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Helping young people into work

Below is my response to a letter from Cllr. Warren Morgan which appeared in the Argus recently:

Cllr. Warren Morgan is not in any position to lecture the Conservative Party about youth unemployment (Argus letters, 30th June).

The previous Labour Government left 5 million people languishing on out of work benefits and, due to the deep recession which they presided over, youth unemployment was already rapidly rising when the Coalition Government took over. Furthermore, many of the jobs created over the last 10 years or so that should have been taken by our young people were filled by non-British nationals – the proportion more than doubled under Labour. So much for Gordon Brown’s boast of ‘British jobs for British workers’.

Cllr. Morgan seems to have conveniently forgotten that the Coalition Government recently announced it would fund an additional 80,000 work experience places for young people and allocate £180 million to provide up to 50,000 additional apprenticeship places over the next four years – considerably more than Labour planned.

He also doesn’t tell readers that at the last Budget Council meeting, his Labour Group (along with the Greens) failed to back our proposed £100,000 investment to establish a new Local Apprenticeship Fund and to give additional funding to the Brighton & Hove Education Business Partnership, which provides young people with a range of work-related learning activities.

You are quite right Cllr. Morgan that creating new jobs will help to reduce our enormous budget deficit. Therefore, I’m sure you will welcome the fact that over half a million jobs have been created in the private sector over the last year – more than 3 times higher than the reduction in public sector employment. If we don’t take steps now to live within our means as a country we’ll end up paying higher taxes or making deeper spending cuts just to pay-off our debt Putting off deficit reduction measures, as Labour want, will only create more problems for young people further down the line.

Travellers – response to Cllr. Pete West

Below is the text of a letter I had published in the Argus recently:

Cllr. Pete West makes a number of accusations against me and the previous Conservative Administration of Brighton & Hove City Council which I must respond to (Argus letters, 30th June).

Firstly, Cllr. West accuses me of scaremongering over the scale of the problem. Well, if he had checked through the records, as I have done, he would see that this time last year there were precisely zero unauthorised traveller encampments in the city. He should also perhaps talk to the Police who are having to allocate extra dedicated resources to try to manage relations between the settled and traveller communities. This is not scaremongering, it is the reality, and if Cllr. West spent some time talking to residents, he would soon realise this.

Secondly, it is simply not true to say that the previous Administration achieved nothing on travellers for 4 years. We put significant sums of money into refurbishing the Horsdean transit site on two occasions after it was vandalised and this now has space for 23 caravans. I agree with Cllr. West that there is a need for a new permanent site in the city but this will not go anywhere near to solving the problem. As many travellers have stated themselves, they already have permanent bases elsewhere in the country and are not interested in settling here.

And as for political point scoring Cllr. West, it was the Conservative Group who, very early on in your Administration, put in a request to set up a cross-party scrutiny panel to look at solutions to the traveller issue.

‘Tourist tax’ would damage city economy

I was very concerned to read in the Argus today of a possible ‘tourist tax’ for Brighton & Hove. In my view, this would be very much a backward step for Brighton & Hove and would seriously jeopardise our hard-earned reputation as a destination of choice for visitors.

What Simon Fanshawe and other proponents of this seem to be forgetting is that our local economy is based around tourism. As the recent State of the City report showed, we host some 8 million visitors every year and these visitors spend over £700 million in local shops, cafes and hotels.

It is all very well to say that a few pounds here or there won’t deter people from coming to Brighton & Hove but if it is a straight choice between paying that and going somewhere else, then in these difficult economic times, people will vote with their feet. And whenever a new tax is introduced, however low the initial rate is, it is all too easy and tempting for politicians to increase them as a revenue raising measure. Just look what happened to the council tax – it started off at a relatively low rate but under the last Labour Government, it more than doubled.

The new Green Administration has pledged to investigate the introduction of a new tourist tax but I would strongly urge them to reject it.

Tougher Action Required on Old Steine Campsite

I was astonished to read the comments of the new Cabinet Member for Communites – Cllr. Ben Duncan – that the impromptu campsite on the Old Steine is “the model of the kind of engaged peaceful protest the Council and the Police are committed to facilitating” (Argus, 25th May).

There is a by-law in place on the Steine for a good reason – this is a sensitive location in the heart of the City and is incredibly busy with tourists and holiday makers at this time of year. What sort of impression will it give visitors to the City if these sort of encampments are not removed? Just look at Parliament Square in London!

The Council should be doing everything it can to help local businesses in these difficult economic times and many of them rely heavily upon the tourist trade. Of course people have the right to peaceful protest but this shouldn’t be at the expense of ordinary people carrying on with their lives. My fear is that Cllr. Duncan’s statement will just serve to encourage even more protesters to come down here and make the situation even worse. Will they be equally forgiving if people decide to camp out in Preston Park, Queen’s Park or Hove Lawns? This sets a very dangerous precedent and I would like to know what justification the Police are giving for not taking any action.

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?

Well done Brighton & Hove Albion!

The former Goldstone Ground, sold by the club in 1997 (Copyright Nigel Cox and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

I would just like to offer my heartfelt congratulations to everyone at Brighton & Hove Albion on their fantastic promotion to the Championship! They have been virtually unbeatable this season and to be guaranteed promotion at this early stage is an amazing achievement. The excitement is already mounting ahead of their first game in the new Amex Community Stadium. It will be a great day for the Club, the fans and the City – the culmination of a long and often tortuous journey. Their success has been hard won and is truly well-deserved.

Major new investment in Brighton & Hove council homes

I was delighted to be able to announce at last week’s Cabinet meeting that Brighton & Hove City Council and Brighton & Hove Seaside Community Homes (BHSCH) have agreed a funding facility of £30 million from Santander to invest in the council’s housing.

BHSCH, a registered charity, will use the money to bring 499 council homes up to 21st century standards.  We are transferring the homes to BHSCH on a long lease so are not giving up the freehold and are hoping that work will start on the homes in the late spring.  Homes in disrepair and long-term empty homes and flats, which have not received investment, will be prioritised.  Larger houses used as temporary accommodation will be converted into modern flats and all of the homes will be let at affordable rents to families and others in housing need in the city.

This is something which I have been personally driving forward for some time now and I am delighted that the deadline which I set for the end of the financial year 2010/11 has been met. When we took over the Administration of the Council in 2007 we were left with, frankly, a mess by the previous Labour Administration. Their push for stock transfer had been resoundingly rejected by the tenants and there was no Plan B in place to plug the funding gap to meet the Decent Homes Standard.

Since then, we have worked long and hard, in close partnership with the tenants and leaseholders, to bridge that investment gap. Firstly,we let a  new long-term maintenance contract which will save approximately £150 million over 30 years and now we have successfully established BHSCH to deliver further investment.

I believe that housing has been one of the major success stories of the last 4 years and the investment is starting to make a real difference to tenants’ lives. If the Conservatives are re-elected in May it will continue to be one of my top priorities.

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.

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.

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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