Everything rotten about party-political governance was on display at Hove Town Hall at the most recent meeting of Brighton and Hove City Council.
As the tribes of Red, Green and Blue assembled for the full council session, I was there to cheer on an impassioned speech by my neighbour Serena Burt.
The year-long fight to have our council pause and review plans for the final phase of its Valley Gardens project is perhaps just the latest example of neighbourhood voices ignored.
Watching Serena’s “deputation”, you’d think that her plea for an “environmental impact assessment” (EIA) would be regarded by councillors as a no-brainer.
Will the council reassure citizens that the air they breathe won’t soon poison them? Of course they will!
But no. They won’t! The motion proposed by councillors Joe Miller and Robert Nemeth calling for an EIA was defeated with every Labour and almost every Green Party councillor (two abstained) voting against an assessment.
Is it the cost that bothers them? No – the council fritters money away on far less important things.
In fact, irony oozes from one recent example of this: the pier roundabout has just been resurfaced.
The pier roundabout – thanks to council officer’s determination to press ahead with their “preferred option for Valley Gardens phase 3” – will soon be ripped up and replaced by traffic lights.
And the traffic rerouted by this scheme will funnel on to an eastern carriageway and shunt southward towards these traffic lights.
The result will be soaring air pollution drifting with south westerly winds into the streets above and below St James’s Street – pollution exacerbated by an accompanying rat-run effect.
So, have Serena and her neighbours and the Valley Gardens Forum campaign and more than 1,500 who signed an online and paper petition simply got all this wrong (as the council asserts)?
The first response to that is to say for the love of god commission an EIA and prove it!
The second response is to politely remind the council that its own consultants told them of a severe congestion risk.
After that, the list of indicators that it’s not the public but the council who’ve got it wrong (I know, unbelievable right?) goes on and on.
A cacophony of voices from health professionals, tourism firms, city traders and taxi drivers to residents’ and tenants’ associations have all been ignored.
To their credit they all got busy and submitted an alternative plan. Here, a remodelled roundabout deals with traffic flow – and cyclists get a dedicated path set apart.
The detailed visualisation of their plan is impressive – if the council were to look at it – which I suspect they won’t.
It’s sad to say that Serena Burt’s speech may as well have counted as a five-minute break for our assembled councillors.
With glazed expressions, their minds were already made-up (or should I say their minds had been “instructed”).
Our one and only independent city councillor Bridget Fishleigh made a valiant attempt to urge that council view an EIA as an eminently sensible safeguard and ponder for a moment that party political rivalries should play no part in this.
It was not to be. There are councillors out there that I applaud as hardworking and diligent. But this made it all the more eerie to watch them toe the party line.
And so, despite a clear risk that traffic congestion will cause air pollution, a Green Party elder proclaims that there is no legal requirement for an EIA and his councillors applaud while Labour councillors nodded. Is this the new “collaborative” approach?
At the same full council meeting a completely different issue generated the kind of cross-party unity that seems only to arise after the council has bungled something.
After an impassioned deputation slamming council failure, the new administration switched to “mea culpa” mode.
Readers will be aware of the scandal of a cost-cutting home to school transport contract that has had devastating consequences for some of the city’s most vulnerable children.
The council spoke of how vital it was that “we learn from what went wrong and make changes for the future”, how it needed to “rebuild trust”, how “we will not rest until this situation is completely resolved”.
Is “mea culpa” how a botched final phase to Valley Gardens will end?
In a few years from now will the scandal of a valley of poisoned air and blighted local economy end with council leaders earnestly proclaiming “full recognition of the problems”?
Seems so. And all for the sake of a decision in October 2019 to pass up the opportunity to carry out an environmental impact assessment.
Adrian Hart is a neighbourhood activist living in east Brighton. He is author of That’s Racist! – How the regulation of speech and thought divides us all. He ran as a neighbourhood non-party alternative in the May local elections.
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