It has been an interesting month or so at Brighton & Hove City Council as the new Green Administration tries to find its bearings and we adapt to life on the opposition benches.
The Greens have made the surprising announcement that they would be seeking to increase council tax by 3.5% next year. It is highly unusual for an Administration to make such a commitment so early in the financial year and it set the alarm bells ringing for me for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, this decision suggests to me that they have given up on the value for money programme which the previous Conservative Administration instigated and which generated over £4 million of efficiency savings last year alone. I am convinced that there are still plenty of efficiencies and back office functions that can be streamlined and the Greens should be exploring these possibilities exhaustively before even thinking about raising the council tax.
Secondly, thanks to our prudent budgeting, the Council came in £2.56 million under budget for the financial year just ended and I would have expected the Green Administration to use this balance we left them to protect council tax payers from unnecessary rises. For the record, £2.56 million equates to about 2% on the council tax, and so, therefore, the Green Administration is in effect proposing a 5.5% increase.
One area of real concern that I have is the amount of spending of council taxpayers’ money on employing full-time union representatives. A report which went before Cabinet last week shows that the Council is £120,000 over budget for the current financial year and so we have tabled a question to the next Council meeting asking exactly how many staff are employed on union duties and how we compare to other similar local authorities.
We shall be looking very closely at expenditure such as this when we formulate our budget proposals for next year and we will be working towards a freeze in council tax for 2012/13. Incidentally, if the 3.5% increase does go ahead, this will cost council tax payers an extra £320 on a Band D property over the next three years compared to if there was a year on year freeze.
The protest camp at the Old Steine, which the Greens welcomed with open arms, has now thankfully gone, but we continue to experience huge problems with unauthorised traveller encampments in the city. In my ward of Patcham, there have been three encampments, one in Withdean Park, another on the Ladies Mile Nature Reserve and the other on a sports ground (which prevented matches being played). Worryingly, the Greens have now taken the unilateral decision to open up an area of downland in the National Park at the top of Dyke Road in Withdean Ward as a ‘tolerated’ site for travellers to use. To designate areas of ‘toleration’ without even informing the ward councillors is nothing short of disgraceful.
The Conservative Group has submitted a response to the Government’s current consultation on traveller sites and we are specifically asking for greater powers to remove traveller encampments from sensitive locations such as nature reserves, parks and sports pitches. The disruption that these encampments cause to the local residents in those affected communities is simply unacceptable.