Posts Tagged 'Brighton & Hove City Council'

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.

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

State control of the private rental market would be a big mistake

We had a very interesting Council meeting last week, which was dominated by debate over the Bright Start Nursery (I have blogged my statement on this below so won’t say anything more at this stage). But it was also particularly interesting in relation to a couple of housing matters.

Firstly, the Green Party and Labour Party united in coalition to support a notice of motion advocating state-control of the private rental market. In my view, this would be pure madness. Rent regulation has been tried before and failed. Economists from all sides of the political spectrum, have criticized rent regulation as economic illiteracy which, despite its good intentions, leads to the creation of less housing, raises prices, and increases urban blight. You can just imagine the stampede of private landlords out of the City if this was introduced – and in Brighton & Hove, which has one of the largest private rented sectors in the country, it would be disastrous for families and individuals who rely upon this type of housing.

In their motion, the Greens claimed that rents in the private sector have gone up so much in recent months that it is effectively pricing tenants out of the market. But what they don’t mention is that for most of 2008 and 2009, rental prices for 2 and 3 bedroom properties fell considerably due to the recession. In addition, if you look at the wider trend since 2001, rent rises have been on average lower than inflation over the same period.

It is also worth pointing out that for private tenants who claim housing benefit (or Local Housing Allowance as it is now called), it is the independent rent assessor who determines the level of benefit they can receive. The Government’s proposed reforms to housing benefit (much criticised by the Greens and Labour) – to effectively cap how much tenants can receive – are partly designed to bear down on private sector rent levels. This is because there is plenty of evidence to suggest that landlords push up their rents for housing benefit tenants because they know it will be covered by the public purse.

I am also slightly puzzled at the Labour Party’s support for the motion. For it was back in 2008 that the then Labour Government commissioned a review into the private rented sector – the ‘Rugg Review’. At no stage did this review consider that capping private sector rents would be advantageous. In fact, they identified the 1988 Housing Act, which lifted rent controls, as one of the main factors in the huge increase in supply of private sector rented properties over recent years. I don’t recall the Labour Group at the time making any representations on rent capping so it is a bit opportunist for them now to be jumping on the bandwagon!

Secondly, I asked our representative on the Sussex Police Authority – Green Party councillor Ben Duncan – what representations he had made on behalf of the residents of the City about squatters and van dwellers, issues which I know cause considerable concern and anger in our communities. His answer was very telling – he said that the Police put too many resources into dealing with these problems and that they should concentrate on other ‘priorities’. In other words, the Green’s position, were they ever to take control of the Council, would be to effectively turn a blind eye to these unlawful activities. Not for the first time (here and here) they have demonstrated a worrying contempt for the basic principles of law and order

Clarity on the Council’s role in Pride

I am aware that posters are appearing in various venues across the City quoting me as saying that I will somehow adjudicate between rival bids to run the Pride Festival for 2011. I want to be quite clear about this – it is not the Council’s role to judge between competing bids or to take sides in any way. I shall be facilitating a cross-party meeting of stakeholders to try and resolve differences and I am more than happy to help in any way to ensure Pride goes ahead. But I reiterate, this is a community event and it is ultimately for the community to decide how their event should run. Just for complete clarity, below is the text of the letter I recently had published in the Argus and GScene:

“The emergence of an alternative bid for Pride has led sectors of the LGBT community to pressure Brighton and Hove City Council to “take a decision” in regard to next year’s event. I feel I need to clear up exactly what the council’s role in any event would be.

Pride is a community celebration, run by a charitable organisation and benefits the entire city. It has never been a council-run event and I think it should remain that way. This means we will not make any decision between competing ideas. As with any proposed event, the council merely considers issues such as licensing health and safety, planning and similar technical issues on a case-by-case basis.

In this case, the council’s role is also to unlock the potential for joint working between the various groups who have mutual interests. Pride is the biggest event in the social calendar and brings more business into the city than any similar occasion, as well as giving Brighton and Hove a global platform. More importantly, it provides an opportunity for the LGBT community to come together and celebrate.

For the sustained future of the event, the reputation of the city and the cohesion of the LGBT community, I would urge all parties to work together. There remains enough experience and spirit amongst the LGBT community to enable this and to this end I am happy to broker a meeting of interested parties, including opposition councillors and officers, to identify a way forward.”

Who to blame for the public spending cuts

The local Labour Party are accusing me of denying them a debate on the £3.5 million of in-year cuts which we are having to make as a result of Eric Pickles’ budget announcement back in June.

This claim flies in the face of what is actually happening! There will be a full debate on the in-year budget cuts at the Council meeting tomorrow (Thursday). Any comments and suggestions from the opposition groups will be taken on board in time for the Cabinet meeting on 22nd July where the final decision will be taken. At this stage we don’t envisage any of the specific budget proposals falling outside of the framework which was agreed at the budget Council meeting in February. Therefore, these decisions are quite rightly being taken by the Cabinet.

I must say that I find it a bit rich for Labour councillors to be talking about schools not being built and roads not mended when they know full well that it was their Government which has left the country bankrupt and the new Government is having to pick up the pieces. The outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury – Liam Byrne – was quite right when he said that there was ‘no money left’. And this is not just because of the international financial crisis and subsequent bank bailout as Labour politicians like to claim – as the respected independent think tank, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, confirm, there was a massive structural deficit before any of this happened. Here is their exact quote from “The Public Finances: 1997-2010”:

“During Labour’s first four years in office, the public finances strengthened further, as the new Government stuck to the tight public spending plans laid out by the Conservatives. The following seven years, however, were characterised by fiscal drift. By the eve of the financial crisis, this had left the UK with one of the largest structural budget deficits in the developed world.”

Labour claim to be the champions of the poor and the vulnerable but it is their reckless approach to taxing and spending which is now directly threatening some of the vital public services and benefits which many of them rely upon.

Good luck England!

As the World Cup gets underway in South Africa I would just like to wish Fabio Capello and the England team the very best of luck in the tournament. Here’s hoping that they can bring the Cup back home for the first time since 1966!

Travelling around the City, I have been really impressed with all the flags and posters that people have displayed on their cars, houses and along their streets. It is great that people feel able to show such patriotism about their national team. For our part, we shall be flying the St. George cross from our council buildings for the duration of the tournament, so let’s hope England make it all the way to July 11th!

To celebrate the World Cup locally we have helped to organise a beach soccer tournament with the Nivea Sun Yellowave Beach Sports Venue and the Brighton & Hove School Sports Partnership as part of the TAKEPART school sports festival. Children from 12 primary schools will be taking part and if anyone is interested in watching, it happens on Monday 21st June. Teams will be allocated a country that is playing in the World Cup and schools are being encouraged to get involved by designing flags and learning about their allocated country’s culture.

Let’s hope that both tournaments are a great success!

National Insurance hike would hit Brighton & Hove Hard

The Government’s proposed 1% rise in National Insurance would not only hit residents hard, it would also be another body blow for businesses in Brighton & Hove, at a time when they can least afford it.

At the City Council we have calculated that if it goes ahead, the rise will cost us – as the City’s largest employer – an extra £1.5 million a year. That is £1.5 million of local council tax payers money going straight back into Treasury coffers to pay off the massive debt they have racked up over the last 10 years or so. And at a time when our budget is under such pressure, it is £1.5 million we can ill afford to lose.

Councils wouldn’t be the only public sector organisation to lose out – nationally, the NI increase would cost the NHS £208 million, schools would have to fork out £66 million (equivalent to something like 2,000 teachers) and the Police would face an increased tax bill of £43 million.

Paying off the national deficit has to be the top priority for whichever Government is at the helm next month. But bringing in another tax on jobs (which would hit both private and public sector employers and employees) is surely not the way to go about it. The only long-term way of addressing the underlying structural deficit is to make it easier for businesses to set up and expand. The private sector generates the wealth which enables us to have an NHS, state schools, policing and roads. Sadly, the parties of the Left seem unable to grasp this most basic of economic truths.

Conservative Spring Forum comes back to Brighton

It was a hectic week for me last week with our annual budget council meeting on Thursday and then the Conservative Spring Forum at the weekend.

I was really pleased that we were able to get our budget voted through and that there was no repeat of the ‘Core Strategy’ Council meeting last December when the ‘Rainbow Coalition’ (Greens, Labour and Lib Dems) voted us down on some key transport policies. So we were able to get through a council tax increase of just 2.5% which is the lowest rise since the Council was formed in 1997. We were also able to put some additional investment into areas such as youth work, improving the seafront, winter maintenance and replacement floodlighting for the Royal Pavilion. It is very important that we keep the City looking as good as possible to attract the visitors and tourists that the local economy relies upon.

As I said, at the weekend the Conservative Spring Forum was held at the Metropole and it was great to be able to host the party in my home town! Brighton & Hove is, for many members,  still associated with the dreadful IRA bombing of the Grand in 1984 and so it is a big step for the organisers to come back to our City. The weekend itself went very well from what I saw and also from talking to many delegates who were delighted to be here. Hopefully it will be the first of many more visits in the near future.

For my part, I took part in a session with Caroline Spelman MP, who is the Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. There will be some interesting and, in my view, beneficial changes in this area if the Conservatives win the general election in May (or whenever it is called!). I hope that a Conservative Government will feel able to trust local councils such as ours with greater powers and freedoms than we currently have because I believe very strongly that at present our ability to help residents is  stifled by red tape and centrally imposed controls and restrictions. A key part of this is the pledge to abolish the whole tier of regional quangos which many of us feel are both wasteful and contrary to the priniciples of localism which we all believe in. For those of you who may be interested, there are more details in the Control Shift policy paper.

Government grant – Brighton & Hove loses out

This announcement from the Government that they will only be giving Brighton & Hove City Council a 1.5% increase in central grant doesn’t come as a great surprise but is nonetheless disappointing for the residents of the city. We are once again at the ‘floor’ level of grant, meaning that this is the lowest possible increase we could have got. An increase of 1.5% represents roughly £1.5 million, which is a drop in the ocean when you consider that our overall budget is £750 million. Inflationary pressures alone more than wipe out this increase.

We are working extremely hard to cope with the double whammy of falling income and increased demand for services brought about by the recession. Despite the tough economic outlook, we are ensuring that as much money as possible is spent on the frontline services that so many of the city’s residents and visitors depend on. However, we are not helped in this regard by the ever increasing costs of centralised regulation, inspection and bureaucracy which have resulted from 12 years of a Labour Government which is not prepared to give councils the freedom to get on with it.

We have made over £10 million of efficiency savings over the last couple of years and we are proposing a further £7 million for next year. It is my number one priority to do everything I can again this year to keep council tax as low as possible whilst protecting frontline services. To do anything else at the present time would be to let down the residents and businesses of Brighton & Hove.

When is surveillance acceptable?

Councils and other public bodies have come in for a lot of criticism in recent years for overzealous use of surveillance powers to investigate varying degrees of criminal activity.  In the most extreme cases, powers which were designed for use in tackling terrorism have been used to investigate relatively minor offences.

I have always been very much against such a heavy-handed and intrusive approach and, as a Council, we have always tried to use surveillance and the accessing of communications as a very last resort. We have also tried to be as open and transparent as possible about when we do have to resort to these measures.

Last week at our Cabinet meeting we received our annual report on use of the so-called Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. As far as I’m aware, not many Councils operate with this amount of transparency and I’m pleased to say that the Government Inspectors have stated that we use our powers in a ‘measured and justifiable’ manner.

Clearly, there are circumstances when we would be neglecting our duties not to use some of the powers to investigate criminal activity. Most of the covert surveillance that we do carry out relates to housing benefit fraud, harassment and fly-tipping – offences which I would think most people would consider to be very serious. Indeed, benefit fraud costs Brighton & Hove’s taxpayers somewhere around £1 million a year and I make no apologies for doing everything possible to bring the perpetrators to book.

However, there is a general feeling in the country, which I share, that the surveillance state has gone too far in recent years. The Government’s recently announced Vetting and Barring scheme, which requires millions of parents and volunteers to be ”approved” for working with children by the Government after registering on a state-run database, is a classic example.

This Government seems to think that mammoth national databases and data-sharing will make citizens more secure. I think that more and more people are beginning to realise that this is simply not the case.

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July 2020