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TheobaldCllr. Geoffrey Theobald OBE, Leader of the Conservative opposition on Brighton & Hove City Council, on defeating the proposed Council Tax rise – but not Council funding for the unions

When the local daily paper runs a referendum in which over two thirds of the 7,000 respondents say they don’t agree with one of your policies, most politicians would agree that it was time for a judicious and dignified u-turn! Not so the Brighton & Hove Green Party and their massively unpopular plans to raise council tax by 3.5% for each of the next 3 years. It should have been no surprise to them, therefore, that the key plank of their Budget was voted down by us and Labour at last week’s Council meeting which, incidentally, at one point in the evening, was trending worldwide on twitter!

I have been consistently critical of the Greens for announcing their tax raising plans so early on in their Administration, arguing instead for a council tax freeze from the outset. They effectively boxed themselves into a position that they were unable to get out of when the offer of £3 million in return for delivering a freeze was made by Eric Pickles in October and the public reaction to their plans became apparent.

Whilst they should have been getting their heads down and working on a responsible financial strategy, embedding value for money and joint commissioning savings in order to deliver the freeze, being a left wing party, they turned instead to the taxpayer to bail them out. The Green Party’s finance spokesman (soon to be Leader) – Cllr. Jason Kitcat – decided that, for ideological reasons, it was more important for him to take a political stand against the Government than to stand up for the residents of Brighton & Hove.

Trying to single-handedly take on Eric Pickles by urging other councils to ‘join the rebel cause’, may have won him a few votes in the Green Party Leadership election but I believe that this deliberately provocative approach has damaged the city in the long run. Does he really think that Mr Pickles and others are likely to look more favourably upon this Council with, for example, future funding applications, as a result of his stance?

Residents simply did not buy the Green’s complex arguments about ‘cliff edges’ and ‘black holes’ – our great victory in the recent Westbourne by-election proved that. What they saw instead was that by refusing the Government money, the Greens were not only penalising residents through higher bills, but they were also rejecting £3 million which could have gone into the local economy – that is £3 million in residents’ pockets that they could have been spending in the city, supporting our local businesses.

At the Budget meeting itself, the extra savings that we and the Labour Party put forward in our separate amendments were all in areas which we firmly believe have the support of the majority of residents in the city – human resources, communications (we proposed ending the Council’s propaganda sheet – City News), senior management and not going ahead with a £150k increase in the Council’s sustainability team. We also proposed using some of the £3.2 million underspend that resulted from our last Budget to deliver permanent savings for next year – effectively putting the unspent money back in residents’ pockets rather than blowing it on new ‘pet schemes’.

We also put forward proposals, amongst other things, to reduce the amount of council taxpayer-funded Trade Union ‘facility time’ and spend it instead on reversing the Green Party’s cuts to opening hours at two local community libraries, cuts to seafront public toilets and reversing their proposed 70% increase in the cost of parking permits for traders. To their shame, both Labour and the Greens voted down these common sense proposals. At around £300,000 a year, Brighton & Hove spends the third highest out of all unitary authorities in the country on union funding and we believe that they should be paying for some, or all, of this themselves.

I am pleased for the residents of Brighton & Hove that we have managed to defeat the Greens’ plans – in these tough economic times they need all the help that we can give. The Green Administration will now have to ask themselves some fundamental questions about where they go from here. They need to remember that they are only a minority Administration and that they will have to start making compromises if they are to get anything done as we move into a new Committee system of governance. The big question is, will their grassroots membership, who control much of their policy and strategy, put up with this?

As far as the Labour party is concerned, many of their grassroots members are up in arms with their Council Group for ‘getting into bed’ with us to deliver the extra savings that enabled there to be a council tax freeze. By stark contrast, our membership and the vast majority of residents and businesses in the city are delighted that the Greens tax raising plans have been defeated!

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