The decision to scrap a meeting of the full council at Hove Town Hall has sparked a row between the political parties today (Thursday 16 December).
The Conservatives called it “another nail in the coffin for democracy” while the Greens and Labour said that the Tories were not taking the coronavirus threat seriously.
Brighton and Hove City Council said: “With increasing rates of covid-19 in the city and concerns about the omicron variant, Councillor Alan Robins, the mayor of Brighton and Hove, having taken advice from the director of public health and having consulted group leaders and whips, has decided that today’s full council meeting will no longer take place.”
The Conservatives said: “The decision by the Greens and Labour to cancel today’s meeting of the full council was a disgrace to democracy and the council has again ceased to put the needs of its residents first.
“The decision, which was resisted fiercely by the Conservative group, was pushed through by Labour and the Greens just hours before the meeting began.
“It is the second cancellation in two meetings, following the last meeting in October being abandoned early in the evening after a positive covid test and never rescheduled.
“It means that the council has not held a full council meeting since July and not held an in-person council meeting for all councillors since February 2020.
“Several important topics due to be debated will now not be able to discussed until February at the earliest.”
The Tories said that these included
- The placement of homeless people and rough sleepers into dangerous accommodation over the winter
- Bringing back council services to working order
- The poor condition of pavements in Brighton and Hove
Labour said: “It is deeply disappointing that the Conservative group are not taking this latest wave of covid-19 seriously and are taking this opportunity for cheap political point scoring by claiming this sensible decision in line with public health guidance is ‘anti-democratic’.
“We are in the midst of a serious public health pandemic, with cases of the new omicron variant spiking, and with Brighton and Hove being above the national average for cases of covid-19.
“This is a virus that has cost lives, cost people their loved ones, their health, their jobs and businesses.
“The Labour and Green groups would prefer to conduct these meetings virtually in order to protect council staff and public participants but government legislation no longer allows this.
“We hope that the difficult decision to cancel meetings taken by Brighton and Hove City Council, Cambridgeshire County Council, Kent County Council, Greenwich London Borough Council, Bradford Council and others will prompt the Conservative government to act and introduce emergency legislation to allow local authorities to meet virtually again.”
Labour added: “The government’s current approach is totally out of step with reality, much like the local Conservative group of councillors, who refused any pairing arrangements to reduce the number of councillors potentially present at any in-person meeting today, and wanted to pack the town hall like Downing Street during a Christmas party, insisting on all 54 councillors being in the chamber.”
The Greens said: “Conservative councillors had been encouraged to voluntarily reduce attendance to help reduce risk at any in-person meetings – as Labour councillors, Greens and independents had agreed to do – but Conservatives refused.
“To ensure members of the public and councillors can still put questions or deputations to council that do not require a formal decision, a ‘public engagement’ session will take place online, enabling members of the public and councillors to put their questions without having to physically attend.
“The petitions on school places will still be heard in this session, as will deputations and oral questions from councillors and members of the public.
“However, main council meetings must legally still take place in person and notices of motion will be carried over to a future meeting.
“Following a press conference led by the Prime Minister yesterday, and the advice of the chief medical officer to reduce contacts before Christmas, the strong advice given to councillors by Brighton and Hove’s public health team and director of public health has been to reduce risk by deferring in-person council meetings, as cases of covid-19 continue to soar.
“They are now at the highest point since the last national lockdown in January 2021 and several other councils across the country have cancelled meetings, including Conservative-led Kent County Council.”
The Conservative group whip, Councillor Robert Nemeth, said that the decision was an affront to democracy.
He said: “Seeing another meeting of full council cancelled on the day in this chaotic manner is another nail in the coffin for democracy in Brighton and Hove.
“The Conservatives have been saying for a while that democracy is being chipped away at bit by bit under this Green-Labour council, with petitions not being taken, meetings not being held and the public and press kept at arm’s length distance throughout the year.
“While other local authorities have made every effort to ensure that meetings are held and democracy has continued this year by, for example, hiring bigger venues, this council has taken the opposite approach by trying to shut down meetings time and again, with the backing of Labour and the Greens.
“After the last meeting was abandoned, it was never rescheduled, and Brighton and Hove’s Labour-Green run-council have spent weeks trying to cancel the December meeting and have today succeeded.
“We now find that more time is spent talking about meetings than the issues residents expect to be raised. As councillors though, we have a job to do.
“There has now not been a proper meeting of full council in Brighton and Hove since July and the council continues to make no genuine attempt to hold meetings as is their legal responsibility.
“It is abundantly clear that Labour and the Greens simply do not want the council to meet or be answerable for its actions.
“While everyone else in Brighton and Hove has returned to work this year, its city council has not. It has been dodging meetings, avoiding scrutiny and keeping the doors of Hove Town Hall firmly closed to the public.
“The services in the city, still being provided remotely, are in their worst ever state.
“Today’s decision will be a great disappointment to schools who had planned a protest outside Hove Town Hall, which was their last chance to make their views known to councillors before a decision is made on their future.
“The Conservative group is appalled by the state of the council this year and its anti-democratic practices.”
Councillor Nemeth added: “We will be taking the matter forward to the Local Government Ombudsman as we believe that the council is not fulfilling its legal duty.”
The Green council leader Councillor Phélim Mac Cafferty said: “Cases of covid-19 are now at the highest point since January 2021 while omicron is doubling every two days.
“It’s ironic that the Conservatives have branded a public health decision ‘cowardly’ when, in spite of the warnings, it is Conservatives who have ignored the risks, failed to plan ahead to keep us safe, avoided taking precautions and insisted on putting public health at risk.
“The legislation that allowed council meetings to take place online was revoked by Conservative ministers, causing outcry at the time, even among Tory council leaders. Because formal decisions must now be made in person, many councils are now cancelling meetings altogether.
“In Brighton and Hove, to ensure members of the public and councillors can still ask questions, we’re holding an online public engagement session so that people do not have to physically attend.
“This is a basic, sensible precaution, but it is not allowed when it comes to the decisions required by a meeting of full council.”
Green councillor Sue Shanks said: “How dare Conservative councillors talk of a nail in the coffin when this action is precisely needed because people are dying of covid at an increasingly alarming rate, thanks to their own government’s failed response.
“This latest dismissal of the seriousness of covid follows Tories arguing against basic protections like wearing masks, making misleading claims about vaccine hesitancy in ‘Green wards’ and urging council services to ‘get back to work’ despite a recent order from their own government to work from home.
“It is clear the Conservatives don’t take the pandemic seriously.”