Labour has responded to the Greens’ £1.1 billion budget for Brighton and Hove City Council for the coming financial year.
They are expected to vote for a proposal to put up the council tax by 4.99 per cent for the 2023-24 financial year which starts in April.
Here is what Labour councillor Carmen Appich said as she responded to Green proposals at Hove Town Hall this afternoon (Thursday 23 February) …
Let me start by thanking the officers, particularly Nigel Manvell and his (finance) team, for putting together a set of proposals against a background of a year of extremely difficult choices which will directly affect all residents in our city – young and old, wealthy and poor.
The “cost of living” crisis has meant, of course, that those less well off in our city will be suffering and have suffered the most, from higher energy food and housing costs, and the council has tried to do its best with the little given to us in the household support funds allocated by the government.
But back to the council officers – your diligence and patience has made it easier for all of us politicians to look at the current financial situation, as well as to evaluate future scenarios and to arrive at preliminary decisions around them.
I’m not saying any of this was easy – in fact, this year was brutal as there were in-year cuts on top of last year’s budget cuts and planned savings for next year.
But the clarity of the information and the way it has been presented helps a lot, so thank you. I’d also like to thank my fellow councillors, who have been helpful with suggestions, comments and criticisms over the last few weeks.
Sadly, the government announcements and final drafts of the budget proposals came so late that there was very limited opportunity to consult our partners and residents in the city – trade unions, staff, the voluntary and community sectors, parents’ groups and many more who usually comment on the budget.
A consequence of dramatic budget cuts coupled with late information is that it undermines democracy.
Like I said last year and many times since then, I am hugely disappointed that we are having to propose yet another maximum increase in council tax and adult social care precept without getting anything extra for our residents.
Instead, we must make huge savings, again, and increase fees and charges, just like last year, the year before and the year before that.
We did not become councillors so that we can say to you year after year, pay more and you will get less. This year it seems to be pay much more and get a lot less!
Local government has just not been given any sort of priority by successive Conservative governments – though we did get the levelling up money for “Kingsway to the Sea” which I am still celebrating.
But even the levelling up language seems to be disappearing and some local authorities have had to pull their projects because they can no longer afford the match funding.
Focusing now on the city council and this budget: it was good to see that the administration changed their minds about some of the originally proposed savings – in particular around the nurseries. There was, at one stage, more than just Bright Start on the list.
And, of course, public toilets – though I am somewhat concerned by the leaders’ “assurance” that they plan to open “as many toilets as possible” from March 2023 and I would very much like to understand exactly what that means in practice.
The Labour Party stood with residents and communities in standing up against the prospect of further toilet closures – and the city spoke with one voice to tell the administration “no”.
I welcome their U-turn on this but with public toilets being so crucial to equalities, public health, local businesses and our visitor economy, it’s obvious to me that they should never have been on the cuts list to begin with.
And putting them on the chopping block represented a serious error of judgment by the Green administration.
It also undermines trust in their commitment to public toilets so I hope we hear something a lot more solid from the Greens than the tepid assurances we’ve heard so far.
There had also been proposals to close one of our in-house care homes which would have been counter-productive when we are creating a mixed economy of care.
Indeed, we should be looking to invest in opening our own in-house care facilities for both adults and children rather than looking to external provision.
I am concerned about the erosion of the working balances. This is something which will need to be replaced over the medium term, where we will need to already find a further £58 million of savings.
To put this into context, £58 million is more than a quarter of the budget. But if we hadn’t made the decision to underwrite the i360, of course, we’d have an additional £44m to play with!
Repaying that loan is a millstone around our necks and will be for generations to come – and I can only hope that they will finally make sufficient money to at least repay a part of the debt owed.
This burdensome Green/Tory vanity project is an unforgivable drain on our already limited resources – and it’s truly sad that a such a symbolic and visual representation of council mismanagement by the Green Party can be seen right across the city in the form of the observation tower.
For the good of the city, I hope residents take a look at this monument to failure on Thursday 4 May and are reminded of the dangers of incompetent Green/Tory management.
Turning to the Labour amendments now, we could not understand what the “supported employment” service was doing among the proposals for budget savings. And it has appeared very late too as it was not among the original proposals in the Thursday 1 December list.
Covid has had major impacts on almost all aspects of economic and social life and its traces are still felt across families, businesses and government.
Although health-related economic inactivity has been a longstanding UK challenge, covid has dramatically amplified the size and reach – and people with a learning disability and autism have experienced some of the greatest levels of inequity.
Labour understands that years of Tory government cuts combined with local Green mismanagement have made some unpalatable budget cuts necessary this year.
But the Greens’ plans to axe the “supported employment” service would have a severe and detrimental effect on some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable residents in our city.
Tackling disadvantage and supporting the most vulnerable is at the heart of Labour values, which is why we are bringing forward plans to save the vital “supported employment” service so it can continue its positive work of helping those with learning disabilities and autism into the job sector.
Removing this service would not only be unfair and unjust in targeting the most vulnerable in our society, it would cost the council more in the long-run via unemployment. We hope others will back our commonsense proposals.
Our “Amendment 2” is all about maintaining basic and visitor services. Not steamrolling ahead with a local Green vanity project.
We are looking to improve the restoration and refurbishment of the public toilets along our seafront and in our parks and we are also reviewing the planned cuts to our beloved Volk’s Railway and the Visit Brighton volunteer service.
Toilet closures and the other cuts would have a disproportionate impact not just on public health but also on the visitor footfall in the city which we really want to avoid.
After already successfully forcing the Greens to U-turn on their plans to slash the budget for public toilets, which would have resulted in further closures, Labour are pushing the administration to go further and invest £1.1 million into the refurbishment and restoration of dilapidated public toilet units across the city.
Residents will be all too aware of the sorry state of many of the council-run toilet facilities across Brighton and Hove, so Labour plans to redirect next year’s funding pot of capital borrowing for the Greens’ highly controversial Hanover and Tarner LTN (Low-Traffic Neighbourhood) scheme towards the refurbishment of public toilets.
It’s clear that residents in Hanover and Tarner were not meaningfully consulted with before this scheme was imposed upon them – a recurrent theme of this Green administration.
So, instead of steamrolling ahead with the plan as it is, Labour’s budget amendments would see this year’s funding allocation diverted away from another expensive Green vanity project that nobody asked for (a la i360), and towards restoring the basic services that the council has been failing to deliver for residents.
The Greens’ claims that funding for their LTN pet project was ringfenced government money has been proven to be demonstrably false.
Labour want the capital borrowing earmarked for the scheme for 2023-24 invested into our public toilets while the council goes back to the drawing board and consults properly with residents on developing a network of 20-minute neighbourhoods, co-created with communities who actually want and need them, instead of throwing good money after bad to persevere with their ill-thought-out LTN.
Our amendment is not about flushing public money away on dogmatic vanity projects – it’s about investing in and improving our public toilets and getting basic services up to scratch.
Beyond this, Labour’s plans would also see the council review proposed cuts to Visit Brighton, the Volk’s Railway and the lifeguard service by re-allocating one-off funds.
Visit Brighton is a vital service that brings tourism and investment to our city. And slashing its budget and removing tourist information desks would make our city less attractive to potential visitors and mean our local businesses would miss out on trade – crucial in the recovery from the pandemic and the “cost of living crisis”.
Volks Railway, meanwhile, is a historic feat of engineering, the oldest running electric railway in the world. To effectively shut this down, as the Greens are proposing, would be to discard a crown jewel in the city’s heritage and tourism crown and again make Brighton and Hove less attractive to day-trippers and tourists.
Lifeguard services, meanwhile, are an important means of keeping residents and visitors safe on our beaches, giving advice, responding to major incidents and saving lives.
In this post-pandemic “cost of living crisis”, our local businesses need our support more than ever. The Green council seems to have its priorities all wrong and wants to cut our independent local businesses at the knees by targeting our heritage and tourism sectors.
We need to be encouraging more trade and investment into our city, not less. These are cuts that may help balance the books at the council in the short term but will negatively impact our entire city in the long term.
Labour’s budget amendments would review these cuts and a Labour administration will work in partnership with businesses and communities to utilise the cultural, heritage and geographical assets at our disposal to generate more income for local businesses and residents.
Our third amendment would block the administration’s plans to reintroduce library penalty fees for children.
Last year we succeeded in abolishing library fines for children and instead ask them to come back, bring back the book and borrow another, reading their way out of the fine.
Labour’s amendments to last year’s budget won support to abolish library fines for children in order to remove barriers to access.
Penalty fees and late charges deter those on low incomes and with a chaotic home life from accessing books and safe library spaces. Restoring these fees and charges would be even more punitive in this “cost of living crisis”.
Despite agreeing to Labour’s proposals last year to abolish library fines for children and replace them with an incentive-based model (successfully piloted in Los Angeles where 3,500 children’s library accounts were unblocked as a result) that allows children to “read away” their fines and narrow the “library-use gap” between affluent and disadvantaged kids.
The Greens are trying to bring back penalty fees at the earliest opportunity.
I don’t know what the administration have against children – first the proposed cuts to nurseries and now the reinstatement of the library fines. Really? Our amendment removes the need to reintroduce these fines, and I do not expect to see this again in budget proposals.
We are also looking, with our fourth amendment, to introduce slightly larger increases in residents’ parking charges to slow the rollout of full parking zones and combining zones and allow for a thorough consultation process.
There are some communities and neighbourhoods in the city that have only just consented to light-touch parking control schemes in their areas. We don’t think it’s right for the Greens to immediately convert these into full CPZ (controlled parking zone) schemes without any consultation.
We know, from other problematic areas of this budget, that rushing ahead without meaningfully consulting with residents has been a regular theme of this Green administration which fosters resentment and community backlash and undermines policy objectives.
Labour want to do policy with residents, not to them. And finally, we are yet again restoring savings in support to the mayor’s budget – this from a suggested freeze to members’ allowances in the new financial year.
In summary, this is a horrendously difficult year caused by government cuts and the Green administration taking their eye off the ball on basic services that matter to this city and its residents.