council’s proposals – from the short-term toleration of some encampments to the delivery of a new permanent Travellers’ site in the city – designed to help resolve a set of questions that have blighted community cohesion in this city for decades.

Improving standards down at the take-away...

You might be forgiven for thinking that use of licensing laws to decide whether a take-away should be allowed to stay open later is one of the less interesting aspects of a local councillor's role.

But I think you'd be wrong - for me, a local council's role in enforcing licensing rules is one of positively creating an urban ecosystem that balances the needs of everyone involved: visitors, residents, off-licenses, shops, pub and clubs - and, crucially, the political and philosophical priorities of elected councillors.

On Friday I was priveleged to attend a training session on the way the Licensing Act (and other relevant bits of legislation) can be used to create he local environment we want to see.

How we can seek to reduce alcohol-fuelled violence and other crime while celebrating fun and freedom? How we can maximise the social and economic benefits of a thriving night-time economy while protecting residents from noise nuisance, or protecting children from harm, for example?

Too many councillors see the licensing rules as tools to help the state intervene and ban things - to say 'no' a little more forcibly.

Balancing these complex needs can sometimes be tricky: a classic case is the recent application for extended night-time hours by a take-away food outlet in St James's Street: The Sussex Grill.

I have agreed to support their bid to open later into the night, despite the likely complaints of some residents, because I believe that longer hours for the take-away will, in the final analysis, make the area a safer, nicer place to live.

The applicants have agreed, for example, to improve their procurement practises and to use more environmentally-friendly packaging in their business.

They have agreed to hire a security guard at night, a trained individual who will be on hand at the bottom of the street, ready to intervene in any incidents of crime and disorder, as well as keeping customer noise down. Of course, by their very presence they're likely to have a deterrent effect too.

For those of you who don't know it, the business is almost of top of a bus stop serving a night bus service, the N7, a service which runs all night, and for which there seem to be people waiting (often noisily) at all hours. It seems to me that any addition to noise levels from extending the take-away's opening hours will be minimal by comparison and offset by the effect of the business - and its security guard - on noise levels already being generated by the buses and their customers.

But none of this is the clincher for me: that's the dialogue that we've managed to establish.

While the short-term environmental and social benefits are clear to me, the real potential prize comes in three parts.

Firstly, supporting a locally-owned business to protect St James's Street from further forays by the clone stores which are slowly but surely destroying the unique charm of the street: if the council said 'no' to the application and Sussex Grill was forced to close, I am prepared to bet it wouldn't be long until we saw another Sainsbury, Tesco or Starbucks moving in...

Secondly, the potential public health benefits. The dialogue that we've now established opens the door to future debate about the need to add healthier options to the Sussex Grill menu. The health and ethical procurement standards of the take-away sector can leave plenty to be desired, and if the licensing priocess alllows us 'an in' as local councillors to begin working with local businesses to improve standards in the sector, I think it's doing its job well.

And thirdly, there are the staffing issues. Staff in the take-away sector are often some of the lowest-paid, and most marginalised. I am hopeful that engagement with the Sussex Grill will encourage the business - and, crucially, others in the sector - to take part in the newly-formed Brighton and Hove Living Wage Commission, and to make the take-away food sector to new levels of ethical employment.

For too long the sector has been promoting often-unhealthy food with scant regard for the communities it serves: I really hope Brighton and Hove City Council can work more closely with the take-away trade that so dominates some areas of our city to help change that.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

A flavour of my work on Brighton Council's Cabinet in September

I've decided to try something of an experiment here, and publish a brief summary of my work in September as Brighton and Hove Council's Cabinet Member for Communities, Equalities and Public protection.

It's very brief, and by no means exhaustive, but I hope it gives a flavour of some of the work I've been doing.

Do let me know if you find it useful, or if you'd like more details about anything!

Cabinet member report: Communities, Equalities and Public Protection
September 2011
Ben Duncan

The Communities, Equalities and Public protection portfolio encompasses a wide range of council activities and services, across a number of directorates.

These include Environmental Health and Trading Standards, Licensing, Community Development, Community Safety (including partnerships with Sussex Police), Public Health (an emerging brief currently shared with the Primary Care Trust but due to become the sole responsibility of the council in 2013), Grants to other organisations, promoting Equalities and deepening Community Engagement.

In this role I chair the Community Safety Forum and the City Inclusion Partnership. I am vice-chair of the Stronger Communities Partnership and a member of the Safe in the City Partnership.

Throughout September my workload has been dominated by developing proposals for neighbourhood councils with devolved budgets (as per our manifesto pledge). A three-month city-wide consultation exercise has now been launched, with pilot schemes due to 'go live' in Spring 2012.

I have also been grappling with the future of community development work in the city – and the budget for such work in the future. The big question at the moment is how do we tie this work in to neighbourhood councils to ensure it is being spent to maximise opportunities for community-based decision-making.

Earlier in the month I launched a new policy committing the council to carry out best-practise Equality Impact Assessments on all its decisions, regardless of the Tory-led Government's relaxation of requirements to do this work.

Also in September I attended a conference in Birmingham to help try to win support – and considerable funding – for an on-line community engagement project for the city (called 'We Live Here') that could be used to widen participation in neighbourhood councils for those who prefer on-line engagement to traditional meetings with reports, agendas and so on.

And also in September I undertook the first of my 'community tours' – where I travel out to neighbourhood in the city to hear about issue s and problems first-hand. I spent the day visiting Coldean, Hollingdean and Whitehawk, where I met community groups, ward councillors and residents – very successfully I believe.

I have overseen a shake-up of the way the council gives out grants (worth about £1.5m a year) to ensure they are focused on promoting Environmental Sustainability, Tackling Inequality and wider access to the Arts.

Finally, I worked on the council's plan on how to deal with emergencies, responded to a Government consultation on the future role of councils in monitoring Trading Standards, and promoted the work of East Sussex Credit Union in diverting families from rapacious (legal and illegal) doorstep money lenders.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

A Living Wage for all in Brighton and Hove takes another step closer...

Some aspects of running a council are just about management of services, staff, budgets and so on. The stuff of plans and reports.

Some are about taking the big ideas at the root of our political philosophy and finding ways to turn them into reality - and in a way these are the most important. It's why we do this in the first place, to be honest, and it's why voters choose one party over another.

So here's a big idea at the heart of the Green Party's worldview: promote a more equal city by encouraging employers to increase wages paid to those tothose at the bottom of the pay hierarchy and to decrease salaries given to those at the top.

The evidence is pretty overwhelming now after all: more equal societies perform better for everyone, even the richest. The best way, for example, to improve community safety isn't to put gates up at the end of residential streets, but to improve pay parity. There's loads more examples on the Equality Trust website and in Wilkinson and Pickett's excellent  'The Spirit Level'.

It only took a few weeks to make a cracking start at the council: we agreed to pay all staff at least a minimum of £7.19 an hour and managed to get the council's Chief Executive to take a voluntary pay cut of 5%.

Persuading public sector parters (the police, for example, and the NHS) - let alone the private sector - to follow suit is a little trickier. But we've made progress here too, and yesterday was the first meeting of the Brighton and Hove Living Wage Commission.

Chaired by Brighton and Hove Chamber of Commerce Chair Julia Chantarey, the commission brings together many of the city's biggest employers - as well as experts on introducing a 'Living wage' from London and elsewhere, to try and make a Living Wage a reality in the city by next summer.

I hope it succeeds: if it doesn't, it won't be for good will or support from the city council.

Personally, I'm with Bob Black on work, when he observed that most of us work because we're forced to, either by violence, coercion, poverty or someone else's ethics, and the the best future for the workplace, as for the battlefield, is none at all - and that, when we've the choice, most of us play, or engage in leisure pursuits instead.

But that's no reason not to make sure that the least well off in our albeit flawed society aren't paid a bit more.

Its commitment to equality was once of the strongest reasons I joined the Green Party in the first place and I'm cock-a-hoop that it's taken just a few months for the first Green Party council in the country to make some real progress on the issue of low pay.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Mainstream media begin to notice three-week occupation of Wall Street

As a regular reader of Adbusters - the Canadian magazine campaigning to protect our mental environment by reducing our exposure to advertising and capitalism's propensity to turn every moment of our lives into a marketing opportunity - I have been aware of their call to occupy Wall Street for several months.

On September 17th a few thousand people - most Americans but joined by a few sympathisers from around the world - marched on Wall Street, protesting in very general terms about the financial sector's freedom from democratic oversight, the excesses of the super-rich - and capitalism's failure to organise modern society in a fair and equitable way.

Many remain to this day: 700 were arrested (most released soon afterwards) over the weekend for blocking traffic on Brooklyn Bridge.

Mainstream media has begun to sit up and notice. Even the BBC covered the protest on the TV news last night - albeit in slightly mocking terms. It seems that the union movement in the US is beginning to take notice too now, and plans a solidarity march at the site later this week: with that the movement becomes 'political' and isn't just about a bunch of anti-capitalist hippies venting their rage. It's a legitimate story, in other words.

Obviously the protests won't bring down Wall Street, or the Federal Reserve - even less the US Government. But that's not the point. Like the so-called 'Spanish campers' at Brighton's Old Steine this summer (pictured left), the idea is to create a Temporary Autonomous Zone - a living experiment in real grass-roots democracy, and freedom from the institutions of the state and the greed of the few men at the top of the banking system who have caused all the tax hikes, public sector cuts - and house repossessions - blighting the lives of the vast majority around the world.

However the Occupy Wall Street movement ends, it will have been a success.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Human Rights and cars don't have much in common

Here's a picture of some cars parked on the pavement in Elm Grove.

Now, I do have some sympathy for those car users who struggle to find somewhere to park anywhere near their homes. As a father of a young child, I am all too aware of how public transport just isn't always a viable alternative to a car when you need to lug a buggy, changes of clothes, food, bottles and so on - escpecially if you're heading to a remote location.

I live near to a car club bay, so it was quite easy for me to get rid of my car whilst retaining the ability to drive - it has saved me a lot of cash and it's rare that I need to walk more than a few minutes to pick up a car when I need it.

There are now more cars than people in many areas of this city and, in areas like Hanover and Elm Grove, there just isn't enough space to go round.

That said, pavements are for people. There have been regular reports of people driving on the pavement while hunting for a space, and pedestrians suffering real distress - and in some cases injury - as a result.

The answer can't lie in allowing car drivers to park on pavements, but in improving public transport, and making car club vehicles more widely available.

But as soon as the idea of enforcing the law by preventing drivers parking on the pavement became public knowledge, people (well a few, with load voices) threw up their arms in horror.

One letter in The Argus this weekend even suggested that to enforce the law outlawing pavement parking would be a breach of their human rights.

Well, last time I checked, human rights were about protecting our very lives, stopping dictators torture, enslave or silence us with impunity, or deny us our free speech.

They have not, nor ever have, had anything to do with parking. Cars and human rights just don't mix.