Archive for the 'Councillors' Category

Greens need to answer questions on Gypsies and Travellers

Caroline Lucas’s Early Day Motion on Gypsies and Travellers leaves many questions unanswered, not least of which is how it relates to the situation in Brighton & Hove.

1)      She states that “there is no justification for the forced eviction of Gypsies and Travellers where no alternative lawful sites are available and residents seek to live in harmony”. We have an official site in Brighton & Hove – at Horsdean – so perhaps she would like to make a public statement supporting the efforts of the Council and Sussex Police to evict illegal encampments in the City such as those at Black Rock and Wild Park?

2)      Or perhaps she doesn’t think that in Brighton & Hove we have enough “satisfactory and culturally appropriate alternative accommodation” for gypsy and traveller families. In which case, perhaps she could be up front with residents and say exactly where she thinks this should be located in the City.

3)      What exactly does Caroline Lucas mean by seeking to “live in harmony”? I can’t recall ever receiving a single letter or e-mail from a resident welcoming an illegal traveller encampment near their home – perhaps she could enlighten us.

4)      It is certainly true that the children of gypsy and traveller families do significantly worse in terms of education and health outcomes, compared to other families and this is very unfortunate. However, this is not going to be addressed by allowing them to break the law.

5)      Where does Caroline Lucas stand on the issue of van dwellers in Brighton & Hove – in other words, non-ethnic gypsy and travellers who choose to live, unlawfully, on the City’s streets? Does she, for example, agree with the recent judgement at Brighton County Court that the Council was right to seek the eviction of van dwellers at Coldean Lane near the university and that we were not breaching their “human rights” as they had claimed? This is a very live issue in many parts of the City, not least with the summer season approaching and when I tried to raise it at a Council meeting last year, the Greens refused to have a constructive discussion.

As usual with the Greens we get lots of hand-wringing and sloganising but no concrete answers to the problems that residents want us to deal with. Putting forward Early Day Motions is all very laudable but what would they actually do?

More Labour scaremongering – on winter weather

Labour councillors really should stop their irresponsible pre-election scaremongering, this time about the Council’s preparedness for bad winter weather. If Cllr. Warren Morgan had bothered to pick up the phone to council officers, rather than writing to the Government, they could have told him the following:

  • We never came close to running out of salt during this winter’s severe weather and were very well prepared.
  • To be certain, we made a bid to the Strategic Stockpile for 100 tonnes just in case deliveries were not forthcoming for the New Year.
  • But even at that point we had 500 tonnes still stored at West Sussex, and another 200 we called in from East Sussex, which is more than enough to keep us running through heavy snowfall.
  • We have ended the year with over 750 tonnes of salt in stock which shows we had a good supply this year.

I believe that the Council did as good a job as possible – given the severity of the conditions – of keeping 156 miles of main roads and bus routes open and keeping key pavements clear. We also helped people to help themselves by filling the City’s 400 grit bins up to 5 times during the winter season. For Labour councillors to suggest that the system in Brighton & Hove was ‘close to breaking down’ is an insult to all the incredible hard work of council staff and indeed residents, who helped to keep the City moving during the unprecedented heavy snow we experienced.

On pothole filling and road maintenance, it is frankly laughable for the Brighton & Hove Labour Party to try and claim credit for the extra £200 million that the Coalition Government is giving to councils to tackle the problem! This is twice the amount the previous Labour Government gave councils after the last year’s bad weather. Thanks to this extra money we have been able to allocate almost £1.5 million this year for pothole repair and road maintenance in Brighton & Hove and residents can rest assured that this is one of our top transport priorities.

Brighton & Hove Conservatives Manifesto Launch

Yesterday we launched our manifesto for the local elections on May 5th. To read our proposals for the next  4 years, plus a comparison with what the other parties are offering, click here.

Dodgy statistics and Labour’s local election launch

So, Labour has launched their local election campaign with Ed Miliband claiming that they are “your first line of defence” against public spending reductions. An interesting thought, and I’m sure that people will be able to make up their own minds as to whether he (and the rest of his colleagues in the former Labour Government) should bear any of the responsibility for those public spending reductions. Certainly I thought that the sight of him speaking at the “Stop the Cuts” rally at the weekend, and using Martin Luther King and the Sufragettes to support his case, was one of the more cynical acts of political opportunism I have seen in recent years. (As David Cameron said yesterday – Martin Luther King had a dream and Ed Miliband is still living in one!)

Labour are also up to their old tricks again with figures and statistics. They make their usual claim that council tax bills in Labour-controlled councils are lower than those in Conservative-controlled ones. Which is of course nonsense as they are comparing apples with pears. Labour-controlled areas tend to be in the city centres which have a much greater percentage of homes in the lowest council tax bands which pay less council tax. Therefore, the council tax in these areas, averaged across all bands, is obviously going to be lower. However, if you make a proper comparison – i.e. with homes in Band D – then Conservative councils have lower council tax bills by £43 compared to Labour councils (and £114 a year less than Liberal Democrat-controlled ones!).

They also don’t really have a leg to stand on when it comes to this argument as they opposed the Coalition Government’s council tax freeze policy which will save an average family up to £72 a year on a Band D home.

Locally here in Brighton & Hove, of course, Labour has an even worse record on council tax – having increased it by 124% (or £743) during the 10 years they were in control of the City Council. And back at Budget Council on 3rd March, they (and the Greens) vetoed our proposed 1% reduction in council tax for next year. Do we really want a return to the days where council tax payers were constantly being asked to bail out the profligacyof their Council?

Opposition stifle supermarkets debate at Council meeting

At Thursday’s Full Council meeting, opposition Green and Labour councillors voted to curtail my speech during a debate on the growing impact of multinational retailers in Brighton & Hove – an issue of great importance to the City.
The sponsor of the petition – a Labour candidate – was criticising us for not doing enough to address the problem. However, when I listed all the actions that the Council and the Government were doing the opposition clearly didn’t like it!
The opposition green and labour groups are always accusing my Administration of not being open and transparent but if this is how they behave, I would hate to think what they would be like if they ever took control of the Council.
There was a similar situation at the recent Budget Council meeting when the Convenor of the Green Group responded to the amendments which my Group had put forward. He said that he liked our amendment but couldn’t support it because it was being put forward by Tories – who he has previously described as ‘doing the devils work’.
I think it is about time that they stopped being so childish. We were having an important debate about a huge issue in this City – you would think that they might want to hear what the Leader of the Council had to say! For information and clarity, here is the full text of my speech:
  • I’m very pleased to be able to respond to this petition on behalf of the Administration as this is a cause which I am very committed to.
  • I would just like to say at the outset that although I clearly support the sentiments behind it, I am slightly disappointed in the wording of the petition. This campaign is not just about keeping Brighton unique. It is the City of Brighton & Hove and the same issues apply across the whole City – and that also includes Portslade.
  • But I would just like to outline some of the work that this Administration has been doing on this issue for some considerable time now.
  • We all know that one of the main reasons that so many visitors and shoppers come to Brighton & Hove is because of its diverse and interesting range of shops and facilities. Brighton & Hove is most definitely not a ‘clone town’ and we must keep it that way.
  • There are currently 56 major supermarket stores in the City and whilst, clearly there is a significant demand amongst residents for the services they offer, I feel we are rapidly approaching saturation point.
  • This has incredibly serious implications, not only to the individual retailers and traders themselves, but also to the wider economy of the City as a whole.
  • Mr Mayor there is both a national and a local angle to this. I have been consistently lobbying central Government about giving councils greater powers to determine the best mix of retail in their areas because I genuinely believe that we are better placed than the civil servants in Whitehall to assess this.
  • For example, under current legislation, we are not allowed to prevent a supermarket moving into an existing shop, regardless of whether or not the local community want it there. Exactly the situation which is happening with the Taj now in St. James Street. I believe that this needs to change.
  • So I was very pleased to see last week in a response to a question in Parliament by Simon Kirby MP that the Government is going to be reviewing the whole planning framework around this in the Summer. And we will certainly keep up our lobbying to ensure that Brighton & Hove’s concerns are taken into account during this process.
  • I’m also pleased to see that the Government announced last week that it is going to publish a Bill in May which will pave the way for the establishment of a new ‘Supermarkets Ombudsman’ which was the main recommendation of the recent Competition Commission Inquiry into the power of large retailers. Again, I shall be lobbying, through our local MPs, to ensure that this new body has real teeth and is able to address the issues that we are facing in Brighton & Hove. I think this is a really positive step forward.
  • It is also true to say that Labour don’t have a great record on this. It was the Labour Government which changed national planning rules on retail development (through Planning Policy Statement 4) and scrapped the so-called ‘needs test’ which significantly weakened council’s ability to stop unwanted out-of-town supermarket development.
  • Moving onto the local angle. A couple of weeks ago, we hosted a conference called Streets Ahead which brought together local traders, supermarkets, campaign groups and Council officers to discuss how we can best protect and enhance the unique character of Brighton & Hove’s retail sector.
  • It was very useful and productive to get everyone in a room together, not only to listen to people’s concerns, but also to map out a way forward.
  • I agreed to set up a special commission on retailing to consider these issues which will include representatives from the various retail sectors in the city, alongside independent experts and the Council.
  • At the event, local traders gave us some very useful examples of things that we could do better and I hope that the new Commission will be able to consider and implement these as well as some other useful practical measures.
  • We are also, of course, continuing to promote our high profile ‘Be Local Buy Local’ campaign and will continue to look at any other ways of ensuring that residents and visitors recognise the many benefits of buying local produce and goods.
  • However, I do think that we need to sound a note of caution. The last thing that I want is for this to turn into a battle between chainstores and independents – this would not be beneficial to anyone. Supermarkets do provide a service that many people in the City use – they are convenient for families who lead busy lives and they and provide a huge range of foods at relatively cheap prices. At a time when everyone’s budgets are stretched this is not something we should take lightly.
  • So, to conclude, Mr Mayor, we welcome this petition as a reflection of people’s genuine concerns around the increasing dominance of large chain stores in Brighton & Hove. We will continue to highlight this as an issue and to take action where we can and we look forward to working closely with the new local Commission to ensure that this City retains its unique attraction for residents and visitors alike.

Forget about housing on Saltdean Lido!

Here is the text of a press release which we have just released about the future of Saltdean Lido:

 

Saltdean Lido - copyright Simon Carey and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license

 

“Homes will never be built at the Lido” – Council Leader

‘Summit’ on attraction called

A large development of homes will never be built on the site of Saltdean Lido.

That is the strong message from Brighton & Hove council leader Mary Mears.

Councillor Mears is responding to concerns among residents at proposals by the leaseholder to build more than 100 flats on the site.  No formal planning application has ever been made.

Cllr Mears points out that the council is both the freeholder of the site and the local planning authority.  In either role, she says, the council would not allow any development which would damage the historic setting.

Cllr Mears said:  “I want both the leaseholder and residents to forget about the idea of putting significant amounts of housing on this site.  It is a complete non-starter.  The council will never allow it.

“Instead, I am going to call a meeting shortly between the Save Saltdean Lido campaign, the Saltdean Community Association who sublet it, plus experts and lawyers from the council.  The aim would be to see how we can protect the Lido as a listed building and make it a permanently viable attraction.

“The current leaseholder is in dispute with the council over a number of issues.  He needs to understand we will not back any major development plans and he needs to negotiate about the Lido’s future accordingly.”

The government recently awarded the Lido a ‘star’ listing, upgrading it from its existing Grade 2 listed status.

Cllr Mears said:  “The reason we backed that star listing application was to give the building extra protection from the kinds of proposals we were hearing.  As a starred building, English Heritage would also have to approve any development.”

Cllr Mears says she expects invitations to the private meeting with residents’ representatives to be sent out in the next few days.

Officials say that there are various legal complications currently barring progress with the Lido, which they cannot lawfully make public.  Cllr Mears added the authority was however “continually trying to make progress over the issue behind the scenes.”

Tackling child poverty in Brighton & Hove requires radical action

The recent report in the Argus of 17th March on child poverty in Brighton & Hove raises many challenging questions about how we tackle inter-generational dependency in the City. I do genuinely believe that this issue crosses political lines and I’m pleased that our recent decision to protect all the City’s Sure Start Children’s Centres was supported by all parties.

The previous Government had some success in reducing child poverty at the margins which is, of course, welcome. However, as Labour MP – Frank Field – says in his recent report on child poverty “considering the vast sums expended, the overall reduction was modest”. And the number of children in the worst poverty has actually increased.

I think he identifies one of the lessons to be learned from the last 10 years or so – simply throwing money at a problem won’t make it go away. A great example of this is the £47 million that was spent by the previous Labour Government in some of the more deprived parts of Brighton & Hove, as part of its New Deal for Communities programme. The whole purpose of this scheme was to tackle ingrained poverty in areas of high deprivation, but the evidence indicates strongly that it has had little effect. Indeed, our independent research shows that benefit dependency actually increased compared to the rest of the City over the period the money was being spent.

I believe that one of the most important ways of reducing poverty long-term is through sustained employment and, in Brighton & Hove, we need to ensure that the increase in inward investment that has occurred over recent years is maintained. Projects such as the American Express expansion are very encouraging in this regard in getting the message across that Brighton & Hove is open for business.

Another incredibly important factor is ensuring that work always pays. Too many people are left worse off when they take up a job than when they were on benefits. I believe that the proposals which the Government has put forward to tackle this – the Universal Credit – are genuinely radical and will be vitally important if we are to ever break the poverty cycle. For the sake of the City’s children, we must confront this issue head on.

Labour must be honest with residents over spending plans

So Labour Group Leader Cllr. Gill Mitchell thinks families will be £1,500 worse off next year due to reductions in Government spending.

This does rather beg the question then of why at Budget Council her Group voted against our proposed council tax and resident parking permit reductions which would have put money back in to local people’s pockets!

But to be quite honest, Labour do not have a leg to stand on when it comes to criticising the actions of the Coalition Government. Who was it who left the country with the worst structural budget deficit in the developed world? Who was it who doubled our national debt during their years in power? And who was it in Brighton & Hove who presided over a 124% increase in council tax (that’s £743 for a band D home) during their 10 years in control of the council? Yes, the Labour Party.

Their tactic now seems to be denying that the Labour Government had anything to do with all this – blaming it all on those nasty bankers. Well firstly, as I have argued before, the public finances were way out of control even before the banking crisis hit. And secondly, if the bankers did act recklessly and irresponsibly (as some of them undoubtedly did), then why didn’t the Government do anything about it during the 13 years when they could have regulated to stop it?

Labour’s pre-budget announcement today shows that they still aren’t being honest with people about how they would deal with the deficit – and they are still racking up new spending commitments by the week. Yes, things are going to be tough for the next couple of years but I firmly believe that the bedrock of economic growth in the future has to be getting the nation’s finances back in order as soon as possible.

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.

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.


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