Archive Page 2

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.

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?

Grand Avenue / The Drive cycle lane safety audit

For those who have been asking about the safety audits undertaken on the Grand Avenue / The Drive cycle lanes I thought it would be useful to post a direct quote from one of the key recommendations of the Stage 3 audit:

Location: various throughout the scheme

Summary: cyclists obscured from traffic by parked vehicles leads to conflict at crossovers and junctions.

Detail: Parked vehicles on the offside of the cycle lane obscure drivers view of cyclists and vice versa. It was observed on site that drivers turning left at junctions and private accesses are not aware of the presence of cyclists (and vice versa) and perform manoeuvres which lead to conflict. This problem is exacerbated in the southern direction where cyclists are travelling at speed downhill.

Recommendation: Remove the splitter islands (the raised kerbs separating the cycle lane from the parked cars) , relocate the parking to the near side kerb and provide a cycle lane with a buffer zone on the offside of the parked cars.

This is taken from the stage 3 independent safety audit carried out in July 2009. This is what I mean by there being a fundamental problem with the cycle lane which can’t be addressed by minor tweaks as some are suggesting. Removing parking spaces wholesale is not an option as it would be completely unfair on residents and visitors and would simply cause more parking problems.

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.

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.


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