Archive for February, 2011

Further comments on the Grand Avenue/Drive cycle lane

There has been an awful lot of interest generated by my Administration’s proposal to remove the Grand Avenue / The Drive cycle lane and I would just like to take this opportunity to explain more fully the reasoning behind it and to put a few facts straight:

  • The cycle lane was not agreed by my Administration and the Conservative Group has never supported it. The decision to go ahead with it was taken in March 2007 by the previous Labour Administration. It is, therefore, not true to say that we are proposing to spend money undoing something which we put in.
  • The cycle lane is not well used and it is certainly not attracting lots of young, new and inexperienced cyclists, as it was originally intended to do. As Adam Trimingham so rightly said in the Argus this week – it is ‘the wrong lane in the wrong place’. No amount of tinkering with access, parking places or driveways will change that.
  • There remain serious safety concerns with the cycle lane. Thankfully, the number of accidents have dropped slightly over the last couple of years but there were still 42 casualties between 2008 and 2010. For what was originally sold as being a safe segregated space for cyclists, to me this is completely unacceptable. Indeed, the cycling campaign group, Bricycles, have continued to raise concerns about the safety aspects of the cycle lane and successive safety audits have backed this up. Bricycles conclude that these issues can be addressed by relatively small alterations to the layout of the lane but I’m afraid I disagree. I think that the problems are of a more fundamental nature, particularly on the downhill section, where cyclists are travelling at considerable speed.
  • I can understand people’s concerns about the cost of removing the cycle lanes. As a Conservative, I am acutely aware that this is residents’ money which we are proposing to spend and my philosophy since taking over the administration of the Council in 2007 has always been to seek maximum value for taxpayers’ money at all times. However, I don’t expect removal of the lane to cost anything like the £1.1 million which has been budgeted for. This figure includes funding for seeking a safer alternative south-north route from the seafront and also includes provision for paying back £300k to Cycling England, who partially funded the scheme in the first instance. As this quango is shortly to be abolished, I don’t expect this to happen.
  • It is also worth pointing out that the proposed funding for the removal is from our transport capital allocation for next year, which incidentally is significantly higher than it was last year. So, it is not a simple question of choosing to either spend it on removing the cycle lane or on, for example, funding children’s services. As opposition councillors well know, capital and revenue funding are two entirely separate things and can’t be used interchangeably. To give some context, we are also proposing to spend significant amounts of this transport capital funding on our vision for a new ‘Brighton Station Gateway’ which we believe will bring enormous benefits to the City.

All of these issues beg the question as to why the cycle lane was installed in the first place. Bricycles stated in their submission to the consultation at the time that ‘Grand Avenue is currently not a difficult road to cycle in for people with average cycling skills.’ And cyclists have told me that this complete segregation is actually counter-productive as it makes both drivers and cyclists less aware of each other, particularly at the road junctions and where driveways cross over.

I am not anti-cycling by any means – I think that the seafront cycle route is a fantastic resource for example and is used by thousands every day. We are also actively looking into the possibility of a ‘Boris Bikes’ type cycle hire scheme here in Brighton & Hove as we fully recognise the health and environmental benefits that cycling can bring.

However, my primary concern as Council Leader has to be ensuring the safety of residents. In my view it was a costly mistake by the previous Administration to agree this cycle lane in the first place. I truly believe that the only responsible option now is for us to remove it and to explore an alternative, safer route in consultation with residents and all stakeholders. Of course, opposition councillors may take a different view at the Budget Council meeting on 3rd March and that is their prerogative, but I believe we need to take action on this now.

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A budget for the whole City

Last week we unveiled our budget proposals for 2011/12, the centre-piece of which is a 1% reduction in council tax. This would be the first council tax decrease in the history of the City Council and would leave residents in a ‘band d’ home almost £60 better off than if council tax had gone up by inflation. This is in stark contrast to the increase in council tax of 124% imposed by the previous Labour Administration during their 10 years in charge of the Council.

Other measures in the budget include:

  • A 5% reduction in the cost of resident parking permits
  • An additional £500k of new money for youth services
  • Protection of the budgets for voluntary organisations, Supporting People, Homelessness, Aids Support and respite for carers.
  • Free swimming for under 11s
  • Increased small grants for sports clubs and funding for the Take Part Festival
  • Funding to refurbish Portslade Town Hall
  • Removal of the controversial Grand Avenue / The Drive cycle lane
  • More funding for repairing potholes, pavements and street lighting
  • Establishing a new Local Homes Venture Fund for new housing

In addition, in contrast to many councils up and down the country, we have committed to:

  • No library closures and no reduced opening hours
  • No closures to Sure Start Children’s Centres
  • No cuts to City bus services
  • No closures of public toilets
  • No move to fortnightly bin collections
  • No enforced staff pay cuts and a minimising of compulsory redundancies

All this has been achieved in spite of a £17 million reduction in the Government’s Formula Grant to the City Council. This is not a cuts budget, this is a budget to support the City. At a time when residents are struggling with high fuel and food bills we think it is important that we give them some relief by reducing their council tax and parking permits. The proposals will now go before the Full Council for approval on 3rd March and I would urge the opposition Groups to think very carefully before casting their votes. I don’t think that residents will thank them if they combine to overturn this budget.

A significant part of the £24 million savings package which we are putting forward have come from the innovative Value for Money review. This review was initiated in late 2009 when it became clear that councils would be required to make a significant contribution to the Government’s national debt reduction package. Measures taken include:

  • removing vacant posts
  • improving procurement practices
  • cutting out unnecessary layers of management
  • more effective management of sickness absence
  • cutting down on the use of agency staff
  • working to share costs and buildings with other councils and public sector partners in the City.

We have been planning very carefully for these challenging times and I think that the hard work has paid off. We have managed as far as possible to cut the cost of delivering services whilst doing our utmost to protect the frontline.

This has not been an easy budget to set by any means but we have made full use of the new freedoms and flexibilities provided by the Government’s decision to remove the ringfence on almost all their grant funding. This has allowed us to protect all our Sure Start Children’s Centres and funding for vital community safety work which we would otherwise have been forced to cut.

Increasing efficiency can protect frontline services

A very interesting report caught my eye this week. Written by the Westminster Sustainable Business Forum, it is about how councils, and the wider public sector, should be getting much greater value for money (and sustainability) out of the buildings and land we own. With the country’s public finances being as tight as they are at the moment, it is a very timely piece of work.

The report contains some fascinating figures. The value of national public sector property assets is estimated at £370 billion, around £250 billion of which is owned by local government.

These assets cost around £25 billion just to run every year, so you can imagine that there is vast potential for achieving savings by lowering operational and maintenance costs.

Reading the report, I was very encouraged that, here at Brighton & Hove, an awful lot of the things that the Forum recommends we are either already doing, or are planning to do over the next few years.

For example, they suggest that local government can achieve efficiency savings through decreasing the space it occupies by 20-30%, by implementing low cost, flexible working practices. At the Council we have already launched a “workstyles” project as part of our value for money programme, the first phase of which involves moving around 600 staff from Priory House to Bartholomew House by Brighton Town Hall. And we are looking at other options to make better use of our civic and staff buildings over the medium to longer term which I’m confident will deliver better value for money and better customer service.

We are also leading a city-wide public sector property group – another of the report’s key recommendations. This involves working with local healthcare providers, the emergency services and the universities to look at possibilities for sharing assets, accommodation and services in order to improve value for money and efficiency across the whole public sector – not just in our individual ‘silos’.

And from the sustainability angle, we are doing a huge amount of carbon reduction work looking at Energy Service Companies, participating in the Carbon Reduction Commitment and making use of the new Feed in Tariffs to generate cheap electricity in our civic buildings and council housing. Energy costs are already high and are only likely to get more expensive so it is vital that we minimise these as far as possible.

So, all in all, I think we are making good progress. There are other areas in the report which we will be looking at more closely and clearly, with a piece of work like this it isn’t going to happen overnight. However, as the report’s authors state, with the savings that all public sector organisations are having to make over the next 4 or 5 years, this work is not optional. And when we talk about protecting frontline services by driving down back-office costs, this is precisely the sort of thing we mean.

Brighton & Hove’s local economy – reasons to be optimistic

Last week at our Full Council meeting we had a very interesting debate on the possible effects of reductions in public spending on the local economy. The Green Party, who put forward the motion for debate argued strongly that cuts to the public sector will have a damaging effect.

For my part, I argued that we have good reason to be optimistic here in Brighton & Hove and that talking the economy down in this way does nobody any good. By and large the driver for local (and national) economic growth is the private sector and in Brighton & Hove there are very encouraging signs:

  1. The Centre for Cities have once again singled Brighton & Hove out as performing strongly post-recession. One quote from their report explains why: “Cities with strong private sector economies and limited public spending cuts, such as Brighton and Cambridge, will be well placed to drive the UK’s economic recovery.”
  2. Just last week the Argus highlighted that recruitment specialists are reporting a surge in vacancies with firms returning to pre-recession staff levels. They also reported that the number of young people starting apprenticeships is rising faster in Brighton and Hove than anywhere else in the South East. Both very welcome pieces of news.
  3. Amex announced last week that they are looking to expand still further in Brighton by relocating a significant number of jobs from their Madrid office.
  4. And developers are still looking to invest in Brighton & Hove. For example, the exciting proposals for a new hotel on the old ice rink site in Queen’s Square.

So, although clearly there are going to be tough times ahead, particularly for us in the public sector, I do retain a sense of optimism about our future prospects.

And I have to say that what would really damage the local economy is the massive increases in taxes on business that the Greens advocate. Just last month, Caroline Lucas put forward proposals to introduce a new ‘business education tax’ on companies – supposedly to pay for free higher education. I’m sure that businesses would be delighted to have this extra burden imposed on them at this time. It would certainly ensure that there would be far fewer jobs for all the new graduates to go into!

And just think what the effect on local businesses would be if the Greens ever got to introduce their cherished congestion charge? As we have seen in London, a Green candidate for the Mayoral elections – Jenny Jones – wants it extended to cover the whole City and the charge to be raised to £50! This really would kill the economic recovery stone dead and I think it would be extremely bad for this City if they ever got the chance to bring it in.

UPDATE: Further good news yesterday on the jobs front. According to a survey by BrightonandHoveJobs.com, more than a third (36%) of local employers plan to create new jobs and take on new staff over the next 12 months, while 17% said they expected higher than average growth which could lead to new jobs. A mere 4.3% said they were looking to reduce staffing. Very encouraging.


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