Steve Bassam on the chaos being brought to Brighton and Hove by daft and dangerous policies
For some people beyond Brighton and Hove, it was a positive event when the Greens took control of our City Council just over two years ago. The party had grandiose ambitions, with promises to resist cuts and privatisation of services as well as ideas to carry on the work of earlier, Labour-led administrations to ‘green’ the city.
Those of us who campaigned against them had a different fear. We looked long and hard at their manifesto and those chosen to implement it, and concluded it was a car crash waiting to happen. Within days of being elected they started planning a budget as severe as any Tory council. The use of the private sector has not just continued but appears to have widened. And the services selected for cuts are those that low income and working class communities depend on.
Following the council’s 2012 budget, negotiations began with the unions, in particular the GMB, about a longstanding equal pay issue. Since when, the development of the 2013 budget revealed that the Greens wanted to cut the pay of refuse collectors and street cleaners – staff on incomes barely above the minimum wage, who could now lose up to £4,000 a year. The proposal is at the core of a package put forward to answer a complex pay equalisation issue – in other words, equalising down rather than up.
Worse than this, the Green’s local leader, Jason Kitcat pushed through an arrangement that left all the negotiating and final sign off to chief officers of the council. Labour objected but the combined votes of the Tories and Greens pushed it through. And it has since emerged that the Greens have overshot their savings target by £4m – money that could presumably help implement a fair deal for the low paid.
Understandably, many of the council’s 7,000 staff are restive, and a recent strike ballot saw massive support for industrial action. This had led to the Green’s splitting locally. Councillor Kitcat was narrowly elected leader in a party ballot – against ‘No Other’ candidate, but then a third of his group absented themselves from a council meeting when he was nominated as city leader – before some tried to get members of other parties to vote him down. Since when, the local Green MP has publicly disowned the Green council group, while the group’s deputy leaders and other ‘rebels’ have turned up on picket lines and demos.
The Green dream has not only turned into a living nightmare for their bickering politicians. With services falling apart, the dispute has left Brighton and Hove paralysed, as rubbish piles up on the street. Our city rests on tourism, visitors and conferences for its economic success – and despite strike action being suspended it is set for a summer of green discontent.
Over the past two years, the public have watched in wonder as the Greens have blundered from one crisis to another, during which time the city has been regaled with their daft proposals. My particular favourite was the seafront solar powered palm trees with a payback period of 250 years. More recently –at a cost of £20,000 – Green councillors literally indulged in tree hugging to save an elm that just three months earlier they had voted to chop down because it stood in the way of an expensive traffic scheme. But the issue that has probably angered people most was the massive hikes in parking fees, which saw streets and streets of bays being left unused. The council estimated a loss of nearly £1m before u-turning in the face of residents and businesses complaints.
When you add in the mess of the current dispute, it should be no surprise to find more and more people are now questioning the wisdom of Brighton and Hove as a test bed for a Green experiment. Indeed, there is little doubt that the party is doing the wider cause of centre-left politics a great deal of harm.
Lord Steve Bassam of Brighton is Labour’s Chief Whip in the House of Lords and former leader of Brighton and Hove City Council
Published 22nd June 2013