Archive for the 'Decisions' Category

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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Scaremongering over number 37 bus

Here is the full text of a letter I sent into the Argus to set the facts straight over the number 37 bus:

I am more than happy to confirm to the East Brighton Ward Labour councillors that the 37 bus will continue to receive a subsidy from local taxpayers to enable it to continue operating (Argus letters 18th January).

Perhaps they would now like to take the opportunity to publicly apologise to residents for circulating deliberately misleading leaflets in their ward suggesting that the service would be cut?

We currently invest £1.4 million a year in supporting commercially unprofitable bus routes in the City and we will continue to do so as we recognise that they are a lifeline for many communities. And the majority of the £600,000 savings referred to by the councillors in their letter are for services which are now being run by the bus company on a commercial basis – something which should surely be welcomed.

For Labour councillors to indulge in deliberate scaremongering of this sort does nothing for the reputation of politicians as a whole in this City and they clearly haven’t learnt the lessons from the court judgement against the disgraced ex-Labour MP, Phil Woolas. I’m more than happy to defend the record of the Conservative Administration of Brighton & Hove City Council over the last 4 years but please let’s have a debate based on the facts.

Councillor Mary Mears – Leader of Brighton & Hove City Council

Bright Start Nursery

Below is the text of a statement I made at yesterday’s Full Council meeting on the future of the Bright Start nursery:

Mr Mayor, with your permission I would like to make a brief statement which I believe Council will want to hear before we start the debate proper on Bright Start.

I have listened very carefully today to the many questions on this from parents and staff at the nursery and I have received a large number of representations over the last few weeks asking me to keep the nursery open.

Mr Mayor, we launched this consultation on the future of Bright Start because we didn’t feel that it was justifiable to keep subsidising the nursery to the extent that the tax payer has been doing over the years. This is the only nursery in the City which receives such a subsidy and we don’t feel that it is a fair or sustainable situation. In particular, it is not fair on the vast majority of parents whose children attend nurseries which aren’t subsidised, nor is it fair on the council tax payers who have been funding the subsidy.

However, we have always been very clear, and my colleague Cllr. Vanessa Brown has stated this on many occasions, that no decision has yet been made and that we were open to any suggestions on the future of the nursery.

Colleagues will be aware that the  Localism Bill, which was introduced in Parliament on Monday, contains provisions to enable this to happen through measures such as the ‘Community Right to Challenge’ and the ‘Community Right to Buy’. In my view, these are hugely welcome measures and really open up enormous opportunities for local communities to become more involved in the running of local services and assets which are of value to them. Mr Mayor, this represents a refreshing and long-overdue shift from the top-down, highly centralised control of public services which has become entrenched over the last decade or so.

So, what I would like to do to today Mr Mayor, in the spirit of the new Localism Bill, is to formally propose, for consultation and consideration, Bright Start as a community asset to a consortium of parents, staff or other interested local parties. I know that a substantial business-case has already been put forward by one parent and I would hope that others may come forward and engage constructively with the Council about this opportunity of taking Bright Start forward.

I have been advised by officers that in order to achieve this lawfully and safely at this stage we should extend the consultation period, which has just finished, to enable detailed proposals to be worked up. As part of this, we will issue a further consultation document in the New Year which will lay out the financial and legal implications for anyone wishing to establish a community nursery.

For the avoidance of doubt, I would like to make it absolutely clear that no decision has been made about the future of Bright Start and we have not ruled out any options. We are proposing to extend the consultation, not to abandon it. At the conclusion of the extended consultation, we will take into account all representations received and approach the issue fairly and with an open mind.

Therefore, Mr Mayor, today we shall be abstaining on the various proposals and amendments before us, as to express an opinion at this stage would pre-empt anything which might emerges from the extended consultation.

Mr Mayor, I can completely understand the strong feelings that have been expressed around Bright Start – after all, there is nothing more important than ones children. This is a genuine offer we are putting on the table today and I hope that it is taken in the spirit in which it is intended.

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.

A Rare Blow Struck Against the Supermarkets

I was delighted to read a week or so ago that North Norfolk District Council (and a local farmer called Clive Hay-Smith), had combined forces to prevent Tesco moving into the centre of the market town of Sheringham.

The issue of multinationals and their impact on local economies is one we cannot afford to ignore. Here in Brighton & Hove we are quite rightly nationally renowned for our sheer number and variety of small independent retailers, and if even half of these disappeared our economy would be in real trouble. Therefore, I think it is vitally important that local politicians stand up and make a statement on this issue wherever possible.

I would be the first to recognise the benefits that the Tesco and Sainsburys of this world have brought to consumers over the years in terms of improved choice and value for money. However, I am becoming increasingly frustrated with the growing influence that they are exerting in Brighton & Hove and, indeed, across the country as a whole. For example, we are seeing an increasing number of smaller ‘Express’ style stores popping up across the City which invariably apply for late licenses to sell alcohol. Well, in common with many towns and cities across the country we have a real problem with alcohol-related health problems and anti-social behaviour and in my opinion, the last thing we should be doing is making it easier for people to get hold of cheap (and strong) drink.

And just yesterday, we saw that Sainsbury’s tried to get away with installing a new shop frontage on their Western Road store before getting planning permission from the Council. We have told them to go away and think again but this is by no means the first time that this sort of thing has happened.

I have been involved in local politics for many years now and I am increasingly getting a real sense of power and control draining away from local communities, of someone else pulling the strings – whether that is central Government, the EU, regional quangos or large multinational companies.

As a Conservative, I believe very strongly in the localist principle that decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the people affected by them. North Norfolk District Council has struck a rare blow for local democracy, for the powerless against the powerful. I hope that it is the first of many more to come.

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!