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.