Harry Fone: £255 million a year is spent on councillor allowances. That is where the economy drive should begin.

30 Dec

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance is well-known for scrutinising the pay of council bosses but our latest research has focused attention on allowances for elected representatives. In 2018-19 alone, the cost of councillors was at least £255 million. As witnessed across numerous local authorities, members vote through an increase in their allowances whilst often claiming they don’t have enough money for statutory services.

There was little surprise when an opposition councillor at West Sussex County Council (WSCC) met with fierce resistance after suggesting that cabinet members have their special responsibility allowances (SRAs) cut by 25 per cent. SRAs are typically paid to chairs of committees, cabinet members, and opposition leaders in addition to a basic allowance.

At the heart of the dispute were plans to cut the SRAs of the opposition leaders whilst cabinet members and committee chairs saw no decrease. It’s always welcome when councils make savings but some will question why the cuts fell almost solely on the opposition.

This spurred one opposition leader to propose an amendment calling for a cut in all SRAs. Even if this was an act of retribution, savings of around £90,000 a year would no doubt be well received by ratepayers. Councillors should be compensated for their efforts but the role should not be treated as a full-time job with a decent salary. Civic duty should be put above all else.

Given WSCC’s recent poor performance – notably “systemic and prolonged” failures in children’s services and the £265,000 golden goodbye to controversial former chief executive Nathan Elvery – you would think councillors would want to do everything possible to make amends with constituents.

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Across the border in East Sussex, Brighton and Hove City Council is forecasting a budget shortfall of around £15 million next year. With residents facing a rate rise of five per cent, it has to be asked if better decision-making might have mitigated such a large increase.

The ongoing saga that is the i360 observation tower is failing to deliver on its promises. Funded by £36.2 million of council loans (via the Public Works Loan Board) to a private management company, the 530 feet “doughnut on a stick” has never really got off the ground. Even before the pandemic, it was plagued with low passenger numbers and frequent breakdowns.

Adding insult to injury, loan repayments have regularly been deferred due to financial difficulties. To date, only £5.9 million has been repaid, with £33 million now outstanding.

One of the key players behind the project, former leader of Brighton council, Jason Kitcat, claimed back in 2014:

 “The project will provide a new source of income to help shore up vital frontline services.”

It seems there’s a long way to go before the council will see the estimated “£1 million a year” profit from its investment.

While residents are still shouldering the burden of this white elephant, Kitcat, a self-described “recovering politician” has fared rather better financially. After being asked to stand down as council leader by his own party, he became the Executive Director of Corporate Development at Essex County Council. A role that remunerated him to the tune of £190,000 in 2018-19 and gifted him a payout of nearly £164,000 when he left shortly after.

Let’s hope for a change in the i360’s fortunes so that local ratepayers see a ‘recovery’ in the council’s balance sheet.

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Following a recent government review, fears are mounting that Nottingham City Council (NCC) could fall foul of bankruptcy. As residents of Croydon and Northamptonshire know all too well, a Section 114 notice is far from desirable.

The similarities between Croydon and Nottingham are disconcerting. Both authorities engaged in ambitious commercial investments with well paid council employees lacking the necessary financial expertise, as borrowing exceeded £1 billion – Nottingham has the third highest debt to net budget of all the core cities.

Over recent years, NCC has seen its reserves dwindle mostly due to the collapse of its ill-judged energy company. Formed in 2015, Robin Hood Energy (RHE) tried and failed to compete in the highly competitive and regulated energy sector. Financed with £43 million of public money, RHE failed to make a profit in every single year of operation. Total losses are estimated at £38 million.

The government’s report is particularly scathing of RHE’s directors who are described as “unable to critically appraise the trading position and a forecast profit [£202,000] outturned as a significant loss [£1.6 million]”. Another damning report by auditors Grant Thornton went further saying there was “institutional blindness within the Council.”

Despite warnings from NCC’s Section 151 officer about RHE’s worsening finances, the authority failed to take action. The report doesn’t specifically blame then chief executive, Ian Curryer, for failing to act but does state, “The Council does not appear to have a mechanism for setting targets and goals for its Chief Executive and holding the postholder to account for it.” Local residents may be irked to learn that between 2012 and 2020 Mr Curryer received total taxpayer-funded remuneration of over £1.3 million.

As Robert Jenrick, the Local Government Secretary, put it:

“Taxpayers and residents have been let down by years of disgraceful mismanagement and inept ventures”.

A series of recommendations have been put in place to turn the ship around but councils all across the country must learn from Nottingham’s mistakes.

Samer Bagaeen: Why isn’t integrated healthcare the norm?

10 Dec

Cllr Samer Bagaeen represents Hove Park on Brighton and Hove Council. He is a Visiting Professor of Planning at the Institute of Urban Economy, Universidad Esan, in Lima, Peru.

We must get a better understanding of how our health funding is put to use to serve the residents of our town and cities and rural areas. The key word is commissioning. This is the process by which health and care services are planned, purchased and monitored. Curiously, they are planned, purchased, and monitored by more or less the same people who plan, commission and purchase! This range of activities includes, obviously, the following: assessing needs, planning services, procuring services, and monitoring quality.

The concept of commissioning was introduced into the NHS in the early 1990s, when reforms separated the purchasing of services from their delivery, creating some kind of an ‘internal market’.

The argument was that forcing providers to compete for resources would encourage greater efficiency, responsiveness, and innovation. It did not and these arrangements have continued to evolve over time with several changes to the structure and remit of the organisations that commission care. The current arrangements were introduced by the Health and Social Care Act 2012.

In budget terms, and this is where some local politicians get the wrong end of the stick, the largest part of the NHS England’s budget is allocated to what we know as clinical commissioning groups, or CCGs, or groups of local GPs practices. In 2018/19, these CCGs spent £85.4 billion out of the £112.7 billion that NHS England spent on the day-to-day running of the health service. This money was not theirs to start with, it was taken off the local government funding settlement.

When CCGs were first established in 2013, there were 211 of them. Over time though, their number has changed and continues to do so. There have, for example, been some 10 formal mergers, reducing their number to 191 (April 2019) with more proposed for 2020 had it not been that the pandemic, a double edged sword, got in the way.

The CCGs are responsible for commissioning most NHS services including urgent and emergency care, acute care, mental health services, and community services. These groups of local GP practices are managed through governing bodies that include, surprise surprise, GPs, other clinicians such as nurses and secondary care consultants, patient representatives, general managers from the NHS and local authority representatives.

One might think the CCGs are therefore not very democratic or accountable given the huge budgets they manage. NHS England’s total spending on direct commissioning in 2018/19 was £24.5 billion and most of their commissioning function is delivered through regional teams. For where I sit in the South East, NHS England and NHS Improvement South East are one of seven regional teams, covering the counties of Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

Sitting across the table from the CCGs are the Local Authorities who are responsible for commissioning publicly funded social care services. This includes services to people in their own care homes as well as residential care services. In 2017/18, total expenditure on adult social care by local authorities was £21.3 billion.

Since 2013, local authorities have also been responsible for commissioning many public health services including sexual health services, health visitors, school nursing and addiction services, and in 2019/20, the public health grant to local authorities was ring fenced at £3.1 billion.

Within local authorities, health and wellbeing boards, where I sit for example, are formal committees that bring together local authority and NHS representatives to collaborate. One of their responsibilities is carrying out joint needs assessments with CCGs and developing joint health and wellbeing strategies for the local population.

In Brighton & Hove, a resident, John Kapp, who’s a keen health observer and one of the few residents always there with questions to members of the Health and Wellbeing Board, recently exposed what he called ‘Fake news’ promoted by the Leader of Brighton and Hove City Council who wrote in the local newspaper, the Argus:

“Councils have lost one in two pounds in real terms funding since Tory cuts began in 2010. The National Audit Office report that in Brighton and Hove the amount of government funding has fallen by a staggering 53 per cent in real terms.”

This is fake, John argued, because it ignored the history and context described here. It took, he said, no account of the transfer from 2013 onwards of the health budget to the 219 CCGs. The amount devolved in England is now about £90 billion per annum, he notes, of which the Brighton and Hove CCG receives some £470 million per annum. Together with the Brighton and Hove City Council total annual budget of £760 million, this makes the total devolved for local decision making £1,230m per annum.

Should this money, John asks, be devolved to the Brighton and Hove Health and Wellbeing Board in order for locally elected democratic representatives to be able to call the CCG to account for getting best value, instead of regarding it a ‘partnership’ body? This is probably the only way to integrate health and social care by filling the apparent, but clear, democratic deficit.

Some local authorities have inched towards this and transferred some commissioning responsibilities to CCGs but also vice versa, and some areas have made joint appointments across the two organisations – for example, in Tameside and Glossop, the CCG accountable officer is also the chief executive of the local authority. Systems integration at its very best!

In some other places across England, devolution is also being used to support system-wide approaches to commissioning and our newly created National Preparedness Commission in England would do well to take off the blinkers and take notice of this. The most prominent example of this is Greater Manchester, where CCGs, local authorities and other local bodies have come together to take responsibility for the entire local health and care budget as opposed to the business as usual, you do your thing and I’ll do mine. These arrangements were enacted through an agreement between the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, NHS England and CCGs.

A key ask here is that service delivery after the pandemic must change so that integrated health provision is, well, more integrated. And more importantly, more accountable.

In Wigan, under the banner of ‘Healthier Wigan’, the NHS, the Council and other partners in Wigan borough are working together in the Healthier Wigan Partnership to make health and social care services better for residents. Wigan Council and NHS Wigan Borough CCG are continuing to change the way they commission local health and care services by working together, and from April 2019, began to commission local services as if we are one organisation. One good vehicle for this has been the appointment of a single Council/CCG Director of Finance. There is also an Integrated Commissioning Committee being the formal committee for delivering this commitment to integration.  It is a joint committee between Wigan Borough CCG and Wigan Council.  Members of the committee are from the CCG’s Governing Body and Council’s Cabinet.

One of the many questions we therefore need to ask is if this arrangement provides better, more integrated services to residents, why is it not the norm?

Steve Bell: Conservatives in Brighton and Hove are protecting the bats and the bees

26 Nov

Cllr Steve Bell is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Brighton and Hove Council.

Conservation has always been at the very heart of Conservatism.  Conservatives value cultural traditions and wish to leave them undiminished to our children.  Conservationists value heritage.

While the left look to big government as the decision-makers set to save us from environmental catastrophe, as Conservatives we prefer a local approach over large-scale governmental approaches. Love of your home, love of your ward, and encouraging that love in your residents.

Conservative Councillors on Brighton & Hove City Council have been putting these values into action and making progress on our Conservative vision to both protect and improve the ecology of the City.

In a national-first, Cllr Robert Nemeth has ensured that Brighton & Hove City Council includes a requirement for developers to include bee bricks as part of every new development.

Bee bricks form part of the structure of the building like any other building brick but have holes for solitary and hibernating bees.  They are promoted by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds as a way to ensure nature can survive in City environments.

Thanks to the work of Cllr Nemeth, bee bricks are now recommended on all major applications and preferred in houses and extensions in Brighton and Hove.

He took two different types of swift brick along to the council’s Tourism, Equalities, Communities and Culture Committee at Hove Town Hall in March. One is a simple plastic box that is built into a wall. The other uses bricks from the wall so that it blends in and is also warmer.

A swift box is harder to block up as people can see the box and won’t fill it up. As long as people are putting up swift boxes and bricks then it’s a win for wildlife in the city. Residents can help this effort by planting bee friendly plants and other ecology in their own gardens.

Following on from our work on bee bricks, Conservatives want to ensure that the Council draw up a wider mandatory list of items for inclusion in new developments that will help protect our local wildlife – such as hedgehog holes, bird feeders and bat boxes.

Bats, in particular are a particularly important indicator of the City’s ecology.

As Glenn Norris of the Sussex Wildlife Trust, wrote in the October edition of the Hovarian Magazine, the presence of bats indicate healthy invertebrate-rich habitats. He said:

“In Hove, bats are most likely to be seen in the few remaining green spaces: Hove Park, Hove Cemetery and Benfield Valley Nature Reserve.

“The bats found in Hove are probably the aerobatic common pipistrelle and heavy-duty noctule as these bats are tolerant of artificial lighting from streetlights and have even adapted to feeding on the moths and insects that have been attracted by the artificial glow.

“During the day these bats are most likely roosting in the roof voids of buildings, cracks in mortar and under loose tiles.  Pipistrelles are so small they can fit in a hole the size of your thumb.”

Cllr Dawn Barnett, who has been at the forefront of our Conservative Campaign to save Benfield Valley from development, has said that the presence of these bats shows precisely why Benfield Valley needs to be protected.  The bats show definitively the ecological value of the Valley and why it is so important that Benfield Valley continues to exist as a green wedge in the city.

In Patcham and Hollingbury, our Conservative Councillors have successfully put forward a proposal to plant 8,000 trees next to Carden Park in Brighton in a bid to create a new forest. The wood, next to Hollingbury Industrial Estate would contain a “bee bank” and chalk grassland managed by Brighton and Hove City Council officers.

Cllr Lee Wares, who represents Patcham,  has said that this significant project would result in the largest woodland planted from scratch being undertaken in the city for decades. The ability to plant so many trees and provide the conditions and habitat for flora and fauna across the whole site will create an area of biodiversity we all want to see.

This also provides an opportunity to bring the natural environment right into the middle of our built environment that will be accessible to everybody.

A new wood would transform low-quality grassland into a rich world of flora and fauna.

The plan is to have walkways mown between the trees and bee banks so that everybody can be right in the middle of nature. Wares has recently reported that an initial area for this tree planting project will soon be planted.

The Conservatives are delivering innovative conservation outcomes for the City, building on our vision to improve the ecology of the city and working with residents to protect green spaces.

Look to your Conservative councillors if you wish to conserve your environment and city. And remember, conservation is conservative.

Steve Bell: Corbynism achieved power in Brighton and Hove. It failed spectacularly.

28 Sep

Cllr Steve Bell is Leader of the Conservative Group on Brighton and Hove Council.

In July, Labour’s minority administration at Brighton and Hove City Council collapsed – just a little over a year after the 2019 May local elections.

When Labour lost two councillors over alleged anti-Semitic racism and had a third councillor suspended pending an investigation, the Greens seized power and have now taken over minority control.

The collapse was a shameful end for a Momentum-backed Labour Administration that destabilised the city, brought Brighton & Hove into disrepute, and consistently let its residents down.

Labour ultimately fell after failing to live up to its promise to be an anti-racist council.

This tumultuous administration, which lasted little more than a year after the local elections on 2nd May 2019, was characterised by resignations, apologies, broken promises, financial mismanagement, and weak leadership from start to finish.

Labour repeatedly broke its trust with the people of this City who elected it, with its broken promises hurting our most vulnerable, time and again.

Its decisions led to a collapse of the Home to School Transport Scheme, putting children with a disability at risk, and culminating in Labour facing an independent investigation from the Local Government Association.

Another such investigation may well be on the cards after it was recently reported that disabled groups were not adequately consulted by Labour on the discriminatory road and cycle lane changes recently introduced that reduced disability access to the beach front.  And in the process, while Labour said in its manifesto it would ‘protect and support the many small businesses that ensure the strength of our city during times of economic uncertainty’ Labour instead left traders on Brighton’s famous seafront strip struggling to pay their council tax and make ends meet after closing the road – and left office with Brighton & Hove languishing as a ‘below average resort’ according to a tourism survey of Britain’s seaside towns.

Labour let down council house tenants by rediverting millions of pounds in the Housing Repairs Budget on administrative changes to bring the service in house, and then added insult to injury by abandoning its promise to build 500 council houses.

While Labour promised voters in its Manifesto that it would provide more public open space in the City for residents, including those without gardens, it instead pushed through plans to build on 16 ecological sites in the urban fringe despite there being no need, with the Council Leader breaking her own promise to her constituents to oppose any proposals for the development of urban fringe land at Whitehawk Hill in her East Brighton ward along the way.

Most damagingly for our City, while Labour claimed to have sustained a reputation for Brighton & Hove as being the most inclusive city in the world, it left having unforgivably failed on its pledge to be an anti-racist council. Labour’s Council Leader did not properly stand up to antisemitism when it occurred in her administration, appearing to put power before anti-racism, with councillors suspended and under investigation for antisemitism remaining in her group. In doing so, the Council Leader failed to back up her own words at the Budget that Brighton & Hove is a City that is ‘inclusive and welcoming to all’.

Politically, the Council Leader failed to provide leadership in her own party, not commenting or providing clarification when the local Argus newspaper reported on a document outlining infighting and bullying in the Labour Party in which she was mentioned many times and attracting anger for apparently not listening to democratic motions of over 50 per cent of Labour branches opposing the development of local green space at Whitehawk Hill.

The fact that Labour collapsed over racism and ended with the shame of the Leader of our City Council being called upon to resign by a spokesman for Labour Against Antisemitism is a stain on our city. It has attracted national attention and damaged the reputation of Brighton & Hove to an extent that will be hard to recover from.

Labour’s constant failure to deliver for our City resulted in eight public apologies in a little over 12 months, culminating in Labour’s Finance spokesman saying he was ashamed of being a Labour councillor.

In the end, seven Labour councillors rebelled when the Council Leader tried to desperately hold onto power by arranging a power-sharing agreement with the Greens. These councillors knew the game was up and the dysfunction for our city had to come to an end.

This Council needs a Leader and councillors with the strength and integrity to stand up to racism of all kinds.

Corbynism failed spectacularly in Brighton and Hove and it will be a long time before the people of this City put their trust in Labour to run their City Council again.