Brighton and Hove‘s political parties set out priorities for city in budget debate

Senior councillors have set out their priorities for Brighton and Hove City Council’s budget for the coming financial year.

Friday, 28th February 2020, 3:23 pm
Labour council leader Nancy Platts

Labour council leader Nancy Platts opened the annual budget council meeting at Hove Town Hall yesterday (Thursday 27 February).

Councillor Platts presented the budget which she said would deliver her party’s plan for a “fairer city and sustainable future”.

She said that the budget would protect vital services as well as tackle rough sleeping, fund the building of 800 extra council homes and make the city carbon neutral by 2030.

Councillor Platts criticised the Conservative government, saying that over the past 10 years it had cut funding for the council by £110 million.

She urged the city’s Conservatives to “have a word” with their Westminster colleagues to end austerity which she blamed for rising homelessness, a growth in foodbank usage and soaring NHS waiting lists.

Councillor Platts said: “In this national picture, our city acutely feels the pinch, with wages lagging behind house prices and rent increases.

“We, as a local authority, find ourselves combating crises as global as the climate emergency, as national as the homelessness scandal, and as local as housing prices – with one hand tied behind our backs.

“Over the past 10 years, local authorities have faced a reduction to core funding from the Conservative government of nearly £16 billion. That means 60p out of every pound has been cut.

“These eye-watering cuts have happened at the same time as the demand for adult social care has grown.

“And still we see no plan from government to fund a service that would allow people to live in dignity in their later years.

“I want to illustrate what this Tory government has done to this country and to local authority budgets, because while I have painted a bleak picture, it is sadly the reality, and it is the reality we find ourselves in when trying to establish a budget that delivers for our residents.”

She said that the budget would deliver services for residents and pledges from both the Labour and Green manifestos.

Concillor Platts highlighted commitments to build 800 council homes and 700 “genuinely” affordable homes and a £150,000 pledge to enforce private rented housing standards.

She said that last year the council had prevented 717 households from becoming homeless.

This year’s budget would see a trebling of Housing First provision to house rough sleepers as well as bring 650 empty properties back into use.

She highlighted the £250,000 to invest in a year-round night shelter at St Patrick’s as well as a weekend winter shelter.

Councillor Platts said: “By January of last year, official government figures showed rough sleeping to have increased by 165 per cent under the Tory government, with homeless charities suggesting the actual figure was much higher.

“In the fifth richest economy in the world, this is truly shameful.

“This budget seeks to address the homeless and rough sleeping crisis with increased investment, provision and housing.”

Speaking about the plan to be carbon neutral by 2030 under the corporate plan banner of a sustainable city, Councillor Platts said that £200,000 of the budget is dedicated to investments to support the policy.

Councillor Platts said that the council aimed to use its spending power to buy local services for the community.

She said: “We want to ensure that local people and organisations benefit from the prosperity in the city, rather than money being siphoned out of Brighton and Hove to offshore tax havens and multinational shareholders.

“By fostering a circular local economy and working with anchor organisations across the city to procure locally, we will reduce our carbon footprint and give local businesses, social enterprises and co-operatives a welcome boost.

“Shelter Hall, to be run by ethically driven Sessions, will favour local businesses who source their produce locally.

“This is a prime example of this council’s commitment to listening to our community campaigns, regenerating our heritage and building community wealth.”

Other investments include £57,000 to boost the visitor economy when Brighton and Hove hosts some of the Women’s European Football Championships in 2021.

She also outlined plans to invest in health and children’s services.

Councillor Platts said: “Our council plan is a bold vision for a fairer city and a sustainable future and already we are making strides in delivering on our promises to residents.

“Passing this budget today gives us the opportunity to build on that progress and improve the lives of residents across Brighton and Hove.”

Labour deputy leader John Allcock said that the budget brought together Labour manifesto pledges and “many Green commitments”, turning them into council priorities for the next three years.

He said: “Whether it’s addressing the housing crisis, tackling the climate crisis, building community wealth or strengthening our City of Sanctuary status – our plan is achievable and represents our values as a city and the sort of priorities that underpin why I wanted to become a councillor – to make a real difference to our community and our city.

“And our budget is creative, fully costed, balanced – allowing us to deliver for our residents, even in the most challenging of financial times.”

There were pressures on adult social care due to the funding crisis that Councillor Allcock said Tory governments had failed to address.

As chair of the council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee, he acknowledged the challenges faced, including problems with the home to school transport service during the past year.

He said: “We apologised unreservedly for the upset and disruption caused, we recognised the mistakes and took swift action to make improvements.

“We continue to work with parents and carers and have set up an independent review to enable us to learn from this.

“I am very pleased to report the service has been much improved.

“On every school day we transport 469 pupils with special needs and disabilities and now very few complaints are being raised.

“I cannot rule out budget pressures in the coming year but I am confident that the plans outlined today equip us to meet the challenges ahead.”

Councillor Allcock added: “We are investing over £1 million in Children’s Safeguarding and Care, eradicating educational disadvantage is a priority.

“Whether a child is brought up in Whitehawk or Rottingdean, no child should be left behind.”

Green councillor David Gibson said that the budget should heal wealth divisions and inequality.

He said: “We are the sixth richest country in the world, yet when we walk home in driving rain, past homeless people huddled in shop doorways, while more and more rely on food banks – and often there is a choice between heating the heating on or having a hot meal – that is just shameful.

“We are so much richer than we were 40 years ago, yet it has come to this.

“Narrowing inequality improves outcomes. This should be the focus of what we do as a council.

“Growth does not deliver better outcomes, narrowing inequality does.”

Councillor Gibson also spoke about housing and said: “We know that people cannot afford private sector rents, several end up homeless and there aren’t enough council houses to meet housing need.”

He highlighted the importance of 12 extra Housing First places which, he said, would help homeless people into accommodation.

Councillor Gibson said that the Green amendments would make the budget more ambitious and reverse cuts to community services by putting more money into short breaks for carers, into support for victims of violence against women and girls and into resources for youth services.

The money would be raised by stepping up enforcement of bus lane abuse, “modest” increases to on and off-street parking charges and higher controlled parking zone charges – up by 29p a week – which he said was “hardly draconian”.

There would also be an increase for three-car households and high-emission vehicles with exemptions for low-income households on universal credit or the council tax reduction scheme.

A discount was proposed for people sharing cars across two parking zones, with a reduction in the increase in trader permits.

Councillor Gibson commended the Conservatives’ move away from “selling the family silver” – or in Brighton and Hove’s case, Marks and Spencer – and buying “more silver” in the form of council-owned commercial assets to help fund Madeira Terrace restoration.

He said: “We have provided significant resources for our environment, for our housing crisis and for our communities.

“I would ask colleagues, is the climate emergency just hot air or do we vote for a budget that provides the staff and resources needed?

“All parties signed up to the climate emergency in December 2018. Now it’s time to act on our fine words. Please put social and environmental justice first and support all the amendments.”

Green group convenor Phélim Mac Cafferty said that life expectancy had stalled for the first time in 100 years and the poor were bearing the brunt of budget cuts.

Councillor Mac Cafferty said that the heart of the Green approach to the budget was one with a strong commitment to the environment alongside social justice.

He said: “I am delighted that our four budget amendments are the building blocks of a Green New Deal for Brighton and Hove.

“And we need this more than ever as our city faces the monumental challenges of a spiralling climate emergency, an affordable housing crisis and continued cuts to public services.

“This year’s budget does too little to reflect either the ambition or the resources needed to ensure we use the 10 years left to get our city carbon neutral in the most effective way possible.

“So the Green amendments stop our city’s problem getting even worse by funding services that deliver both for our communities and our environment.

“For example, tackling fuel poverty through an insulation programme, as we propose. This is a triple win: warmer homes, lower fuel bills and a reduced carbon footprint for the city.”

The Green convenor spoke about domestic violence and said that police reports showed a 13 per cent rise in incidents in the first half of the current year.

He said: “Providers of domestic violence services in the city repeatedly report they are struggling to meet rising demand.

“In a city council report from March last year specialist services at times work 140 per cent above the numbers they were contracted to support.

“In the past week I have had heart-breaking conversations with Brighton Women’s Centre and Rise – two of the most important organisations in our city helping women in whatever abject circumstances life throws at them.

“The cuts proposed in the budget still pose a threat to the safety of women in our city.”

Green changes to the budget would reverse the cuts to the “perpetrator programme” and put £52,000 into additional services such as drop ins and weekly services for women in crisis.

Councillor Mac Cafferty said: “It’s not just about ethics. It’s guided by hard maths too. We must minimise the impact of cuts to preventative services and put money back into our city’s vital charity and community groups.

“Cuts actually increase costs longer term not just to the city council but also the police, courts, prisons, probation and health services.”

The Green proposals for a new warmer homes grant programme would support the 15,000 households in the city in fuel poverty by providing £2.6 million to help residents heat their homes.

He cited the Court of Appeal decision to block the building of a third runway at Heathrow and said that he hoped that it showed a promise of a fairer and more environmentally just world.

He said: “The Green group’s ambition with our amendments today provides such a vision, underpinned with a financial blueprint that, in the decade left, will mean our city becomes carbon neutral, our city will be climate change ready.

“Our city will have a harmonious relationship with nature and our planet – and where we live in a city where the poorest and most marginalised don’t have to be the ones left behind.”

The Conservative finance spokesman, Councillor Joe Miller, told the council that his group’s amendments to the budget prioritised the city’s prosperity, people and the planet.

He said that after years of other parties criticising the government for reductions in the Revenue Support Grant, he hoped that they would acknowledge the increase this year from £6.5 million to £6.6 million as well as a new adult social care grant of £4.7 million to help meet the costs of the city’s ageing population.

He said: “These are welcome steps and, with a growing and prosperous economy nationally, hopefully we will see the support increase for local authorities through the budget and comprehensive spending review.”

Councillor Miller criticised the Labour administration’s plan to bring the housing repairs and maintenance service in-house from April.

He said that the move would cost more than £8 million over five years and feared that it would result in “Cityclean mark 2”.

Councillor Miller welcomed greater investment in Cityclean which he hoped would reap rewards as he said that the city looked like a tip and put visitors off.

He welcomed money for filling potholes and introducing more electric car charging points but not at the cost of increasing parking permits and car parking charges.

He supported plans to increase fines for drivers in bus lanes and added: “I am against anti-social behaviour and, as a proud driver of a low-emission vehicle, do not see why people should not be fined for going into a bus lane.”

The main part of Councillor Miller’s speech focused on Conservative plan for the funding the restoration of the Madeira Terraces.

He said: “It does so firstly by providing over an additional £8.6 million to funding the regeneration of Madeira Terraces in addition to the £2.5 million already identified by Councillor (Daniel) Yates and donated by crowdfunding many moons ago.

“Our plan is funded from a variety of sources but mainly by following in many other councils’ footsteps and using the borrowing facility enabled by this Conservative government to invest in city assets.

“We plan to borrow up to £40 million to expand our asset portfolio by a prudent around 10 per cent from around £280 million to £320 million.”

Money borrowed from the government at low interest would be invested in property then rented out at commercial rates and the money used on the terraces.

Councillor Miller added: “This is what any sensible business will do.

“For too long we have been holding out for handouts to fund our problem while our city’s heritage literally collapses.

“So, I recently proposed that the Labour administration sell some of our higher-value, lower-yielding assets and risky assets but they rejected that idea in a rather dramatic and exaggerating way that we were proposing selling all of our assets on which we rely for income.

“That was simply not the case and was not a fair representation of the proposal.”

He said that Labour had done the same to support the restoration of the Corn Exchange and Royal Pavilion.

Councillor Miller said: “The advantage of such a regeneration project is obvious.

“Not only will it mean that we restore the asset, but in 50 years’ time when the borrowing is repaid we will end up with a large number of additional assets from the £40 million borrowed, which will hopefully go up in value.”

The Conservatives also called for bigger fines for graffiti, littering and dog fouling.

He also proposed reversing the £160,000 cut to the incomes of grandparent, siblings and other family members who are looking after younger relatives.

Councillor Miller said: “These are children who would otherwise be in far more expensive foster care or a children’s home.

“Labour are proposing to cut these most in need families’ income by the rate of child benefit, which some of these families already get.

“This is a real cut of an average of £27.55 week for the families of up to 115 children.

“A family breakdown as a result of such cuts could cost the council and taxpayer more overall if they fall into foster care or a children’s home.”

He proposed paying for this by restructuring the council’s communications team.

Conservative group leader, Councillor Steve Bell, underlined the issue of dog fouling and litter in the city, saying that residents inundated councillors with complaints about the state of the streets.

As a minority opposition party, Councillor Bell said that there was little that the Conservatives could do to make big changes to the budget but would try to address residents’ concerns.

Councillor Bell also said: “Where do we start with our beloved Madeira Terraces? I have enjoyed spending time along that stretch of the seafront on so many occasions since moving to the city in the 1980s.

“It was a place to be proud of. Nowhere else has architecture like it.

“There has been a lot of local campaigning and crowdfunding – and this is great – but while it has generated some funds, it is nowhere near enough needed for a proper restoration.”

He called for cross-party support for the funding plans in the “city we call home”.

Councillor Bell welcomed the “sentiment” of the budget “without the government bashing”.

He said that this year there was a £10 million overspend blamed on, among other things, problems at the rubbish and recycling service, Cityclean, as well as with home to school transport and the i360.

Councillor Bell criticised the Greens for using the car driver as a “cash cow”.

He said: “The Greens continually tax the motorist. This is the funding of their ideas.

“They are looking to reduce car use so all their proposals are flawed for their future funding.”

Factfile

Brighton and Hove’s full budget for 2020-21 is expected to be £775 million.

Of this, £454 million goes to specific ringfenced spending on schools, housing benefit, transport, mental health, public health and the Better Care Fund which is shared with the NHS.

This figure also includes the Housing Revenue Account (HRA), funded by tenants’ rents, housing benefits and service charges, which goes towards maintaining and managing the council’s housing stock.

The council’s general fund budget is £216 million. This money goes towards adult social care, children’s services and social care, housing, refuse and recycling, central council services, libraries, museums and tourism, planning and economic development, capital investment, highways, parks and leisure and public safety.

Council tax is expected to contribute £150 million towards this budget.

The increase in council tax is 1.99 per cent with a 2 per cent rise earmarked for the funding of adult social care. The total 3.99 per cent increase works out as an average increase of £75 per household from April.

This is expected to generate £8.6 million.

Inflation, pay increases, lost grants and contractual and financial commitments mean that in the next financial year the council must find £9.7 million.

Savings of £9.3 million are expected to provide funding for “corporate plan” commitments and relieve pressures on other services.

As part of the saving programme 50 full time equivalent jobs are expected to go with some posts made redundant.

The council is receiving a new social care grant from the government woth £4.7 million.

Sussex Police and East Sussex Fire and Rescue will add their own separate charges to the council tax bill.