Brighton Beach, August 2013. Photo: Beverley Goodwin via Flickr.
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Brighton & Hove: the future is Green
21st May 2014
Under its minority Green administration, Brighton & Hove is an exemplar of progressive politics that is realising huge social, economic and environmental gains, writes Rob Shepherd. Maybe that's why political opponents are so desperate to brand it a failure ...
Brighton & Hove has just been declared the country's most popular seaside destination and is now the eighth most popular tourist destination in the UK.
Like much of the country, the city of Brighton & Hove basked in glorious sunshine last weekend, the heat haze on its seafront adding a summery shimmer to the throngs of people filling its bars and blanketing the beach.
But, unlike the rest of the country, Brighton & Hove is also beginning to bask in the sunlight of another slow-burn accomplishment: the city is entering its fourth year with the country's first ever Green-run council.
Brighton & Hove are on the up!
And from slightly shaky beginnings - seized upon by political opponents determined to prove that a well-meaning but inexperienced bunch of tofu-clad tree-huggers couldn't run a city council with a £750 million a year budget - its blend of radicalism and pragmatism, environmentalism and left-leaning social change appears to be paying off.
For under the Greens' stewardship, and despite a deep recession and swingeing central government cuts, the city of Brighton & Hove is now demonstrably more attractive, easier to get around, safer, more inclusive and more prosperous than when the Greens took office.
It has a burgeoning cycle and bus-lane system that attracts envious glances from other UK cities and has almost completed the country's largest contiguous area of 20 mph zones. Car use is declining while bus travel, cycling and walking are rising, and street air quality is improving.
The Green council was the first in England to ban evictions for bedroom tax arrears, it has been building the first council houses for a generation and it is significantly refurbishing its council housing stock.
It is saving money and CO2 emissions by reducing the number of buildings it occupies and is becoming more efficient and at the same time a better employer.
One of the first acts of the Green administration was to raise its lowest paid from minimum wage to the Living Wage, while reducing the gap between high paid and low paid employees to within a whisker of 10:1. The Living Wage initiative has had a mushrooming effect across the city with scores of businesses signing up to it.
The Green council has also managed to put considerable sums into supporting homeless people and young people and keeping all its libraries open, a rarity among cash-strapped councils.
Manifesto pledges delivered
75% of the way through their tenure, the Greens have fulfilled 75% of their manifesto pledges, with the rest still on target.
Some of the infrastructure improvements have been possible because another first Green act was to increase parking charges in the tourist areas by well above inflation.
This was a controversial move that originally brought much criticism about its possible effect on tourist numbers. But it has paid off handsomely. Brighton & Hove has just been declared the country's most popular seaside destination and is now the eighth most popular tourist destination in the UK.
And much more of the improvements have been possible because of the tens of millions the Green-led council has attracted in outside investment and grants.
And this has all been done by a minority administration in a council with no overall control.
Democracy in the open
These first three years have not been easy. The Greens' worst moment came last year when pay and allowance negotiations broke down between the council and the staff in its Cityclean department, resulting in a walkout and then official strike by the city's refuse and recycling collectors and street cleaners.
The Green name was besmirched by the sight of streets filled with mountains of refuse sacks and unemptied recycling boxes. The dispute also exposed rifts in the local party as different sections held contrasting views about how the issue should have been handled.
All political parties have such disputes but the Greens, who pride themselves for wearing their hearts on their sleeves - or for open democracy as it's otherwise known - had their rows in the open, with Greens marching against Greens and calling for the council leader, Jason Kitcat, to stand down.
But almost a year later, Councillor Kitcat is still leader, having just won his third internal election, and a large swathe of the city centre is adjusting to a new communal recycling scheme that in time is expected to reverse years of decline in recycling. Not everything is going smoothly but the Green leadership is confident of solving the wrinkles.
Labour's existential fear
However, the dispute and its consequences still linger, largely because Brighton's opposition parties keep reminding everyone of it, long after the fact. In the run up to the European elections, Labour's local line has become a nationwide mantra: "Don't vote Green", they say. "They've made a mess of Brighton."
But this determination to associate the Green name with mess reveals a deeper, existential dread. In Brighton & Hove, the Labour Party fears losing the progressive ground permanently to the Green upstarts. And the example could spread from here across the country.
And the LibDems too are running scared. The Greens just overtook them in the polls leading up to Thursday's European elections, and are now set to take 12% of the vote. They look likely to gain new MEPs, just as the Libdems fear a Euro meltdown.
Caroline Lucas - the best leader Labour never had
And the one Green MP, Caroline Lucas, punches far above the weight of any other single backbench MP, fast becoming the nation's chief social and environmental conscience in Westminster.
The true test of the pioneering Green council's success - an election - is still a year away and politics can be messy.
But Brighton and Hove is not a mess, whatever the Greens' nervous opponents may say. It is a proud bastion of social, environmental and economic progress - and long may it remain so.
Rob Shepherd lives in Brighton, and is an active grassroots Green Party member.
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