Two weeks ago, I sat on the council’s inaugural “i360 Member Working Group”.
The i360 is in the ward – or neighbourhood – that I represent and, having followed its development closely from the outset, I know that if there is one thing we can all agree on, it’s the “Marmite” nature of it.
There seems to be no one who doesn’t have an opinion – and love it or loathe it, we can all agree to disagree.
At this first meeting, the i360 Member Working Group was to consider the request from the i360 to defer the June and December payments owed to the council.
These were due under a repayment plan put in place after the council approved a £36 million loan in March 2014 to make the project possible.
Member working groups are one of the many ways that elected councillors – the members of the council – can really delve deep into an issue.
Only three councillors have been invited to sit on the i360 working group – Labour councillor Carmen Appich and Conservative councillor Steve Bell are the other two – and generally the meetings are held in private.
Crucially, the working group cannot make actual decisions on behalf of the council and the city.
Our i360 working group can digest the reports, meet with the i360 management and ask the questions that need to be asked.
But the idea is that this work helps set the stage for the decisions that need to be taken in our open, democratic committee system.
That first meeting was constructive. Each of us were sent a lot of helpful background information in advance to consider. Despite our different opinions on the i360 itself, there was a shared determination to work constructively together to contribute to the long-term success of the attraction and safeguard the money that’s been invested in it.
However, like all other working groups, it’s down to the public, democratic process to make a decision.
Each working group sits under a formal committee and in this case it’s the council’s Policy and Resources Committee that is charged with the “final say”.
This is the most powerful of the council’s many decision-making committees, all of which hold public, accessible meetings that are broadcast online and allow for public involvement, for example, for a resident to attend and ask a question.
That’s how democracy and transparency work. That’s the theory anyway. This isn’t what actually happened when the Policy and Resources (Recovery) Sub-Committee met last Wednesday (24 June).
This was a meeting of only five councillors – so not much more than the working group and a long way from what could be considered best practice.
The Recovery Sub-Committee is there to focus on how the city recovers from the covid-19 coronavirus crisis.
The i360 has been an issue for a lot longer than this. It shouldn’t have gone to this sub-committee in the first place.
But because it did, a crucial decision about whether to keep deferring the loan repayments owed by the i360 attraction was made without the information they needed to make an informed decision.
No working group minutes, no business plan, no summer trading information, no information on other creditors, no information on the maintenance programme or the health of the structure, no information on the extra costs of dealing with covid-19, no independent analysis of the i360’s post-covid visitor number forecasts and no cashflow forecast (this had been requested by the working group but was not yet available).
How can councillors make an informed decision when the minutes of the group tasked with exploring the issue are not available to them? Nor to those members of the public keen to understand what’s going on?
The i360 Member Working Group is a vital way to understand more about the future of the attraction. But this information needs to be shared more widely so that councillors can take informed, appropriate action.
Members of the working group were asked whether we were happy with the report going to the Policy and Resources Committee, not if we endorsed the recommendations within that report.
Councillors must be free to decide – a very important distinction that seems to have been lost.
We need to encourage broader conversations about the future of the i360, not suggest that a closed, private working group has the final say.
As far as the attraction goes, while the proposal to defer the June repayment was agreed, I and my Green colleagues would like to see the city receive further information before a decision is made about whether to waive December’s repayment too. As a member of the working group, this is what I recommended and what Green councillors raised in committee.
This would give the working group and the council five months to get more information and to really understand the situation before making a decision on whether a further deferral in December is in the best interests of the city.
We would also know by then what impact covid-19 has had on the attraction.
And yet, despite all this, Labour and Conservative councillors judged that they had enough information to agree a deferral of both the June and the December payments, which means the next time the council has any say over the matter is in a year’s time.
And what will the situation be like then? Only time will tell – but an understanding of the role of the members’ working group, and of democratic decision-making, will no doubt be key.
Councillor Tom Druitt represents Regency ward on Brighton and Hove City Council and sits for the Greens on the council’s i360 Member Working Group.