At last Thursday’s Annual Council meeting, the Green Group were formally installed as the new minority Administration of Brighton & Hove City Council – the first Council they will be running in the country. But what impact will their election success have on the residents of this great city and what does it mean for the new opposition Conservative Group which I now lead? In short, how will the Greens handle the transition from pressure group to party in power?
One of my first acts after the elections was to challenge the new Green leadership on a number of policy proposals which they have espoused over the last few years, and most of which appeared in their manifesto. Obviously I don’t expect huge detail at this stage but I am sure that residents and businesses will want to get some early clarity about their intentions and direction of travel. For example:
- Exactly how are they going to ‘stop the cuts’ as they promised residents on the doorstep? They will have to make savings in the Council budget of over £50 million over the next 3 years and simply blaming the Government won’t make this go away.
- Will they be bringing in blanket 20 mph speed limits across the City?
- Will they be discouraging car use in Brighton & Hove? Will they introduce congestion charging, higher parking charges, less city centre and residents’ parking spaces and more ‘car-free’ development?
- Will unlawful gypsy and traveller encampments and van dwellers now be tolerated in the city as Caroline Lucas has suggested they should be?
- Will the promised new food waste collection lead to fortnightly bin collections and how will this be paid for?
- Will the Council’s new ‘intelligent commissioning’ model be ditched and the new Strategic Directors booted out as the Greens promised?
- How are they going to address their anti-business image? Green members have been openly hostile to some businesses in the City and they want to introduce a workplace parking levy and a Business Education Tax. Firms like American Express, who employ over 3,000 people in the City, will be very worried.
- How will they follow through with their commitment to introduce a ‘Living Wage’ for council employees of £8.10 an hour and to ensure that the Chief Executive only earns 8 times as much as the lowest paid council officer?
- Are they still committed to free insulation for every house in the City and, if so, how would this be paid for?
But how will we go about providing opposition to a Group that has never before held any position of responsibility or power? One fellow councillor from the Labour Group here summed it up very succinctly when he described attacking the Greens as the political equivalent of clubbing seals! They have certainly
managed to cultivate their image as soft, cuddly environmentalists very well with the younger middle class
voters and of course, the city’s 15,000 plus students supported them by the bucket load.
With a few notable exceptions, they have managed to keep a lid on the more extreme Marxist elements in their ranks which might otherwise have put some floating voters off. However, they will be only too painfully aware that the press will no longer be giving them the free ride that they have experienced up until now. It will also no longer be enough for them simply to blame everything on the nasty Tories and Lib Dems up in Westminster.
‘Stop the Cuts’ may be an appealing slogan to woo disaffected voters but it is no basis on which to run a council. I think that, by and large, the mainstream majority still accept that reductions in
public spending are necessary and are looking for their local politicians to come up with creative solutions to addressing funding shortfalls, rather than simply demanding more money. Whether or not the Greens turn their back on ‘Intelligent Commissioning’ and our ‘value for money’ programme will be a key early test of whether or not they are up to this task.
From a purely practical point of view it will be very interesting to see whether they have to compromise their group decision-making structure whereby both Group and wider Party members have a vote on all decisions they make. Having been in Administration of the Council for the last four years, I cannot see that
it would be possible for them to continue operating in this way. Similarly, the Cabinet system which they have so vehemently opposed over the years may now suddenly become more attractive to them as the realities of minority Administration sink in.
What is for certain is that the Greens, whether temporarily or permanently, have usurped Labour as the main left wing party in Brighton & Hove and, as such, have changed the way we have to do politics in the City. As Conservatives, we must react to that. We must celebrate the achievements we have made in the last four years in power – sorting out the council’s finances whilst protecting key frontline services, transforming the City’s parks and gardens, bringing new investment into our housing stock, increasing primary school places and delivering two new Academy schools as well as helping local businesses through the recession.
But, at the same time, we must come up with some new, positive messages that reach out to voters who may not have considered us before. In order to achieve this I will be drawing on all the talent in the local party and will lead in the most open, transparent and positive manner possible.
This is a fascinating time to be involved in politics in Brighton & Hove and the 2015 election campaign starts now!