Cityclean dispute: open the books

I’ve just sent this letter to the Argus:

[edit: the letter was published in the Argus on Friday June 7th]

Jason Kitcat says (Argus, Friday 31st May) that he urges people to come forward with improvements to the pay offer that is currently on the table.

However, nobody (other than the officers he has tasked with negotiating a settlement) has access to the necessary information to come up with a better solution.

Brighton is full of people with imagination, creativity and goodwill, who could be asked to help solve this thorny problem.  The workers directly affected could no doubt come up with some good ways to tackle it.

But everyone who wants to help find a solution is held back by the secrecy surrounding the basic facts and figures. Even Caroline Lucas can’t get to the bottom of why the officers are insisting on a solution that involves cutting the take-home pay of some of the lowest paid workers at the council.

I urge Jason Kitcat to publish the information we need to come up with a better solution. How many workers are employed at each pay grade and how much of their pay is made up of allowances? How are the officers calculating the cost of equalising pay at a higher level, rather than levelling downwards by reducing allowances? How many directly employed officers are on salaries higher than £50,000pa?

Share the information, and I’m sure some constructive solutions will be put forward. Nobody wants to see a strike by Cityclean and city parks staff, least of all the workers themselves. Give the people of Brighton the opportunity to help settle the dispute.

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Why is my car dressed as a ladybird?

Over the last month I’ve been spending my Sundays in various Hanover streets, sitting in a drawing of a living room, littering planets around town and dressing cars up as hills and ladybirds. It was lovely – have a look at this Facebook page, this note and (especially) this blog post to find out more about what we did.

Creating the open house made me think about…

Scale

I crocheted most of a ladybird costume for a parked car, and roped in friends and family to make the rest of it. It took about two months to make, bringing home to me very directly just how big the cars parked all over our streets are. Each ordinary car occupies around 5 square metres of land.

car dressed up as a ladybird

As well as making big things into small ones, another art work I contributed was a scale model of the solar system. The sun, represented by a balloon, was tied to the top of the open house. The planets, to scale, were ridiculously small and scattered. When our open house was in Scotland Street, the solar system extended as far as North Street towards the south, London Road towards the north-west, and West Drive to the east.

In this model, the Earth is a peppercorn. We are floating through space on a tiny fragment of rock. All the air and water on which life on this planet depends is held within a thin skin on the very surface.

London Road and West Drive sometimes seem to be worlds apart. Making this model reminded me that we all breathe the same air, we are all part of the same ecosystem.

Private property and public space

We didn’t ask permission to set up our open house in the street, nor to make temporary use of the parked cars that form part of the landscape around here.

We were respectful of people’s need to travel, and always removed our decorations from cars if they were needed. If people needed to drive through the streets where we were (a very rare occurrence), we made space for them to do so.

However, our installations did effectively close the streets to traffic for a few hours, thereby opening them up as social, creative and playful spaces.

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It made a change from the normal run of things, in which private individuals take control of the public street space, without permission, by lining the streets with parked cars.

What streets are for

I think that in a neighbourhood like Hanover, streets could easily be more than storage spaces for the private vehicles of just over half the residents.

They could be spaces for people to meet, talk, cycle, play, walk, scoot, skate and create. To a large extent, they already are. Whenever something like the Zocalo or the open house project comes along, people in Hanover embrace it.

But whenever a proposal is made to reallocate street space permanently for something other than car parking – for communal bins, for example – there is fierce resistance. Why is this?

I don’t know the answer, but I do know that we can’t carry on filling up our streets, our city and our planet with cars forever.

Somehow, we have to find a way to work out this knotty issue about private choices which intrude on our fragile shared environment.

It’s not just cars, of course. There is a threat to begin fracking in the Sussex countryside – an idea so breathtakingly foolish that it’s difficult to take seriously. But the energy companies truly seem determined to extract more and more fossil fuels from the Earth, in the face of all the evidence that this is the worst thing we can do. I am pleased to see Hanover residents supporting the resistance to this horrific idea.

But part of shifting towards a low carbon economy will have to be a change in the demand for energy – including for travel.

Our open house was a bit of fun in the May sunshine, but it was also about looking at things differently. How we choose to travel affects our neighbours, not only in Hanover, but all over our tiny peppercorn planet.


Whoever you vote for, the government always gets in

Originally posted on 22nd November 2012 as a guest post at Scrapper Duncan’s blog

I have voted in every election I could, since I was 18.  I even voted in the farcical Police and Crime Commissioner elections, thought I don’t really know if that was the right thing to do.  But I’ve never thought voting alone would make a real difference to the way things are organised and run.

For me, voting is an absolute minimum floor for political engagement.  I don’t have much time for political parties these days, but I think engaged and informed citizens can and do change the world every day, by voicing their opinions and by taking action in their communities.

I’ve voted Green in the last few local and general elections because I think climate change is a global emergency, because I support their anti-capitalist platform and because they are the only party with a chance of winning seats which opposes austerity.

Though I sympathise [this link updated 29th May 2013] with the plight of the minority Green administration on Brighton & Hove City Council, I have been disappointed by the behaviour of the Green Party in office up to now.  If I’d wanted a local council that complained bitterly about the national cuts being imposed, while sadly passing them on to residents, I would have voted Labour.

Here’s a quick quiz – see if you can match up the council leaders to their statements about the cuts:

Statement A: “We have some very tough choices to make whilst focussing on protecting essential services and providing value for money.”

Statement B: “A responsible government would never have done this. We would not have been cutting as fast or as deep as we have been forced to do.”

Statement C: “This is not the budget we wanted and I am sorry it’s not been possible to protect every service we all care about but it is the best we can do in these challenging times.”

Statement D: “This budget is painful, but necessary. We have managed to safeguard the most essential services, increase income equitably and where reductions have to be made, they have been made with care.”

Council leader 1: Jason Kitcat, Green Leader of Brighton & Hove City Council, which faces a further £25 million budget cut in 2012-13

Council leader 2: Richard Williams, Labour leader of Southampton Council, where after defeating Tory proposals for wage cuts and winning control in May 2012, the Labour administration is now proposing £20 million cuts, leading to 300 job losses, closure of youth services and cuts to library, parks, refuse and street cleaning services.

Council leader 3: Richard Leese, Labour leader of Manchester Council, which was forced to cut £109 million from its budget in 2011-12 and a further £61 million in 2012-13, resulting in the closure of supported housing, Sure Start centres, libraries, swimming pools and youth centres.

Council leader 4: Steve Reed, Labour Leader of Lambeth Council, where cuts of £37 million in 2011-12  and a further £29 million in 2012-13 have so far resulted in job losses and privatisations across a range of council services

Scroll to the end of the post to see if you got it right.  It’s not easy to spot the one Green out of that lot, is it?

We have a Green-led council here in Brighton & Hove whose policy on the cuts is indistinguishable from that of Labour councils all over the country – balance the books, keep within the law, do your best to stop it hurting people, ride out the storm when it does.

As if that weren’t depressing enough, we have a Labour party which specialises in attacking the Greens for doing precisely what Labour councils are doing everywhere else!

Meanwhile, in the real world, benefit cuts are causing families to become homeless, much loved youth services are closing, the NHS is being sold out from under us, disabled social housing tenants will be forced to move by the bedroom tax, council tax benefit changes will turn the screw on the poorest while depriving local councils of yet more funds, sick and disabled people are being denied benefits after shockingly poor (1.2MB PDF download at that link) “assessments” by a private company, while the care and support many people need is more and more precarious and threatened.

What we need from our political representatives in this situation is not petty point-scoring about parking, leaks to the press or water meters.  That just makes everyone involved look foolish and out of touch.

Is it any wonder that most people don’t think it’s worth voting for anyone in local council elections?

What we need instead is some of the fighting spirit that abounds in Brighton & Hove.  Our city has a proud tradition of people who care about socialor environmental injustice getting together and doing something about it.

Brighton & Hove Green Party itself is rooted in this tradition (as is the Labour Party, for that matter).  At a time when everyone (except perhaps Steve Bassam) is coming to realise that the very existence of local government is threatened, what have the Greens got to lose by taking a risk, going back to their roots and refusing to follow the script any longer?

Quiz answers: Not that it much matters, but Statement A was made by Jason Kitkat, Statement B was Richard Leese, Statement C was by Steve Reed and statement D was Richard Williams.

Time to make a stand

Originally posted on 3rd November 2012, at Reflections in the Greenhouse

Everyone knows that running a nation’s economy is not like running a household. The way to reduce a national deficit is to invest in jobs so that income from taxation increases, not to cut expenditure to the bone, causing misery and further economic depression.

But managing the finances of a local authority, in England at the current point in history, seems very much like running a household. In fact, listening to Jason Kitcat’s webcast on the Brighton & Hove council website yesterday, it struck me that it is like trying to run a household while under the cruel and heartless control of an abusive partner.

Brighton & Hove council (like any other council) is given a limited amount of income it can use to pay for the vital services it provides. This income is provided by the government, but the amount keeps shrinking, year on year. The government changes its mind on a whim about how much money is available and what it can be spent on. It provides money on condition that councils behave in certain ways. It even makes the rules about how much income councils can generate for themselves through taxation or borrowing.

Imagine if you had £767 a month to live on. Out of that you have to pay your rent, council tax, bills, heat your home, feed and clothe your children. It’s been tight – you’ve had to give up some things you used to be able to afford – but you have just about been able to keep going for the last month.

You had even worked out a plan for how to manage when the income went down to £753 next month. You were trying not to think about the further reductions your partner (let’s call him George) had been threatening. You were trying not to think about Christmas coming up, or what you’d do when the kids need new shoes.

Then George comes home and airily says “Oh by the way, it’s going to be £742 next month. You can manage on that, can’t you?”

You can’t get a job or borrow money – George won’t allow it. What should you do?

Some friends advise you to keep your head down and get through this bad patch. In fact, they are not sure you’ve been handling it right up to now – why did you spend the money on that stairgate for the toddler when the five year old needs a new school uniform? Maybe some of your trouble is of your own making.

Better friends say you should not have to put up with this, and nor should your children.

Of course, here’s where my analogy breaks down, because Brighton & Hove Council can’t walk away from this relationship.

But maybe it can fight back. Gather supporters and evidence that cutting local government funding is hurting real children (not just the made up ones in my story). Use the expertise and knowledge in the city to work out how much we really need to provide excellent services and demand that from George. Work with other local authorities who are doing the same, to make a united stand.

At the very least, maybe councillors on Brighton & Hove Council who oppose the cuts can use next year’s budget process to send a clear message to the government: we don’t support your cuts and we won’t vote for them.


When was the first Brighton Pride?

Originally posted on 1st September 2012, at Reflections in the Greenhouse

 

Every year it irritates me, the way people are so slapdash about the history of Brighton Pride. This year, the papers are full of a “20th anniversary” story, which is odd, because the current run of Pride events in Brighton began in 1991, 21 years ago. I remember it well. I was there. I helped to organise it.

I know this makes me sound like a mad old aunt in the corner at Christmas, making nitpicking criticisms of other people’s family stories. Maybe that’s who I am, now.

I haven’t been to Pride for a few years now. It’s not really a fun family event for us and our kids. I don’t enjoy getting pissed in the daytime very much. I find the overwhelming commercialism hard to stomach. We might have gone down to watch the parade this year, but family commitments prevented it. As it turned out, I’m quite glad I wasn’t there to see the Queers against the Cuts contingent subjected to heavy-handed policing and treated like troublemakers by the parade organisers, while commercial firms like EDF Energy, Easyjet and Mastercard are welcomed with open arms.

Why does it bother me if people get the dates wrong? I think it’s because Brighton Pride in 1991 is the radical political root of the commercial tourism-fest celebrated today by the Argus, Brighton & Hove City Council and the Conservative Party.

By 1991, we had been campaigning against Section 28 for 3 years. We were tired, still angry, and proud of what we’d achieved. We hadn’t stopped Section 28 from becoming law, but we had begun to build a community that could lessen its pernicious effects.

We had spoken out about homophobia in schools. We had protested about the lacklustre police response to queerbashing. We had publicly remembered and mourned our dead. We had defined family our own way, declaring our relationships with lovers, friends and children to be as real as anyone else’s, whatever the law said about it.

That community defiance was what we were celebrating in 1991. Joining the Pride march was not a vote-winner in those days. There was no eight-page spread in the Argus. Hell, even the gay clubs didn’t join in. We didn’t have sponsorship money or council funding, we just had each other to rely on.

We had also begun to take our history seriously; the campaign against Section 28 spawned the wonderful Brighton Ourstory project. One of the highlights of Pride in 1991 was a walking tour of queer history in the city, led by Ourstory founder Tom Sargant. We knew that there had been a Pride parade in Brighton in 1973, but that the momentum had been lost and there had been no local Pride events since.

The Brighton Pride events in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995 were organised largely by political activists who had been closely involved in the campaign against Section 28. In 1993, after the previous year’s Preston Park event had over-reached itself and gone bust, Pride was coordinated by just two people, who thought it was important to keep the idea alive, to prevent the flame going out for another 20 years. I know this for sure. I was one of those two people.

I know things have changed. I’m not saying I want to turn the clock back. I’m happy that people can get married (if that’s what they want to do) and be out in the police force and win votes by supporting equality.

I guess all I’m saying is, let’s not forget how we got from there to here. Let’s not pretend that attitudes have changed by magic. Brighton Pride started in 1991 with a demo, not in 1992 with a piss-up. When it took some courage to join the Pride march in solidarity with LGBT people, many of the straight people who stood alongside us were socialists, like Queers against the Cuts and their supporters. They have every right to march in the parade now.