Monthly Archives: June 2016

Europe – it’s personal

21505_EU-flag-missing-starThis is a purely personal reflection on the result of the EU Referendum last week.

You probably can’t grow up on the South Coast of England without having a slightly different relationship to the European continent than perhaps someone who grew up in Wales or Yorkshire. You can’t see mainland Europe from the Sussex coast but you know it’s there, over the horizon, just a short ferry ride from Newhaven.

I was only five years old when Britain joined what was then the EEC. Unlike the frequent power cuts of the first miners strike, and Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher’s axeing of school milk (and my job as a milk monitor), it didn’t register with me. Why would it.

School trips and family holidays to France and other European destinations were part of my childhood, as were the occasional spells with language students renting the spare room in my parents house. At around the time my sister moved to France to work, my family bought a barn nearby for a while; my aunt and uncle stayed and whilst my sister eventually came home, my niece and nephew are half-French.

A late-found enthusiasm for the language led me to study French for a year at University, then moving on to a politics course that took in what was then called European Community studies. Even after a four year break I was still proficient enough to spend the best part of a year working near Paris with a holiday company, which led to what was meant to be a part-time call centre job when I came back. That turned into a five-year stint managing the phone inquiry service for the French Government Tourist Office.

I’m not a big traveller, but in the years since leaving that job I’ve been lucky enough to have had a few summer holidays in Greece and Portugal, and a couple of trips to Prague and Budapest, seeing the places where my partner’s parents grew up. Like millions of people, my partner’s family have made a life in Spain where their young daughter is just as much Spanish as English.

They are worried about the implications of last week’s decision to leave the European Union. So is my friend, a special needs teacher originally from Germany, and one of my councillor colleagues who is also German.

Of course, in the long run their fears may be unfounded, just as the immediate and longer term economic effects may not turn out to be as catastrophic as some reports suggest. The legal, constitutional and financial negotiations will be lengthy and complex. For anyone perceived as not “British” though, the open and public actions of an ugly minority in recent days across the country is frightening. It should be for all of us.

At the heart of it I can’t seem to shake off a feeling based on something I had never considered during the long run-up to the vote, during the many debates about the EU as an institution and the effects of free movement on our society.It isn’t something that is in any way meant to be critical of those who argued to leave, including colleagues I respect.

It’s a feeling, not a practical complaint, as I know those occasional trips to a Greek island will of course still be possible, and things in terms of friends and family things won’t change. Like it or not we have no choice but to be part of Europe geographically and culturally, albeit one separated by a thin channel of water.

I will no doubt be sad to see Scotland go independent as seems likely, but having only visited there once I don’t feel the same connection. If Ireland and Wales go the same way we will all have to revisit what it means to be British or English in light of the 400 year old United Kingdom ceasing to exist.

I hadn’t realised how much my European citizenship means to me, and what it means to lose it. I will have to come to terms with the fact that I have, and that things will never be quite the same as they have been for the majority of my life.

There are undoubtedly more important immediate and practical things to worry about. We need to accept the situation as it is. I’ve a job to do in ensuring the city I lead succeeds and prospers through whatever happens next, but this is something I wanted to write down in the hope that I can deal with it and move on.

Welcome to Brighton and Hove, our international city

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At an event to mark the end of Refugee Week I spoke about how proud I was of my home city, the city I’ve been given the honour of leading, having sent a message that it is an open, welcoming and international city this week. I spoke of how we welcome as we always have done those fleeing conflict, and pledged that we would take more children who have lost homes and family through war and give them a future. I said that we would do this to honour the memory of Jo Cox, who supported the Dubs Amendment, and that we would play our small part in continuing her work.

During the event a man came up behind me and shouted “don’t you know, the borders are now closed!” Clearly a reference to this week’s EU Referendum where for many, the motivation behind their vote was immigration. Now let me be clear that many who voted Leave are not racist, had a valid case for ending our membership of the EU, and who distanced themselves from some of the appalling rhetoric used by some during the campaign.

The worst was the “Breaking Point” poster unveiled by Nigel Farage in the closing days of the campaign, an image reminiscent of ones used by the Nazis of snaking queues of migrants, in this case refugees fleeing war in Syria on their way to Slovakia.

It is right that there is a discussion about migration, but it is very hard to keep that debate to the facts. Facts such as the net benefit to the UK economy and health service of migration, facts about UK residents migrating to other EU countries. The UK is not at “breaking point” in that our capacity to build and house a growing population exists, and that as the fifth largest economy – at least until last Friday – we can afford to play our part in receiving at least a fraction of the numbers of refugees as other states.

Elements of the media and groups like UKIP have for years fuelled a distrust and resentment of migrants, and the Referendum debate and result has exposed a deep seam of xenophobia and in some cases racism against anyone “foreign” or different, regardless of where they are from, how long they have been here or where they were born. Many people have, in the hours since the result, spoken of their fears, of the open abuse, of the uncertainty about their place in this country that they are now experiencing.

This cannot be our future; one built on the prejudices of the past. Not here.

Brighton and Hove is an international city, facing the European continent across the narrow Channel that separates us physically if not culturally or economically from mainland Europe. Our universities take in students from all over the globe, as do our language colleges. Eleven million tourists come each year, many to visit our historic Pavilion, built two centuries ago by a German prince to resemble an Indian palace on the outside, and a Chinese one inside. It isn’t, as some assumed, a mosque.

The vast modern European headquarters of American Express, completed in the past few years, employs more than any other business in our city, with a workforce blending the local and the global. Nearby work is underway on a £450 million hospital refurbishment that will create a regional centre for the 21st century, one that could not function without doctors, nurses and support staff from all over the world.

Our current and future conference centres depend on international convention business. Our creative digital industry sells to Europe and beyond. Our annual Festival and year-round cultural programme showcases arts from every corner of our planet.

Our city depends and thrives on tourism, healthcare, culture and businesses that in turn depend on being open to Europe and the world. We are indebted to those who come here, spend here, live here, pay taxes here, employ here, study here. I send out a clear message today that you are just as welcome tomorrow as you were yesterday.

A 2020 Vision For Brighton and Hove

Brighton from sea (2)By the time you read this the EU Referendum will be over and Britain’s role in or out of Europe will be decided. After months of debate this will be a relief to most.

For Brighton and Hove though, another question about our place in our region and the world must be addressed. Small to medium sized cities like ours around the globe are looking to the future and deciding what they want to offer residents, visitors and businesses.

Alongside the day to day concerns about social care and parking, grass cutting and libraries, as Leader of the City Council I have a responsibility to ensure our city makes progress and does not decline, that it competes and cooperates rather than building walls around itself.

Within our region and largely out of the public spotlight, discussions are going on about a range of new geographies and governance arrangements for health, transport, planning and economic growth. Local government faces wholesale but largely unstructured change; without a plan to see us through it the ability to provide the things residents need and expect is under threat.

Our city should lead, not follow. We should be at the heart of change, not at the mercy of it. We need a vision for 2020 and beyond that secures a better future, not one that harks after a better past. With the social, financial and infrastructure challenges we face, we have to take risks, find bold and innovative solutions, not retreat into a comfortable but ultimately sterile decline.

We are bidding for devolved powers from Government that will give us the ability to tackle the housing crisis and bring in the money we need to fund basic services, and I met with the Secretary of State for Local Government recently to make that case, and presented him with our devolution bid prospectus. I want to explore growing the Greater Brighton City Region to Crawley and Gatwick, creating a real powerhouse in the south east with global access and reach. We need the power and influence to ensure we have the transport infrastructure and governance to guarantee rail links to London, and I am seeking discussions with the Mayor’s office in the capital to take that forward.

We need a vision for a prosperous city where all share in our economic success, and our plans for investment and growth along our seafront, throughout the city and including up to our universities are moving at pace. An economy founded on tourism and conferences, arts and creative industries, digital and financial services, education and skills, entrepreneurship and independent businesses must be driven to prosper.

Brighton and Hove has always faced outwards, has long been an international city, and to secure a successful future for those who live here we need to pursue this vision with energy and determination, confidence and aspiration, and a belief in ourselves as a city whose better days lie ahead of us.

We should not, we must not, give in to fear

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Today's racist and fear mongering UKIP poster

I wrote this, my weekly column for the Brighton and Hove Independent, 48 hours ago. I’m publishing it tonight following the killing of Labour MP Jo Cox.

“Two moving ceremonies this week, one planned, the other unforeseen, but both of which for me had resonance beyond their immediate cause.

At the Chattri memorial, high on the Downs, I joined the Indian Deputy High Commissioner, the Mayor, Sikh members of our Armed Forces and others in the annual act of remembrance for those soldiers from undivided India who died in Brighton from their wounds during the First World War. I was honoured to lay a wreath in their memory.

A little more than 24 hours later, I joined hundreds in a vigil for those killed in Orlando, by someone whose motives are still unclear, but which had unimaginably tragic consequences. I was honoured to be asked to speak in solidarity with the LGBT community there, here in our city, and around the world.

There may seem little to connect the bravery of those soldiers a century ago fighting a war they didn’t start, with the dreadful killing of fifty people in a nightclub, but perhaps there is. So forgive me for getting philosophical.

World War One was fought between Europe’s royal families in an arcane dispute over arbitrary borders and nationalism, a war that slaughtered millions and which sowed the seeds of fascism and another deadly global conflict twenty years later.

The Orlando massacre fuelled fears about Islamic terrorism, wrongly it seems, as well as reflecting a fractured and fearful society in the US where many now  look to a demagogue populist with simple solutions. Except of course, the simple solution of removing guns from the hands of those who are so troubled they can kill dozens with relative ease.

Fears about “others”, whether immigrants, Muslims, members of the LGBT community or “foreigners” can all too readily be used to divide us, can all too easily escalate into conflict and killing. Fear can be used to distract, whilst hard-won rights and opportunities are restricted.

“They are a threat to your way of life”, we are told, when in fact that threat often lies with those spreading that message. It’s a paradox that many of those leading what are seen as anti-establishment movements are themselves products and beneficiaries of the establishments they claim to oppose.

The one thing that unites those Indian soldiers who died for us in World War One,  those mainly Hispanic gay men who were murdered in Orlando, the hundreds of refugees who are dying each month in the Mediterranean, and us, is our humanity. None of us would want what happened to them to happen to our families.

We should be wary of those who seek to divide us over nationalism, over religion, over migration, over race or sexual orientation. We ought to be coming together, not pushing apart, over issues that face us all, like poverty, climate change and disease. Working together we are stronger, we achieve more.

We should not and must not give in to fear.”

Rest In Peace Jo.

The Lockwood Project – saving Brighton’s Madeira Terraces

wp-1465421775296.jpegOur iconic Madeira Terraces have lasted over 130 years, a remarkable testimony to the quality of Victorian craftsmanship. Sadly the seaside environment has taken its toll on the ironwork and major restoration is needed.

I’m committing the council today to a project that will fully restore or replace that ironwork and return the Madeira Terraces to their original condition. Named for the Brighton Borough Surveyor who created the Terraces and our famous Birdcage Bandstand, Phillip Cawston Lockwood, we are calling it the Lockwood Project.

We have been working over recent months with civil engineers Mott Macdonald on what needs to be done and we’re now near to a plan to fully restore the Madeira Terraces.   Crucially we are liaising closely with Historic England to ensure that our plan for the future respects the heritage of the past.  Where possible we will restore the ironwork, but where modern engineering methods, materials and treatments allow and can be justified we will also use these to replace iron work on a like-for-like replica basis, to ensure that the structure can last longer.

The Terraces were created as a covered promenade to attract tourists from London on the new railway of the 1800s. In the 21st Century we need something more, and something that will help fund the restoration and upkeep of the Terraces.

We are exploring ways of achieving this with colleagues at Historic England that protects the integrity of the Terraces, but also provides new ways of generating income to pay for their restoration and to provide new activity along this important stretch of our city’s coastline.  The option we’re proposing is self-contained but serviced glass-fronted units within the terrace arches, structures that preserve the integrity of the Terraces but allow new space to be leased or rented for use as cafes, shops, businesses or even “overnight beach huts”, but not permanent accommodation.

We’re working to ensure that we find an engineering solution that is both feasible but also gains the support of the heritage groups.  Importantly, we are looking for ways to preserve the unique and historic Green Wall which predates the Terraces themselves, building around it just as the Terraces were, allowing the Green Wall to breathe and grow.

None of this can be achieved without some public funding and we are placing a bid at the end of this month for £4 million of Coastal Communities funding to get the Lockwood Project underway.  Further funding will be sought from grants, lottery funding and private investment, and we’ll look at using the same Public Works Loan Board borrowing as the i360 for some of the estimated £20 to £30 million costs. There may also be a potential for a financial relationship with some of the other projects in the pipeline for Madeira Drive, such as the Sea Lanes swimming pool, or Section 106 planning gain money.

A report will come to the Councils Policy, Resources and Growth Committee in July to begin what is likely to be at least a year-long process of consultation with residents, planning and legal agreements, and the procurement of a specialist contractor expert in this type of restoration. Ideally work will be underway by the end of next year if we are able to secure the required funding. It could be that the work will be phased, with restoration done in sections so that we can open some of the units as soon as possible.

The restoration of the Madeira Terraces will be an integral part of the multi-million pound regeneration of Madeira Drive, with the new swimming pool, new zip wire attraction, Aquarium Terraces replacement, children’s play area and our new ten thousand seat arena and conference centre at Black Rock. From the pier to the marina, the whole area will be improved and enhanced, whilst restoring the wonderful Madeira Arches for future generations.

It is my hope that the Lockwood Project will preserve a much-valued part of our local heritage, whilst adding to our tourist offer in the same way the Terraces did in Victorian times. I’d like to think that Phillip Cawston Lockwood would approve, and I hope you will too.

Will the Greens and Tories unite to scupper Hove cinema hope, and put community libraries across Brighton and Hove at risk?

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Could this building have housed a new art house cinema for Hove?

With cuts by the Conservative Government of over 40% to our local services, it is clear that like many other councils, Brighton and Hove cannot continue to run its current network of libraries as they are.

Rather than close or privatise them as some councils have, we proposed moving Hove library to a new, purpose built extension at Hove museum. The Carnegie building, where the library currently operates, is by far the most expensive library building to run. It is also an unsafe working environment for library staff.

By moving the library just 300 metres along the road, closer to most Hove library users, we could add a cafe and outdoor space to what is currently offered, and run a library service at a fraction of the cost. Crucially, that would free up enough money each year to keep all of our branch libraries across the city open, and indeed extend opening hours where they have been cut.

Branch libraries are at the heart of our plan for community hubs in every neighbourhood. It is a sensible and innovative plan that has been backed by a majority of the public in two consultation exercises, and supported by full Council within the Libraries Plan.

Behind the scenes, we have been talking to an art house cinema chain about buying the building, and returning a cinema to Hove, one of the homes of early film-making, for the first time in forty years.

All the time the sale of the Carnegie building has been under discussion, this has had to remain confidential. We did however tell the Conservative leadership.

The Conservative Group on the council have been split, with some backing the move, and others, led by the would-be parliamentary candidate Robert Nemeth, opposing. They asked for more time, and more information, plus a further building survey costing the council £8,000. All of this was given, with the survey being delivered in a tight timescale, over a dozen further reports and a month of discussions.

Yet despite a thorough and sound business plan, they are still threatening to oppose the move of Hove library, simply to inflict a political defeat on the Labour Administration, in alliance with the Greens.

It won’t be the first time the Greens and Tories have joined up, having forced through the taxpayer loan for the i360 last year.

I’ve said very recently that I will always work to find a consensus in the best interests of the city and its residents. It is what people expect us to do.

Officers have made very clear in the Libraries Plan and subsequent reports to committee that the necessary alternative course of action if the Carnegie was to remain open would be to close many of our branch libraries in Saltdean, Rottingdean, Hangleton, Patcham, Westdene, Woodingdean, Mile Oak, Moulsecoomb, Coldean, Hollingbury, Portslade and Whitehawk. Our innovative plan has been designed to prevent that, I still want to prevent that and we will continue to try to work with the Conservatives and Green councilors to prevent that.

It is a very worrying time for this city and our valued libraries. It shows a real lack of civic responsibility on the part of the Greens, who we expect to act like this, but also on the part of Tories like Robert Nemeth, putting his own personal ambitions above what is right for Brighton and Hove. I’d hoped for stronger leadership from Tory leader Geoffrey Theobald, who has always said he would support innovation and creativity in providing public services.

I’m very disappointed that it has come to this with the future of libraries across the city being placed at significant risk.

The Conservatives will decide on Monday whether to back our libraries solution, keeping all our libraries open including an improved service in Hove, or to back the Greens protesting over an ageing building that isn’t fit for purpose and which costs so much to run that it threatens the future of more than half our community libraries across Brighton and Hove.

If you support our libraries plan and want to ensure the future of libraries across the city, e-mail the Conservative Group Leader: Geoffrey.theobald@brighton-hove.gov.uk

Sign our petition here: https://www.change.org/p/green-and-conservative-councillors-on-brighton-and-hove-council-save-our-libraries

 

Labour puts council finances back on track

moneyA report out today shows that despite the challenge of major Conservative Government cuts to funding, Labour have got the city’s finances back on track. Faced with a £8.5m overspend when they took over from the Green Party last year, the Labour administration prevented a budget deficit at the end of the financial year, coming within 2% of a balanced budget.

In a report going to Policy Resources and Growth Committee on 9th June, council officials will report the end of year position as being in slight surplus, a significant improvement on the forecast position at month 2 which was for the council to spend £8.5 million more than it had coming in.

We inherited a council that was spending too much and which is facing a 40% cut in its funding. It was essential we got things under control. I want to commend officers and partners for all the work that has been done to help the council achieve this in very difficult circumstances.

We are continuing to suffer financial blow after financial blow from the Conservative government, and the economy overall is far from strong, which is restricting growth in some sectors. I have no intention of exposing the city to the disasters that would arise from weak financial management.

We have to manage our risks, and have strong contingencies in place to cover all our challenges and pressures. Residents need the security of knowing what the council can and cannot deliver over the coming years. To do that we have to keep the council’s finances firmly on track.

Labour knows residents expect competence from the administration as well as vision, which is why Labour’s 4 year plan, agreed at Budget Council in February, not only set out the direction of travel for services to 2019, but also a robust approach to financial management that would be pursued throughout the administration. By February the surplus was already being factored in, and additional funds were allocated to priority service areas. Further surplus will be directed towards grass cutting and work to improve local streets.