Conservative councillors said that the proposed Brighton and Hove City Council budget needed to be more ambitious – and caring – during a debate today (Thursday 27 February).
Councillor Joe Miller, the finance lead, spoke at the annual budget meeting at Hove Town Hall as councillors prepared to set the council tax and spending levels for the coming financial year.
He said: “Our groups amendments prioritise our city’s prosperity, our city’s people and our precious planet.
“We believe them to be an ambitious, forward-thinking and caring package of amendments to the Labour administration’s budget.
“After years of other parties in this chamber criticising national government for the Revenue Support Grant going down, I do hope they get up this evening and welcome the increase in the RSG – as well as a new adult social care grant of £4.7 million to help us meet the costs of our ageing population.
“These are welcome steps and, with a growing and prosperous economy nationally, hopefully we will see the support increase for local authorities through the budget and comprehensive spending review.
“The country gave this Conservative government a huge mandate in December to deliver and level up.
“It is key that we all collectively argue for a fair share of the tax our entire city pays into the country’s coffers to ensure that Brighton and Hove can level up, grow and afford the public services on which we all rely.
“But we must also be far more creative as a council going forward about the way we can raise more money for ourselves from the likes of business rates, by being unashamedly pro business and enterprise (and) maximising the opportunities that come from the new place being forged for Britain in the globe, and learning from what other councils do to maximise their regeneration, employment, tourism, business and growth.
“This means, however, not bringing services such as the repairs and maintenance service in-house I housing for ideological purposes costing the council over a five-year period in excess of £8 million, which we fear will result in Cityclean mark 2.
“We welcome the additional investment in Cityclean nonetheless taken by the administration in this budget, but we do hope finally this may reap some rewards as the city still looks like a tip quite frankly and it is putting people off coming to Brighton and Hove, harming our residents and businesses’ futures.
“We also welcome the additional allocations for the winter Shelter option 1 to tackle Rough Sleeping in our city and a 365-day shelter, something which must now come to an end with the additional funds nationally and locally being spent on this plight.
“Likewise the additional funding for the Corn Exchange to get that finished is welcome, as well as the 3 Labour U-turns after pressure from opposition groups in violence against women and girls, communities, equalities and third sector team, and doctors permits: all of which I am sure we can all agree are hugely important for some of the most vulnerable and worthwhile in the city.
“We also commend the administration on putting in £200,000 additional funding for moving towards carbon-neutral – and a somewhat measly (but better than nothing) £5,000 for park and ride and £10,000 for Madeira Terraces which is a shameful pittance given the importance of these two projects to our city.
“Thus I do hope our amendment for something far grander and more visionary, where Labour have failed over the past five years, is passed this evening.
“I would also like point members and the press’s attention to … the report where it sets out that last year from March 2018 to March 2019 the school balances increased by over £2 million to £4.225 million, which is very interesting factual information in my view despite some of the rhetoric that exists in the city.
“Firstly, our amendments put our city’s prosperity at the forefront. They do so firstly by providing over an additional £8.6 million to funding the regeneration of Madeira Terraces, in addition to the £2.5 million already identified by Councillor (Daniel) Yates and donated to the crowdfunding many moons ago.
“Our plan is funded from a variety of sources but mainly by following in many other councils’ footsteps and using the borrowing facility enabled by our Conservative government to invest in city assets.
“We plan to borrow up to £40 million, to expand our asset portfolio by a prudent around 10 per cent from around £280 million to £320 million.
“This will be funded by borrowing from the government at very low interest rates.
“We will then rent these out to the city’s businesses at a higher commercial rate, with the rental money to pay back the interest and the original asset price bought over a 50-year period.
“But there will then still be a surplus profit of around £312,000-a-year income which we can borrow against over 50 years to provide over £6.8 million capital funds to put into regenerate Madeira Terraces.
“This is what any sensible business will do. For too long we have been holding out for handouts to fund our problem while our city’s heritage literally collapses.
“I recently proposed that the Labour administration sell some of our higher-value, lower-yielding assets but they rejected that idea in a rather dramatic and exaggerating way that we were proposing selling all of our assets on which we rely for income.
“That was simply not the case and was not a fair representation of the proposal.
“Anyhow, we have another plan as they haven’t. Now we are proposing increasing our assets and ring-fencing the funding income for our city’s major deteriorating heritage asset.
“As well as this, we have then identified £100,000 of IT investment reserves to be released for a design, feasibility and business plan on Madeira Terraces so that if there is any revenue-raising opportunities in any designs coming forward, we may be able to borrow more again against this rental income in order to finish off the regeneration of the rest of the terraces.
“Where Labour have failed here, the local Conservatives are picking up the pieces.
“The other £1.8 million comes across our amendments using other revenue annually identified over the next two years to borrow against, in the same way as above.
“The Labour administration has recently done the same by raising £5 million from borrowing against a £200,000-a-year revenue for the Corn Exchange Royal Pavilion Phase 1 restoration – the city’s other prime historic asset.
“I praise them for such innovation, Let’s do something similar with the Terraces, we say.
“The advantage of such a regeneration project is obvious. Not only will it mean that we restore the asset but in 50 years’ time when the borrowing is repaid we will end up with a large number of additional assets from the £40 million borrowed, which will hopefully go up in value, plus any assets in or on the Terraces which will then provide rent to the council to fund additional regeneration or make the Terraces financially sustainable in the future.
“It could fund future regeneration or maybe ring-fenced for heritage assets in our city to stop future generations of council being faced with these huge challenges ever again.
“These are likely to provide a rent that … is likely to be extremely high yielding compared to our assets, at an average of 9.04 per cent, second only to New England House in our portfolio.
“Both of these … asset investments may also raise more rent in the short term than our loan repayments, I predict, as well more profit than our somewhat careful estimates.
“And we have also asked that social value and carbon reduction measures be strongly considered in both the £40 million asset purchases and the regeneration of Madeira Terraces.
“Not only that but a restored and regenerated terraces will potentially provide a boost to the level of business rates received by the council, as well as activating a huge aspect of our crumbling shop window, the seafront, in our city.
“In turn this will lead to a huge boost in tourism, which in turn supports an array of businesses and employment.
“It is a win, win, win for us and so I hope the other political groups on the city council can put the city first and put politics aside to support our plans.
“Residents and visitors alike are put off going to spend money in our city because of the state of our city.
“There is too much graffiti and people are dropping litter and not taking responsibility for their waste and our planet.
“That’s why our amendments plan to raise an extra £40,000 a year from those who litter, graffiti and defecate to name but a few disgusting personal actions regularly displayed in our city, by fining them (which should discourage some of this behaviour in the first place hopefully helping Cityclean) to add an extra 50 per cent to our £82,000-a-year graffiti removal budget, taking it to £122,000 a year.
“We can then start to look to increase enforcement officers and look at how these work alongside parking enforcement officers to increase our revenue and discourage this behaviour going forward.
“We are backing prosperity by amending the budget to keep business and traders permits at the same level.
“These hardworking people in our city already contribute a huge amount in their permit charges.
“It’s time to stop asking them for more and more each year but allow them to keep our city’s economy growing instead, funded by a sensible and prudent redesign of our transport department and a reduction in the travellers service budget as encampments and security requirements fall.
“We on this side put the hardworking self-employed people and businesses where it is necessary to drive around our city (hopefully soon in electric vehicles) first.
“That’s why using some clever accounting … and budget swapping, we are proposing to reverse Labour’s pernicious £160,000 cut to the incomes of grandparents, siblings and other family members who are looking after younger relatives, who are legally granted a special guardianship order by a court.
“These are children who would otherwise be in far more expensive foster care or a children’s home. Labour are proposing to cut these most-in-need families’ income by the rate of child benefit, which some of these families already get.
“This is a real cut of an average of £27.55 week for the families of up to the 115 children with a SGO.
“A family breakdown as a result of such cuts could cost the council and taxpayer more overall if they fall into foster care or a children’s home.
“I was shocked that this was worthy of only half a line in Labour’s Equalities Impact Assessment. Children and their futures are more important to us as caring, compassionate Conservatives.
“Which is also why we have identified – from a restructure in our communications team – some savings.
“They no doubt provide an important service but one, when compared to children’s futures, is desirable not essential.
“This will enable us to provide £105,000 over the next two financial years to expand the youth service offer in our city as the Chancellor recently did putting an extra £500 million into youth services.
“That’s because as Conservatives we believe that no matter what your background you deserve the best opportunity in life.
“Such a reduction in comms also enables us to put people first by investing £100,000 in services for most vulnerable in our city, in adults with learning disabilities to mitigate in part (and I wish it was more) the proposed draconian and unachievable savings of £1.47 million in this service brought forward by the Labour administration.
“I know who I choose and I hope, if necessary, this service will be able to dip into the one-off financial risk safety net of £750,000.
“Labour’s attack on the city’s poorest households has continued in this budget, which we will again reverse, by wanting to introduce a surcharge on houses in permit zones with more than one car.
“These are households that can’t afford driveways, have more than one person working in the household, trying to make ends meet, such as a house of three young care workers, sharing, who need their cars for work but who can’t afford to live alone, whom Labour are wanting to pay more.
“The person on seven times what the care workers are earning, in a three-bedroom seafront flat with two spare rooms, but with one car only, will be paying less for their permit.
“How, Labour, can this be fair? So we have reversed this with our transport and traveller saving, putting the hard-pressed low-income motorist first.
“Our amendments lastly but by no means least put our planet first. That is by allocating £15,000 next year and £23,000 in all subsequent future years to plant more trees in our city parks, with the aim to double our city’s tree cover by 2045, in line with a Friends of the Earth commitment.
“We need to plant more trees to breathe in the carbon dioxide we and other countries are producing – and as we move to carbon-neutral by 2030 – hopefully sooner.
“The time to save our planet is now – and we have done so in a range of ways, including but not limited to reducing trade union facility time by a mere one sixth.
“It is now that we need to invest in our prosperity, people and planet. Before it is too late. The time to act is now – on all of these fronts … and we should do everything we can, together, to do so.
“Future generations of the city will thank us for taking action. We can work together tonight to do it.”
Tory group leader Steve Bell seconded the Conservative amendments. Councillor Bell said: “Let’s clean up our city and restore Madeira Terraces. This is at the heart of what we are trying to achieve by our amendments which also prioritise issues like homelessness and rough sleeping, adult social care, education and health.
“But residents also inundate us, quite rightly, on the state of our city – from the mess left by irresponsible dog owners to the rundown condition of one of our great icons, the Madeira Terraces.
“The opposition parties are unable to make really big changes to the budget. But we are trying to address residents’ concerns with our budget amendments to improve all our lives including those of our visitors.
“We have all seen how graffiti has become a real blight – something mentioned many times by tourists as well as those who live and work here.
“We hope that our proposals will mean we can start to clean up our city so it’s presentable for us all.
“Dog fouling seems to have been on the increase of late, especially in our parks and green spaces where people want to relax and children play.
“Most dog owners are responsible. Unfortunately, a minority fail to take responsibility for their pets and fail to clean up after them.
“By increasing fines for fouling – and littering – we hope they might think again and do the right thing.
“And where do we start with our beloved Madeira Terraces? I have enjoyed spending time along that stretch of the seafront on so many occasions since moving to the city in the 1980s.
“It was a place to be proud of. Nowhere else has architecture like it.
“A lot of local campaigning and crowdfunding – and this is great – but while it has generated some funds, it is nowhere near enough needed for a proper restoration.
“Our amendment aims to pave the way for the council to generate enough money to start the serious work needed to bring the Madeira Terraces back to their former glory.
“My hope was for common sense to prevail in the chamber to win cross-party support for those amendments which will improve the lives of us all in the city we call home.
“When I listen, I this chamber, if I take out the government-bashing, I hear a lot of sense.”
Councillor Bell said that Labour proposed savings of about £10 million last year but had overspent by more than £10 million this year.
Councillor Bell also criticised the Greens for hitting car owners – treating them as a cash cow – and yet if car use reduced it would undermine the entire basis of their funding ideas.
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