Archive for November, 2009

When is surveillance acceptable?

Councils and other public bodies have come in for a lot of criticism in recent years for overzealous use of surveillance powers to investigate varying degrees of criminal activity.  In the most extreme cases, powers which were designed for use in tackling terrorism have been used to investigate relatively minor offences.

I have always been very much against such a heavy-handed and intrusive approach and, as a Council, we have always tried to use surveillance and the accessing of communications as a very last resort. We have also tried to be as open and transparent as possible about when we do have to resort to these measures.

Last week at our Cabinet meeting we received our annual report on use of the so-called Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. As far as I’m aware, not many Councils operate with this amount of transparency and I’m pleased to say that the Government Inspectors have stated that we use our powers in a ‘measured and justifiable’ manner.

Clearly, there are circumstances when we would be neglecting our duties not to use some of the powers to investigate criminal activity. Most of the covert surveillance that we do carry out relates to housing benefit fraud, harassment and fly-tipping – offences which I would think most people would consider to be very serious. Indeed, benefit fraud costs Brighton & Hove’s taxpayers somewhere around £1 million a year and I make no apologies for doing everything possible to bring the perpetrators to book.

However, there is a general feeling in the country, which I share, that the surveillance state has gone too far in recent years. The Government’s recently announced Vetting and Barring scheme, which requires millions of parents and volunteers to be ”approved” for working with children by the Government after registering on a state-run database, is a classic example.

This Government seems to think that mammoth national databases and data-sharing will make citizens more secure. I think that more and more people are beginning to realise that this is simply not the case.

Get involved in Brighton & Hove

Just a quick reminder that tomorrow is the launch event for the Council’s ‘Get Involved‘ campaign at Hove Town Hall.

This is a nine month campaign which aims to make residents aware of the many ways they can get involved in contributing to their community. This could be in various ways, for instance through taking part in local decision making, voting, having a say in local consultations or participating in voluntary work.

You may already have noticed a brightly coloured camper van travelling around the City recording residents’ views – diary room style – on what they think about local politics, the council and the community around them. Excerpts from this will be shown tomorrow and there will also be information stalls, activities and the opportunity to ‘speed meet’ your councillor.

I will be taking part in a Question Time panel discussion hosted by ITN newsreader Nicholas Owen. This starts at 3.30pm for anyone who is interested and there will also be a live webcast.

Tomorrow marks the start of Get Involved but there will be further events organised over the coming months. Keep an eye on this website for more information – www.getinvolvedinthecity.org.uk

I hope to see you tomorrow!

Update – Around 500 people came through the doors on Saturday which was really great! Thanks to everyone at the Council who organised the event and gave up their time on Saturday to help out. And thanks to you for coming!

Extra Care in Brighton & Hove

It is now a well established fact amongst statisticians and policy makers that the UK has an ageing population. For example, by 2033 the number of people aged 85 and over is projected to more than double to 3.2 million, and to account for 5 per cent of the total population. Amazingly, in 1983, there were only 600,000 people in this age group.

These trends obviously have serious implications for local councils such as ours, who provide lots of services and specialist accommodation for older people.

artist impressionOne particular type of housing which I think will become much more common in the coming years is extra care housing. Yesterday, I attended the opening of one such facility – Patching Lodge, just off Eastern Road in Brighton. This is a fantastic state-of-the-art block which we have developed in partnership with Hanover Housing Association and we are very lucky indeed to have secured it.

Extra care is such an attractive option to many older people because it allows them to retain their independence in self-contained flats, but also gives them the peace of mind of having support and care on site 24 hours a day.

However, if we are to meet the challenges posed by the ageing population I think that our primary aim should be to provide choice for people. Clearly, many will want to remain in their existing homes for as long as possible and we need to help them to do that. But providing high quality extra care accommodation alongside our existing ‘normal’ sheltered housing is going to be vital if we are to meet people’s high expectations into the future.

Strike action suspended

I’m really pleased that the GMB Union has decided to suspend its strike action so that normal rubbish collections can resume in Brighton & Hove. We will now resume talks about the details of our proposal but I very much hope that we are close to resolving this once and for all.

At all times during the negotiations we have aimed to meet our legal and moral duty to pay employees fairly without passing on unnecessary costs to council tax payers – at times a difficult balancing act.

Although the strike has lasted only two days, it will take a while for the Council to catch up on any missed collections and I’d ask for residents’ patience during this period. I expect things to be back to normal by the end of next week. We have a hard working and dedicated workforce, which we are proud of and I’m confident they will get the job done as quickly as possible.

I would also just like to add that the whole equal pay issue, which this strike was about, has been ongoing now since 1998. This could have been resolved a long time ago by the previous Labour Administration of the Council, had the political will been there. I was, therefore, more than a little surprised to see ex-Labour Leader of the Council, Simon Burgess, quoted in the Argus yesterday as saying that “equal pay is a very important issue and is something that needs to be addressed.” Quite Simon – it’s just a shame that you didn’t implement it when you had the chance.

Brighton & Hove: open for business

I was delighted with the decision of the Council’s planning committee last night to give the go-ahead for American Express’ £140 million extension to their Eastern Road site.

This is fantastic news for the local economy at a time when we are still in the middle of a deep recession. 2,000 jobs have been safeguarded by this move and the redevelopment of the site itself is likely to create more than 1,000 construction and related jobs early next year.

This is also a satisfying riposte to those who have branded us ‘anti-development’ as an Administration. Remember that this was only made possible by us agreeing to sell the company the freehold of the existing Amex House building. There is clearly still much more to be done but, coupled with ongoing work at Falmer on the Community Stadium and the new Academy school, this shows that Brighton & Hove is still very much ‘open for business’.

Wear your poppy with pride

poppiesThis is always a special time of year for me as we collectively remember those brave men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice to secure our freedom and democracy. But it is even more poignant when we are embroiled in a bitter war in Afghanistan. The shooting dead of five soldiers yesterday was a stark reminder of what is at stake and illustrates just how important it is that we give our troops all the support they need in what are incredibly trying conditions. What I’m sure they don’t want to hear is elected politicians undermining their efforts by describing them as a “misadventure” and a “farce” as my fellow Councillor – Ben Duncan of the Green Party has done over on his blog.

For Remembrance Day and this year I am really looking forward to attending an event at Whitehawk Primary School. This means a great deal to me because this is the school where I first met Henry Allingham for last year’s Remembrance Day. It is very sad that Henry has since passed away but I’m sure his memory will live on for all the young children who met him that day, as it has for me.

Finally, I would just like to say how relieved I am that Gordon Brown has performed a u-turn on the proposed funding cuts to the Territorial Army. I visited the barracks in Dyke Road a couple of weeks ago with the Mayor – Ann Norman – and they impressed upon us the seriousness of the proposed cuts. As I said above, at a time when we are fighting a war, all parts of the armed forces must be given all the support they need. As with the recent Gurkhas issue, the Government’s timing on this was poor to say the least.


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