Cllr Geoffrey Theobald is Leader of the Conservative Group on Brighton and Hove Council
For the second year in a row it has taken two meetings to agree a Budget at Brighton and Hove City Council – one of six hours and one of 35 minutes.
The difference this year has been that council officers have had to work up three budgets – our council tax freeze that we have consistently advocated for the last 4 years; the Green’s 5.9 per cent; and Labour’s 2 per cent threshold.
As with last year, we attempted to persuade Labour to join with us to deliver a freeze. After all, Ed Miliband is always talking about a so-called cost of living crisis and a 2 per cent increase is seven times the rate of inflation. And the difference between the freeze and a 2 per cent increase is just £900,000 out of a £750 million Budget. By finding extra savings in management costs, communications and efficiencies in the refuse and recycling service we had no difficulty in arriving at the freeze budget.
Once again the result was predictable although disappointing for residents. We all knew that the Green Party Leader would not succeed with his 5.9 per cent increase and in the end he would have to persuade enough of his colleagues to vote with Labour to outvote the Conservatives and the rest of his Group.
The surprise this year was that only 13 of the Green councillors supported their Leader in his 5.9 per cent (which remember was designed to unite them all!). Perhaps if he’d gone for 10 per cent or higher he might have succeeded in getting his Green colleagues to back him!
With each party voting against each other’s proposals there was deadlock.
Following much arm-twisting over the weekend and with the prospect of an Eric Pickles intervention looming large, the Budget was passed at the second attempt by an unholy alliance of Labour, half of the split Greens, the one UKIP member and an Independent. The other section of the Green Party (the staunchly socialist ‘watermelons’) joined with us in voting against the cobbled together compromise budget, not because they wanted a freeze but because they didn’t think that their Leadership’s 5.9 per cent council tax increase went far enough.
However, much as the national media like to portray the Brighton and Hove situation as ‘barmy Green infighting’ the real story of the Budget from my point of view was the failure of the Labour Party – the smallest Group on the Council – to compromise on their proposal for a 2 per cent increase and support the Conservative Group in a freeze in council tax and parking charges that we had put forward and which the city’s residents overwhelmingly want.
Their excuses about not wishing to impose further cuts on residents simply do not wash.
The proposals we put forward – full reform and modernisation of the Council’s dysfunctional refuse and recycling service, restructuring of senior management and reductions in the
Council’s communications and Trade Union facility time budgets – would have as good as delivered the extra £900,000 savings required to claim the £1.2 million Government grant to enable us to freeze council tax.
So, why wouldn’t Labour support our freeze proposals when it was self-evidently possible to deliver it without any negative impacts on frontline services? The reason is simple – they are absolutely terrified of being portrayed as somehow ‘in bed with the Tories’, an accusation which would potentially fatally torpedo their electoral prospects in the city’s vital marginal battlegrounds.
The wards that the Green Party currently holds (predominantly in the Brighton Pavilion parliamentary constituency held by Caroline Lucas MP) could be key to who will take control of the Council after the elections this May. The battle for that left-leaning vote has defined every decision that the Labour Group here has made in the last four years.
It explains why they have chosen not to back a council tax freeze and it also explains why they have consistently blocked, with the Greens, any attempt to reform the way the Council works.
When we were last in Administration in the four years to 2011, we were one of the first councils to try to introduce a commissioning model of service delivery – market testing and inviting the city’s excellent not for profit sector, as well as independent providers, to run services that our auditors continue to say are high cost compared to similar authorities
We have regularly pointed out, for example, that the Council’s Learning Disability services are the most expensive in the country, yet it was only a couple of weeks ago that action was finally taken to address this on the back of a damning independent review.
Sadly, this commissioning process was abandoned by the Green Administration when they took office in 2011, with strong support from the Labour Party. It is Council officers who are now having to reinvent the wheel, having wasted four years, due to lack of political direction.
In a similar vein, it is astonishing that the Council has only just started looking at the possibility of sharing our central service functions with other councils. The Council remains inexplicably reluctant to put its trust in the city’s excellent community and voluntary sector.
Yet because the Greens portray commissioning as ‘back door privatisation’ (entirely wrongly in my view) Labour meekly refuse to support it even though they know that it is the correct path to travel. The prospect of marginal wards being flooded by Green Party leaflets declaring “Labour backs Tory privatisation plans” scares the Labour leadership.
We have tried to be a constructive opposition, weighing up the issues on a case by case basis – supporting the Greens when we think that they are doing the right thing for the city; opposing them when they clearly aren’t. For Labour, every decision they take is pure politics; the needs and wishes of residents, visitors and businesses inevitably taking second place in their relentless campaign to damage the Greens. Last week’s Budget shenanigans were yet another example of that and I just hope that the public see through this opportunistic behaviour come May 7th.