Archive for the 'localism' Category

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.
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Localism – huge opportunities for communities

I was lucky enough to get an invite to a reception at Downing Street on Monday with other council leaders to discuss with the Prime Minister the Government’s proposals to give more power to local communities and councils. History is one of my great interests and so it was fascinating to see inside Number 10 where so many historical events and visits have taken place over the years!

The new powers for local communities are contained within the new Localism Bill – more information on which can be found here. I believe that there are some truly radical provisions within the Bill which will help to lay the foundations for the Big Society by transforming the relationships between central government, local government, communities and individuals. It aims to strengthen local democracy by handing new powers down to councils, establishing powerful new rights for local people to take on community assets, overhauling the planning system as well as making housing decisions fairer and supporting local business.

I very much hope that these changes will put an end to the hoarding of power within central Government and the top-down control of communities – something which has happened for many years under successive Governments. I am confident that they will allow local people the freedom to run their lives and neighbourhoods in their own way – something which I hope everyone would agree is a huge step forward.

Please buy local this Christmas!

Earlier this month, Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, gave a speech about the importance of our town centres. He recognised their place at the heart of communities and neighbourhoods; places where we come together, to shop, to work, to relax and be entertained.

As the hard realities of the global economic situation start to bite, it is more important than ever that we all support our town centres, their economies and businesses.

The run up to Christmas is vital for most small to medium sized businesses in the city, not least our retailers. So I am waving the flag for them and asking you to think local and buy local this Christmas.

The ease of shopping online or travelling out of town to a larger retail unit is more than countered by the choice, accessibility and service that our local shops deliver.

We are making it easier for you to get about by suspending road works and more attractive by encouraging businesses to support Christmas lights and decorations. Already the city is starting to sparkle as the lights go on in East Street and the North Laine.

And the Government is already taking a number of steps to help firms with business rates by:

  • doubling small business rate relief for one year from October – eligible ratepayers with rateable values below £6,000 will pay no rates at all for that year
  • committing to finding a practical way to make Small Business Rate relief automatic to reduce red tape and administrative burdens
  • putting a moratorium on the collection of certain backdated business rates and making a commitment to cancel certain backdated rates bills, such as some unfair backdated rates tax for some port businesses
  • considering the possibility of giving local authorities wide-ranging, discretionary powers to grant business rate discounts, so that they can respond to local circumstances by reducing business rates bills

and

  • committing to take legislation to ensure that no new supplementary business rate can be imposed without the backing of local firms in a referendum

In their ‘Local Growth’ white paper the Government propose a series of policies to further bolster our economic recovery by focusing on private sector business growth. We fully support this stance and will be responding to the paper noting where we think we can help and where we would like to see more detail.

Whilst we will focus on the policy, I would ask you to help us help the local economy by stopping here and shopping here as the festive season gets underway.

Or work to protect jobs and support families is strongly linked to the success of the city’s economy. By working together and supporting one another we can not only grow businesses, but protect our neighbourhoods and communities; ensuring a happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year

New local growth proposals will benefit Brighton & Hove

The announcement that our proposal for setting up a new Local Enterprise Partnership – “Coast to Capital” – had been successful grabbed most of the headlines this week. But there were also a number of other important pro-business proposals announced as part of the Local Growth White Paper which passed under the radar somewhat and which I would like to highlight.

In particular, I warmly welcome the proposals around restoring a degree of local accountability to business rates.

Under the current system councils such as Brighton & Hove collect business rates but they are then passed straight to central Government who redistribute them to all local authorities according to a complicated ‘needs’ formula. Over £20bn of business rates collected by councils are pooled and redistributed in this way. The result is that whilst councils have a vital role in supporting the local economy, we have very little financial incentive for encouraging new business start ups.

So, the Government is now proposing that we be allowed to keep the money we raise in new business rates, thereby giving us a more direct stake in the future of our local economies and access to funding to deliver services that our communities (and businesses) need. This is not a full relocalisation of business rates that many people are calling for but it is nevertheless an important step forward and emphasises once again the Coalition Government’s ‘localist’ credentials.

Hand in hand with this is the proposal to introduce new powers for councils to borrow money for regeneration schemes against the future business rate revenues that the redevelopment would bring in. This so-called Tax Increment Financing is widespread in many other countries, in particular, the USA, and I would warmly welcome this in Brighton & Hove. Finding funding for major projects is never easy, particularly in the current economic climate and this would give us another viable option for business redevelopments.

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.

More Labour Scare Tactics – Housing This Time

Labour have been issuing leaflets to tenants in Brighton & Hove which make up all sorts of things about Conservative plans for social housing. I wanted to make it absolutely clear that tenancies will be absolutely guaranteed with the Conservatives.

As we say in our manifesto: ‘We will respect the tenures and rents of social housing tenants.’

I know that tenants across Brighton & Hove have great pride in their homes and the neighbourhood in which they live. Conservatives recognise the importance of social housing and the security it provides.

In this election, the Labour Party is issuing leaflets, of which this is just one more example, which are trying to scare people with false claims about our policies and making untrue allegations.

This is the reality about our respective housing policies:

  • Conservatives, both locally and nationally, will not increase rents to market levels, end secure tenancies or ‘slash’ housing benefit. Indeed, it has been the Government’s policy over the last 10 years or so to raise council house rents to bring them in line with the Housing Associations.
  • It was the former Council Leader – Simon Burgess – who tried to force through a stock transfer of your council housing. Following the overwhelming rejection of his plans by tenants in 2007, the Conservative Council has worked extremely hard to secure additional investment in your homes and will always support the wishes of tenants.
  • Labour claim that their proposals to reform the council housing finance system will leave councils better off as they will be allowed to keep all rents and sales income. What they are not telling you is that we will also be saddled with a portion of the £25 billion of historic debt in the system.
  • The rate of house building since Labour has been in office has dropped by almost 24,000 homes a year – to around 147,000 – compared to the levels under the previous Conservative government. In addition, an average of 18,430 social rented homes a year has been built under this Government, compared with 40,538 a year under the last Government.
  • The number of households on local authority waiting lists in England has risen from a million when Labour took over in 1997 to 1.8 million – this equates to more than 4.5 million people.

As they did with the lies about benefits for pensioners, Labour is resorting to scaring residents to get votes. These tactics are disgraceful and should have no place in British politics. It is disappointing that Gordon Brown, after 13 years, doesn’t have a positive message about himself or his record on housing.

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.


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