The pressures on our city and those who lead it are urgent and critical. It will take clear purpose, co-operation and innovation to lead the city through the challenges of the coronavirus, Brexit and the economic tsunami that’s upon us, particularly after a decade of massive reductions in local government funding.
Brighton and Hove needs clear and stable leadership focused on economic recovery, investment in business that provides secure and well-paid jobs, and sustainable growth for all of our residents.
Our city needs new institutional and individual leadership. Leadership that gets the city clean by any and every means necessary, and provides affordable and decent homes for everyone that needs one. Leadership that has a plan for our arts venues, restaurants and retail businesses devastated by the lockdown. Leadership that provides a transport network that supports, not smothers, the economic life we all need for our city to prosper. Leadership that values and supports our heritage, but is ambitious about our future.
It needs leadership that respects the different needs of our diverse city and diverse communities, from the more progressive city centre to the traditional estates and the conservative with a small c suburbs and villages. Leadership that stands up for its residents, that has zero tolerance for anti-semitism and any other forms of racism. We need to move on from a form of politics that would make many student unions blush with shame.
We need political leadership that looks to everyone’s needs, not just factions, party members or the small number of council wards that they rely on to win minority control. A city polarised is one unlikely to flourish.
Ministers have signalled that they’re likely to advocate the creation of fewer, larger single-tier authorities like Brighton and Hove to replace some county and district councils, led by dozens of newly created elected mayors, when they publish a paper on devolving power in the autumn.
Brighton and Hove now risks being left behind, with no one having the authority to speak up for the city with government, be the recognised individual that businesses talk to for a decision on whether to invest and create jobs here, and be the person with the mandate and powers to get things done.
An elected mayor would have the stability of being directly elected for a full four-year term by more than half of the city’s voters, not elected and removed by a minority of councillors themselves put in office by a minority of votes. At present, the council leader could in theory be the preferred choice of just 11 people.
Our city’s government lacks stability, continuity and the ability to get things done quickly. Our city council has had four leaders in three years, nine in the past 15. None have served more than three years in the job.
After 20 years of alternating minority administrations on the council, with decisions and action held up by opposition parties and delayed for months if not years in committees while the leader has no executive decision-making powers, the city now needs to decide what it wants from its civic leadership.
Does it want more of the same? Or does it want the leadership of an elected mayor like Bristol and dozens of other cities and city regions?
In these unprecedented times, can the city continue to allow itself the indulgence of being run by a Victorian-style committee when our neighbours and competitors are led by 21st century elected mayors?
No system is perfect, and there will be many who will oppose an elected mayor for the city just as there were when Brighton and Hove was one of the first to vote on them 19 years ago. In the two decades since, metro regions like Manchester, cities like Bristol, London boroughs like Newham and towns like Barnsley have all opted for mayors chosen by the people with real executive power to deliver.
Now their number is set to increase perhaps tenfold, with our city potentially left behind in the competition for funding and investment.
Costs should not be a barrier to better government, with any additional expenditure met by government and not from local service funding – and new revenue the reward.
Brighton and Hove needs ambition, innovation and common purpose to steer us through unprecedented times. Not party dogma or a refusal to change, but new ideas, creativity, investment and the best minds and talent we have to ensure we not only survive but thrive in whatever changed future emerges beyond covid and beyond Brexit. That should begin with an elected mayor for Brighton and Hove.
Warren Morgan is a former leader of Brighton and Hove City Council.
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