Brighton and Hove Budget

Lord BassamWhy Green Party Budget is Very Wrong for Our City

Former leader of Brighton & Hove council and Labour Peer, Lord Bassam writes that the Green budget is bad for the city. This article originally appeared in The Argus on 6th January.

Why Greens Budget is Very Wrong for Our City

Many people in our City thought that after last May’s local elections we would be getting something radical and new from a Green run council. Decembers publication of a draft budget shows how wrong we were. The Greens first Budget is deeply disappointing, cuts driven and damaging to our city’s long term prosperity. It is flawed in concept and fundamentally unfair. Moreover it isn’t especially green.

What gets me is the Greens dishonesty of approach. Read their paper on the budget. It talks of Tory Cuts and Labour Cuts but never Green Cuts. Apparently Greens only make ‘savings’ or ‘efficiencies’ – never cuts. Yet when you look at the proposals it is a list of cuts to services. Indeed the Argus usefully listed them. You can’t tackle a problem if you are in denial.

I thought that a new administration would bring new thinking, even a base budget review. A total rethink of council spending priorities in line new green thinking. But no, none of that. Instead all we have is the same old tired managed decline of the Tories. An exercise in salami slicing. A bit chopped here, more chopped off there. Worse than that the Greens haven’t even taken the money offered to them by Government to freeze our Council Taxes.

Blindly they have committed themselves to 3 years of council tax rises at a time when the Govt has just published a new local government finance bill which will radically reshape business rates and effect Council Tax levels. Wait then plan.

My worry is that the City will decline in the face of less Government money, and its decline will be greater if it doesn’t know where it is going.

So by 2015 we could get 40% maybe 50% less services combined with a council tax hike of 10%. Not an appealing package for anyone.

What should we be doing?

Currently the council lacks both vision and strategy and a sense of purpose.

Firstly we need to recognise the scale of the problem. The Government is planning to reduce our City budget by about 40% between now and 2015. This has never been achieved before. The Greens are taking out £35m over the next two years but then won’t say what happens in year three. My guess is another £20m to £25m. You can’t carry on pretending that this can be achieved by so called savings or efficiencies. To run a smaller council requires a radical re-think. This should be based around what we agree the local council is for and it’s priorities of the City.

There is no sign of any of that thinking going on in the council at either an official or political level. Forty percent budget cuts need not imply 40% less services. But it does mean focusing on the things that matter most to the City. At present we are heading for 40% less services costing us 10%  more. That will be disastrous for a Brighton and Hove that trades on its looks and attractiveness.

So secondly we need to down size management. The nonsense of four so called strategic directors has to end and end now. We should take out bureaucracy and make sure it is fit for purpose, that services are run by service heads who are accountable. Reduce the tiers of management. Our City is over managed. Concentrate on the front line. Currently the chief executive says he will take out one strategic director. I say plan for the future  with a smaller management core. Set an ambitious target for management savings of £4m or £5m.

Thirdly put Front Line First. After all thats what the council is for. It exists to clean streets, have loos, protect young people, provide for the elderly, ensure good parks and open spaces, recycle our waste etc. Moreover the council is there to promote the city as the place to be, a tourist destination, a place to trade in, and an environment to culturally celebrate.

So stop cuts that damage caring for the physical environment and our life blood – small businesses. Stop cuts to our Caring services, councils exist to provide these whether for adults or children and young people. Stop cuts to tourism and education – with health sector they provide our cities jobs.

Fourthly review all revenue sources so that more income is raised from those that can afford to pay for services. Also stop wasting money on new things that aren’t essential like the pilot food waste scheme. It might be desirable. But more so than Sure Start, I don’t think so.

Fifthly look at common procurement with other local service sector providers. There are big savings to be made from shedding back office costs.  Pool them. Why have 13 different authorities collecting council tax or administering housing benefit across Sussex for example? Most services have common back office features in terms of support. Create a Sussex consortia of authorities and agencies for common services.

Finally take a harder look at procurement and contracts. Why have so many contracts got built in year on year percentage  increases when across the public service we have wage restraints and freezes. The private sector that feeds off the public sector should not be immune from sharing the burden of austerity. If it is cheaper to procure In house do it, but if not then use another or cooperative or a joint public service provider. It is the service that matters.

All of this needs to be underpinned by a political strategy that makes friends for the City. None of us much like the PM, but it isn’t smart to let yourself be attacked for profligacy at PMQs. We need to do what Labour did successfully in the 80’s and 90’s when we ran the city. We faced cuts. We downsized the bureaucracy, we made friends with local enterprise, the universities, local MPs of all colours, we invited ministers to visit and see first hand the damage of service cuts, I can even recall inviting one of Thatchers special advisers to see what we were trying to achieve – he was impressed.

We reduced useless bureaucracy, protected the front line, earned more income, reduced borrowing, made powerful friends, made no compulsory redundancies and survived rate capping, the poll tax and the worst of first Thatcher and then Majors cuts. We merged to create a unitary council, grew our budgets and became a City. It wasn’t by accident, it was driven by a political will and a political strategy. That’s what we need now.

My recipe will not deliver all the savings the Greens say we need. I don’t believe we need to make them, certainly not as they say because they hit the poorest hardest. For the most part Brighton and Hove’s more affluent residents are protected. Perhaps because the Greens are such a middle class party.

My final offer to the Greens is this, back in the 90’s the city hired a top cadre of officers who weren’t afraid to challenge members. They were encouraged too. Your budget is so wrong headed, badly constructed and unfair you should scrap it and start again. The consultation was phoney. Forty eight people at a cost of £208 each. Nonsense!

I am confident that with the City facing a crisis budget, indifferent  management and little strategic direction there are enough experienced people about who care deeply for our city’s plight, that they would act to advise on a more intelligent way forward. They could be formed into a City Advisory Board or Commission to help us through the three lean years we face. Wise advice could help save the City from cuts that will, if we go on with the Greens current plan will leave us a budget 40% to 50% smaller, poorer services, little economic regeneration,  little to market our successes with and a declining infrastructure.

So to the Greens I say this, you are in a mess. Last May you sold yourselves to voters as the party to stop cuts and privatisation. Now you are cutting and badly. Accept you are in a hole, stop digging and listen to people who might help save the City from the Coalition Govts deficit reduction Plans that are already making people redundant and sending services into a spiral of decline.

This year you are closing loos.  Next year it will be Sure Start Centre, nurseries, play schemes, care for the elderly and more children’s services. You weren’t  elected to do this and your activists are already losing heart. Who knows what your MP thinks.  I can’t believe that she fancies the prospect of being re elected against three years of massive cuts. So stop now and rethink what you are doing for the sake of our City, it’s future, it’s culture, is prosperity and most importantly its people.

Steve Bassam
Former City Leader

Do you agree with Lord Bassam? Join the debate by writing to The Argus, commenting in their website, or tweeting, using the #BHBudget hash tag.