Brighton and Hove has the first Green-led council in England. In February the minority administration faced the tricky dilemma of setting a budget at a time when government funding is being cut by a third over four years.
What to do and how to make the decision proved controversial both nationally within the Green Party and in Brighton and Hove itself.
Red Pepper brought together leading Green councillors and party members with Green Left activists to debate the issues around the budget and the general dilemmas about being in office with restricted powers and finances under a hostile Conservative/Liberal Democrat government.
Green Left: Romayne Phoenix, Peter Murry and Peter Allen.
Green Party, Brighton and Hove: Councillor Jason Kitcat, Councillor Liz Wakefield, Councillor Phelim MacCafferty and executive member Luke Walter.
Davy Jones (Red Pepper board member) and Tom Robinson (Red Pepper’s student co-ordinator) are both Green Party members in Brighton and Hove and they chaired and recorded the discussion.
Romayne Phoenix What discussion took place about whether to take the council leadership?
Jason Kitcat Constitutionally the largest group on a council always allocates the council leader. So if the other two parties weren’t interested, we were by default the administration whether we wanted it or not. If we had said we were not interested, I don’t think we would have had any credibility. I anticipated some kind of negotiation with Labour for a stable administration. I never thought that we would be running the administration alone. But Labour weren’t interested. For this year, we have to be very clear: it is central government that is cutting us. The vast majority of changes we are proposing in the budget are savings, not cuts in services. So, for example, we propose to save £55k by changing how we contract our youth services – but there is no impact on the service. It’s literally about a procurement change, so that genuinely is a saving, not a cut.
Peter Allen It’s a £17.5 million reduction this year, isn’t it? We have heard about the small cuts in things like the mobile library, toilets etc but they only come to a few million, so where is the rest coming from?
Jason All over the place! For example, we got a fixed-price deal on buses – that’s £400k. We found out that we are able to reclaim VAT on admissions to the Pavilion – that’s half a million. Procurement – there’s several million there. There’s also a value for money programme – that’s about reorganisation. There’s a work styles programme – that’s £2.5 million in savings but cuts our carbon footprint and produces a better working environment.
Peter A What about the cuts to the adult assessment units?
Jason We have changed the system for the care providers. Beforehand if someone visited the client, even if it was only for five minutes, the minimum it would be billed for was half an hour. Now what they do is electronically dial in and out to prove how long they attended, so we are paying only for the time the contractors actually attend, and that alone is a huge saving. These are mostly private contractors.
Peter A Less home care or quicker home care – even less time spent in a vulnerable old persons’ home in order to save a million pounds?
Jason I don’t think so. Overall I really feel that the adult social care budget is well catered for. There are some issues about the repercussions for the external providers and their staff but that is difficult for us to control. Ultimately the ideal would be to bring it in-house but it’s just not affordable overnight. If you look at children’s services and adult social care they are really protected.
Davy Jones Everywhere else in the country there are big campaigns against council cuts. But there isn’t a campaign around changes in our core essential services because no one believes the changes are significant enough.
Romayne But people don’t always know how to speak up for themselves.
Peter A I don’t doubt for one moment that the best job is being done. I would defend Brighton council against other councils. But adult social care in the UK is provided mostly by private providers, usually with women working in appalling conditions and getting paid very little. Private contractors are trying to make a private profit and Brighton and Hove council is squeezing those contractors more, to get a better value for money service.
Jason It’s not perfect but given the scale of the challenge we face, we can’t change the entire scope of the social care system in the UK on our own.
Phelim MacCafferty Fundamentally, what’s behind all this, whether it’s the axing of the EMA or the slashing of legal aid, it’s about the Tories essentially shrinking the state. We are very aware of the pressure on us, not just electorally but politically. I have never seen anything so sombre as the way we have had to deal with this budget. One thing I am very proud of so far – and it is proof of how Greens have done things differently – is that one of the first things we did as a council was to introduce the living wage for the poorest people who work for us.
Peter A Of course it doesn’t apply to all those people we were talking about before – outsourced staff on the minimum wage – because contractors are now getting squeezed further in the interests of efficiency savings.
Liz Wakefield Specifically on that point, when we scrutinise contractors, we are looking at whether they provide the living wage or not, and obviously the preference would go to those that do.
Davy I think all of us are committed to trying to oppose what this government is doing in shrinking the state. We have – almost – survived the first year. So the issue now becomes in the next year or two what is acceptable for us to do and what is not acceptable? And how can we strategically use our position to fight against the cuts?
Peter Murry The Green Left statement about Brighton council was not intended as an attack on the Green council. Green Left has a variety of views. Some feel that you shouldn’t have touched the budget at all but resigned rather than implement it. Others feel you should have only set a needs budget and let it get voted down. Others would support you because you are a Green council, despite the fact you are making some cuts, and would probably accept quite a lot of the arguments you have made today. But people want to know what is the difference between a Green council adopting a humane attitude to cutting and any other council doing it? What else are you doing that makes it worthwhile having a Green council?
Jason We are different because we are doing the least cuts possible; because we rejected [local government secretary] Eric Pickles’ gimmick of a tax freeze [a one-off increase in government grant to local authorities that didn’t increase council tax]; because we actually listen. The local paper reported that West Sussex Council were making cuts to music services and all sorts of things, and they had a two-week consultation period, massive protests and at the end said well, we are doing it anyway. Whereas we have held a very long consultation period where we’ve been able to go through the details with people and have a conversation, and we have amended it as a result.
Liz People voted in a Green council. So we have a duty to those people to be in power and deliver a Green budget in as Green a way as possible. I belong to the anti-cuts movement. I don’t want to make cuts. But if there have to be cuts, and I am cabinet lead for housing, I would rather have the control of any cut in that area because I wouldn’t trust the bloody Tories or Labour. I can’t trust them to care for the people. Whether I should completely step down and not be a councillor is, of course, another dilemma but I was voted in and people wanted me to be their councillor and that’s my responsibility.
Phelim Some people on the left argue that we should just set an illegal budget. Well, we are not allowed to. I was not elected to deliver control over our pot of money to some poxy civil servant sent from Eric Pickles to do the dirty work of his government. I was elected to stand up for my residents, for the vulnerable people I represent. And if we all resigned, it would cost around £230,000 that taxpayers would have to spend on a bunch of Green councillors who found it too hot in the kitchen and had to get out.
Luke Walter The local paper ran an online poll on the proposed council tax increase with heavy campaigning against it. Still, 32 per cent agreed with the Green administration on the council tax rise. Thirty-three per cent voted Green in May. So we are keeping Green voters with us.
Davy We survived our first eight months in office, making very minor cuts in services, and made sure that the first Green council in the country didn’t immediately fall apart. The Green Left statement refers to the danger of the first Green council being ‘nationally discredited, like the Green Party was discredited in Ireland, after implementing an austerity programme’. But, equally, had the first Green council collapsed in chaos and acrimony in the first six months, that too would have discredited the Green Party nationally. We can now play a major role with people in the party to build up the national anti-cuts movement at the same time as we develop a needs budget – with the option that we can stand down if we get defeated and we feel we have to propose a budget that is unacceptable to us.
Romayne You should not make it sound like you are improving a service, if you are not, if it’s really a cut. They are the cuts of a Tory government. Don’t say this is the fairest budget we can make in hard times because that is very de-motivating for anyone who is in the campaigns movement. Would you be prepared to have a conference of councillors – I’m sure the Coalition of Resistance could help – to lead that movement?
Peter A The alternative scenario is that the Greens don’t make these cuts, even if it means losing office. Then we have an election across Britain in a few months time, knocking on doors as the anti-cuts party, with [Brighton’s Green MP] Caroline Lucas in parliament single-handedly doing a better job than the whole of the Labour Party and we also have a council who refused to cut, and a vote for us is a vote against austerity. Some people will say the Greens are not serious, they don’t do proper politics. But others will say yeah, this is a different type of protest politics. Or maybe people who haven’t voted before will say yeah, I’m up for that, they’re right in Brighton. The politicians gave up power because they stand by their principles and I am voting for them so that I can show this government that I am on the side of the people. If the Green Party said we are not doing it in Brighton, it would give us the opportunity to transform our political fortunes across Britain.
Peter M In the elections across the country, in London and elsewhere, we are going to be faced with a contradiction between what Caroline Lucas is saying at a national level and what has happened in Brighton. She is saying no austerity, and presenting anti-cuts literature, then people say well what about Brighton council, they made cuts? At what point do you start saying we can’t do this? I think Liz gave us some indication that there might be a red line for her. I think over the country people would like to know at what point do you say that is enough.
Jason I am very open to having a conference, though it will get the usual suspects. It would be valuable and interesting but it’s not going to build a national movement. If there was a situation with the budget by which we were doing things that were against our values, our answer would be to increase the council tax to offset the cut and have a referendum on it. We would say central government is cutting our funding so dramatically that we have to go to the people and ask for a big council tax increase. We have to go down fighting. People are not going to thank us if we leave Labour or the Tories to run the council. Fundamentally, people recognise there are choices out there and would rather we make the best choice we can. I wouldn’t fancy our chances on winning the referendum but I’d go for it. We also need to re-evaluate what it means for there to be a Green council and say what do we want our council to look like. We have inherited a council that is a product of years of Labour and Tory rule. So what does a Green council really look like? We could shape a new council to meet all the challenges and desires we want to. I don’t know what that looks like but I think that’s a conversation worth having.
Romayne I want to mention UK Uncut and the [Occupy] LSX statement. If you read much of that, it’s so like Green Party policy. We have to encourage them on board. And the fantastic success we have had with getting a minority administration down here in Brighton and Hove, we want all of us to be able to benefit from that for the Green Party of England and Wales.
Huge government cuts mean that Brighton and Hove faces starkly reduced funding (down by around one third over four years). The reductions in the Greens’ first budget were less damaging than in most other councils around the country. Nevertheless, some proposals were controversial and jobs will be lost.
The Greens were the first to reject the government’s bribe of a one-year subsidy to freeze council tax, which would have led to much bigger cuts in future years – over £5 million in Brighton and Hove. Around 10 per cent of councils eventually followed Brighton and Hove’s lead. However, at the budget council meeting, the local Tories and Labour colluded to take the government money to freeze council tax against the votes of the minority administration Greens. The amendment entailed extra cuts of around £1 million this year and a further £3.6 million next year.
The Greens then faced a difficult dilemma. Should they stand down and let the Tories and Labour form a de facto coalition to run the city? Should they vote against the amended budget, call a recall council meeting and mobilise the community against it? Or should they vote for it, as it was still similar to their original budget?
After much debate in the Green group, with one exception they all eventually voted in favour of the amended budget. There were inevitably different views in the party. The national Green Party conference in Liverpool a day later discussed their stance, with Green Left supporters leading the opposition. Eventually, the conference voted by a two-thirds majority to support the Brighton and Hove Green councillors’ decision.
The Green Party emerged as the largest group on Brighton and Hove Council in May 2011, when it won ten additional seats to make a total of 23 against 18 Tories and 13 Labour. The Greens won 33 per cent of the popular vote across the city (Labour got 32 per cent and the Tories 29 per cent). Previously the Tories ran the council from 2007 to 2011, while Labour ran it from 1996 to 2007. Arguably, it was the worst possible time for the Green Party to lead its first council – with a government making unprecedented cuts to public services, a hostile local Labour Party (although the council unions are sympathetic) and a minority administration of councillors with no previous experience of running a council.
Green Left is an association of Green Party members, launched in June 2006, when 36 Green Party members agreed its founding statement (the Headcorn Declaration). As Sarah Farrow, Green Left co-convenor, said then: ‘Activists in the Green Party have founded Green Left because many greens believe the only path to an ecological, economically and socially just and peaceful society has to be based on an anti-capitalist political agenda.’ As well as the Headcorn Declaration, Green Left supports the Ecosocialist Manifesto. Green Left is not a part of the Green Party of England and Wales, it is not funded by the party and does not stand candidates in governmental elections in its own right.