While much of the country is back to work, Brighton and Hove City Council continues to lag behind, with almost all its office staff still working from home.
Hove Town Hall, which used to be the bustling heart of council activity for councillors and also point of service delivery for residents, is still for the most part a ghost town. Entire floors which used to be filled with staff busily working away, sit empty.
At the council offices at Bartholomew House in Brighton and Lavender Street in Kemp Town, where residents also used to be able to access face-to-face council services, the doors are closed.
Residents have now been unable to access face-to-face services, such as in parking, housing and planning, for 18 months. While remote working was understandable during the early months and lockdowns of the pandemic, residents of the city – who are back to work themselves – are beginning to become frustrated with the council’s continued working from home policy, which contradicts the national advice.
In its approach Brighton and Hove City Council stands increasingly on its own in compared to other councils and government service departments that returned to operating normally when restrictions were lifted by the government during the summer.
Remote systems are failing
If the council were delivering its services to residents at the same standard as before the pandemic hit then its approach might be justified. However, this is clearly not the case.
As has been reported in Brighton and Hove News, service delivery is worse than ever before, with a number of the council’s online remote systems that were put in place as alternatives to face-to-face services failing.
In recent months, thousands of residents have been unable to renew their parking permits, with the council’s remote online system failing.
Residents who paid for parking permits and have not received them have been faced with a phone that rings out when calling to get the matter resolved.
The council has had to treble its “remote” staff to try to get on top of this issue, at a significant cost to the taxpayer.
There have been similar problems with the allotments service, with hundreds of allotments sitting vacant, with the council’s new remote online system failing.
In the housing department, the backlog for repairs continues to rise every month and is now above 7,000, as council tenants struggle to arrange basic maintenance with the newly insourced service failing.
And after the council issued 900 cards for emergency support for carers in the city, one carer – who had tripped outdoors on an exposed concrete post and suffered bad injuries – was unable to go to the hospital for treatment as no one at the council answered her phone call.
The overall picture is one of the council’s remote “working from home” systems failing to provide acceptable levels of service delivery to residents or the support that is required by elderly and vulnerable residents in the city.
Residents pay high levels of council tax in Brighton and Hove and expect a better-run council with accessible services.
So why, unlike other councils and government departments, is Brighton and Hove City Council continuing to operate remotely, with staff working from home, contrary to the official advice?
Lack of leadership
The answer is that the council has lacked leadership in returning to the workplace: there has been inertia and resistance to the idea of returning to the office, allowing the pandemic status quo to continue.
This has extended to the running of council meetings themselves.
While other councils made a positive effort to keep democracy going during the summer, for example by hiring larger venues such as sports halls to meet social distancing requirements, Brighton and Hove City Council took the opposite approach, reducing meetings to as few as three councillors per meeting and excluding the public and press.
When, last month, the council finally scheduled its first “full” in-person council meeting since the pandemic began, the planning was so poor that the entire meeting had to be cancelled when a Labour councillor reported a positive covid test mid-meeting.
The meeting was meant to include an item to discuss future working arrangements but we didn’t get that far and there has yet to be any indication from the council on whether this meeting will be resumed.
The lack of leadership comes from the top and while there continues to be inertia on returning to a fully operational footing, including face-to-face services for residents, the pandemic status quo will continue and poor service delivery for residents will result. There is indifference from Labour who are not providing any effective opposition to the Greens.
Businesses, shops, schools and universities in Brighton and Hove have all gone back to work but this council is lagging far behind. How can we expect the rest of Brighton and Hove to be back working but not us?
Councillor Steve Bell is the leader of the Conservative group on Brighton and Hove City Council.
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