I would like to raise several key issues which I’ve certainly struggled with in the run-up to, and throughout, this unfortunate process of resolving the bin strike – not least in last week’s seven-hour meeting.
I would like to start by saying that while I am weary of the GMB union, which of course exists to promote and protect its members, I don’t in any way begrudge the underlying principle of its aims. I certainly don’t wish to see a world without Mark Turner, the branch secretary, and if the union has been in a position where it can exert undue pressure on the council, it might be said that the council’s administration has lessons to learn, rather than the union.
With this in mind, it struck me as curious to say the least that little, if any, of the valuable debating time that was at our disposal at last week’s long meeting was dedicated to making the case for a better deal for refuse workers on the basis of fairness – on the basis of what is the right thing to do with the resources that are at our disposal.
As Councillor Miller suggested, the entirety of the debate was stylised by what short-term action the council could take to ensure that workers immediately return to collect piles of waste. While we cannot ignore political realities, the lack of interest in what principles should underpin pay rises and changes to working practices is concerning.
Very much linked to this, and it is of course no secret that the council does not yet know the answer, there has been little, if any, discussion of what vital services will need to be cut to pay what is reported in the press to be millions of pounds annually. Such discussion should have been key to the discussion from the outset. And such a discussion should include analysis of the pay and conditions of those workers who may already have been in need of a pay rise, who may not have been in a position to make their case so strongly.
I don’t think that it is possible or desirable to avoid union pressure generally, but there are certainly things that should be built into the general workings of the administration to nip the majority of issues in the bud.
First, it is essential that the chair of the council’s Environment, Transport and Sustainability Committee, the committee which exists to oversee Cityclean, has a close and professional relationship with the GMB union. I’m pretty sure that Councillor Geoffrey Theobald and even Councillor Pete West made successful efforts in that regard. This likely means weekly meetings at Hollingdean and regular days out with crews – and I say this as somebody who has been out and about with them on numerous occasions.
As an aside, I think that the leader of the council was right not to immediately intervene, but such a stance only works if somebody else can be trusted to handle it.
Secondly, councillors must be ever so mindful not to undermine staff on the management side. Undermining directors who wish to reform Cityclean is incredibly unhelpful and, as we saw under the last Labour administration, led to a huge talent drain in the council that we are now suffering from. It was and is wrong and obviously led to high-profile resignations. All staff should be respected and cherished, not just those in affiliated unions. The same goes for the current management team who were screeched at by councillors at the last meeting of Environment, Transport and Sustainability Committee. This in itself might be considered bullying.
Thirdly, I believe that it is fundamentally wrong that councillors who are members of unions can vote on union issues where there are certainly histories of pecuniary interest. I recently was not allowed to vote on an allotment report at Environment, Transport and Sustainability Committee because my partner – not me – pays £30 or so annually to the council. The financial implication was barely existent and the policy link was tenuous to say the least. I had to leave the room. From the Register of Interests, even if membership itself was set aside, gifts of financial assistance, legal back-up and bottles of whisky look to be in the thousands of pounds. This situation does not pass the pub test and may be considered akin to voting for your mate’s planning application.
Finally, and I say this as somebody who does have experience in negotiating in the real world – and I don’t mean with somebody else’s money – I think that the administration’s, not officers’, negotiating position is fundamentally flawed.
Being able to negotiate well isn’t something that comes about in the run-up to a sit-down at the negotiating table. It means preparing well in advance for alternative options, with measures at the ready, that often don’t need to be used.
It certainly means having alternative means ready to go at a moment’s notice when there is public danger. There is definitely something to be said for not stirring things up at critical moments but somebody might have died if any of the fires that we have seen in recent days had taken a different course. I understand why the Conservative amendment at the last meeting was not allowed but it took control of a deadly situation out of our hands.
We will not be supporting today’s recommendation as proposed but recognise that the administration and officers have acted in good faith and put in the hours to try to do what is right.
We therefore respectfully disagree on this occasion but remain at your disposal to play an active role in ensuring that relations do not take a similar turn in the future.
Councillor Robert Nemeth speaks for the Conservatives on Brighton and Hove City Council’s Environment, Transport and Sustainability Committee.
This is an edited version of a speech by Councillor Nemeth at the special meeting of the council’s Policy and Resources Committee on Tuesday 20 October.
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