Archive for June, 2010

What does the Budget mean for Brighton & Hove?

After 13 years of a Labour government, their out of control spending has finally come home to roost. Former Chief Secretary to the Treasury – Liam Byrne – was quite right to say in that infamous note to his successor that “there’s no money left.” It would be nice if he could also offer an apology to the nation for their profligacy, which we are now all having to pay for.

It is now up to the coalition government to sort out the mess and, in my view, they are quite right to get on and tackle it straight away. Leaving the debt interest to rise for another year would be a complete waste of public money and would only make the situation worse.

I have always said that there are going to be some tough decisions to be taken whoever won the general election in May and, to his credit, George Osborne had the courage to take some of those yesterday. The public sector pay freeze will be difficult for staff at the Council but I’m pleased that he has decided to protect those on incomes below £21,000. And I think that the review of public sector pensions has become unavoidable given the taxpayer liabilities that have been building up over the last few years.

But the tough choices were also mixed in with some really positive proposals. For example, thanks to our sound financial management over the last 3 years, we are going to be able to deliver on our pledge to Brighton & Hove’s residents to freeze council tax for next year. This Conservative Administration has delivered the lowest council tax rise in the history of the council for 3 years in a row now and has saved £30 million of taxpayers’ money in the process. A freeze next year will be a real boost for residents who are struggling to pay their bills, as will George Osborne’s decision to take almost a million people out of paying income tax altogether by raising the threshold.

There was also some really good news for businesses. The cut in Corporation Tax will be hugely welcome, as will the partial reversal of Labour’s proposed ‘jobs tax’ – the employer National Insurance contributions. It is crucial that we allow the private sector to prosper, both locally and nationally, as this is where the future economic growth – and taxation to support vital public services – will come from.

We will now be looking at George Osborne’s statement in more detail to see how it affects the Council’s finances. However, as always, I will do my utmost to ensure that frontline services are protected.

Supporting Independent Booksellers’ Week

This week is Independent Booksellers’ Week and I would like to add my support to this initiative. I have blogged before about the importance of independent retailers to the economy of Brighton & Hove and the more we can do to promote them the better! I know that at least two book shops in the City are taking part – City Books in Western Road and the Book Nook in First Avenue – and I wish them all the best with their events and promotions. Many booksellers are suffering massively at the moment at the hands of huge online retailers such as Amazon, but I think that there is always going to be a niche in the market for the independents.

Brighton and Hove, like the rest of the UK, has a rich literary heritage, and has played host to many authors and inspired many stories, Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square and Julie Burchill’s Sugar Rush and Made in Brighton to name but a few.

So, with the warm weather and long evenings now upon us, it’s the perfect time to invest in some summer reading; please do visit your independent bookseller and see what they have to offer – you may be surprised!

Good luck England!

As the World Cup gets underway in South Africa I would just like to wish Fabio Capello and the England team the very best of luck in the tournament. Here’s hoping that they can bring the Cup back home for the first time since 1966!

Travelling around the City, I have been really impressed with all the flags and posters that people have displayed on their cars, houses and along their streets. It is great that people feel able to show such patriotism about their national team. For our part, we shall be flying the St. George cross from our council buildings for the duration of the tournament, so let’s hope England make it all the way to July 11th!

To celebrate the World Cup locally we have helped to organise a beach soccer tournament with the Nivea Sun Yellowave Beach Sports Venue and the Brighton & Hove School Sports Partnership as part of the TAKEPART school sports festival. Children from 12 primary schools will be taking part and if anyone is interested in watching, it happens on Monday 21st June. Teams will be allocated a country that is playing in the World Cup and schools are being encouraged to get involved by designing flags and learning about their allocated country’s culture.

Let’s hope that both tournaments are a great success!

Why I’m in favour of scrapping regional housing targets

Those who are now criticising the new Government’s plans to scrap the current system of top-down regional housing targets in favour of more local ones are missing a very important point – the current system has failed spectacularly to deliver and at the same time has alienated local communities who quite rightly want a say in what gets built in their neighbourhood.

The figures are very telling. The rate of house building since 1997 has dropped by almost 24,000 homes a year – to around 147,000 – compared to the levels under the previous Conservative government. Over the same period of time, house prices have gone through the roof, pricing many people – especially first time buyers – out of the market. Partly as a result of this, the number of people on council housing waiting lists has increased by 50% over this period to around 1.6 million people nationally.

And, because of this top-down, target driven approach, even the houses that have been built have not significantly helped to meet the needs of local communities. For example, the proportion of new homes built since 1997 that are flats has more than trebled. In places such as Brighton & Hove, which has a dire shortage of larger family housing, this trend has been nothing short of disastrous. And with the regional housing targets still in place, this trend has been very difficult for us to reverse.

What the new Government is proposing is a different approach – giving local councils and local communities incentives for building new housing, not imposing central targets and then penalising them for not meeting them. How often have you heard people say that they would be more than happy to have new housing in their communities if the necessary infrastructure – schools, GP surgeries, roads etc. – were in place? Allowing local authorities to keep the council tax receipts from new housing and for this to be spent on benefitting those communities directly affected, should help to achieve that.

Nobody is denying that there is a shortage of good quality housing in Brighton & Hove, as in large parts of the country. Where we differ from the previous Labour Government is how to address this. What I think they failed to recognise is that without local support and buy-in, it is very difficult to get new housing built. Simply saying that you are going to build 3 million new homes and waving a magic wand doesn’t mean that in reality it will happen. I think it is also very unfair to criticise local residents (and the councillors who represent them) as ‘nimbys’ when they are being given precious little say about what happens to the place that they choose to call home.

There is no doubt that it is an incredibly difficult balancing act – providing sufficient land both for business to set up and expand and also to house the workers who will be employed by those businesses. Not to mention protecting our much cherished green spaces and downland. This is especially true in a City such as Brighton & Hove which is severely constrained by the Channel to the south and the Downs to the North. But the point is, we should be able to decide that balance for ourselves, not told what to do by an unelected planning inspector up in London, who has no connection with the City whatsoever.

The top-down target driven approach has failed – it’s time to try something different.

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June 2010