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Brighton & Hove – the Big Green Letdown

imageTracey Hill, Coordinator of Brighton & Hove SERA, writes about the divided and ineffective Green Party running the City Council. Brighton and Hove has just become the first city to sign up to One Planet Living status. This puts us on an ambitious path towards living within the available resources of the planet by 2050. It will require confidence-inspiring leadership and wide scale buy-in from a broad spectrum of political and community perspectives. It is a huge positive that the city has the will to aspire to such a goal. But can the Green Party deliver?

In just two years their approach has divided communities. Green Party initiatives, however well-intentioned, come across as worthy aims of an urban elite not necessarily in touch with the real pressures and concerns of ordinary people. The assumption that a car is a luxury almost all of us can do without is typical of a party dominated by urban professional elites who can afford to live within walking distance of transport hubs and have desk jobs that can be done from home. A suburban shift worker will be alienated by a far-reaching plan for the city that does not take the reality of their lives into account. While sounding good, the Greens’ evangelism and narrow perspective will severely limit their effectiveness, because they will be unable to maintain the broad base of support required to bring about long-term change.

These systemic problems are becoming apparent in schemes which have polarised opinion, such as a large-scale default 20mph zone covering much of the city centre including main roads. Improving cycle lanes is positive, but cutting bus services at the same time demonstrates a lack of interest in those living in more remote areas for whom cycling is not a realistic option.

In addition, two years into their first ever administration, the Green Party is deeply divided. Until recently, a strike by refuse workers, stunned at being asked to accept pay cuts of up to £4, 000 per year, left rubbish uncollected in the streets. An attempted coup by Green Party councillors narrowly failed to oust the council leader. The country’s only Green Party MP has spoken openly in criticism of her party’s only council. If they are unable to stay unified themselves, it seems unlikely they will be able to unify the city.

Brighton and Hove has a reputation for being quirky and alternative, but it is more diverse than that. Go north, east or west from the seafront more than a couple of miles and you are into south coast suburbs with a mix of Tory (increasingly UKIP) and Labour neighbourhoods. Two of our three MPs are Tories, and Labour came a close second in all three constituencies: the city is a genuine three-way marginal. Labour is much better placed than the Green Party to achieve the necessary broad base of support to move us forward, by employing a co-operative approach.

If we want broad agreement, we need to make sustainability a common objective by demonstrating real and practical benefits, and by enabling participation in decisions about what is actually done. If people can see how they and their local area will benefit, for example through rewards from reducing their waste, or via cheaper heating costs from a community energy scheme, that will make it much more real than simply a feeling that we should be doing the right thing. Labour Co-operative councils have used co-operative ownership structures to radically change the relationship between citizens and the local council, making local government a collaborative experience. That kind of approach is much more likely to lead us towards a sustainable future than ideologically-driven schemes imposed on a reluctant public by a party barely able to keep itself together.

5 Comments on Brighton & Hove – the Big Green Letdown

  1. I find this post a bit confusing. If living without a car is something that requires a high income, why is it used as an indicator of poverty? If the 20mph zone is divisive, why was it supported by all councillors on the transport committee? Do you support the similar (in fact more comprehensive) scheme introduced by Islington council?

    I find it curious also that you don’t mention the insulation and solar energy programme the Green administration has begun for council housing in the city. I hope SERA supports this very practical initiative to cut carbon emissions and reduce energy bills for council tenants.

  2. Red Reflections // June 24, 2013 at 8:32 pm // Reply

    Choosing not to have a car is a practical option for people who live in areas close to good transport links, which tend to support higher property prices than more remote suburbs. Pooran Desai, the co-founder of One Planet Living, on Saturday said that 90% of the population could live without a car. But then he lives in south London and has a professional type of job that you can do at home. Not everyone is in that situation. If you are bringing up a family on a budget you may need to live further away from a town centre to afford the space.

    The public consultation on the 20mph zone was very close, I believe something like 52% in favour and 48% against? There are certainly plenty of people in the Hanover and Elm Grove area speaking out against it. It’s not that they are against 20mph altogether, but the default zone which takes in some of the main roads as well. In 2009 a scrutiny panel recommended extending the existing 20mph zones and introducing new ones in areas which need it, which frees up more budget to actually enforce it.

    There are plenty of really worthwhile environmental initiatives in the city, attributable to the efforts of many dedicated citizens. There are a number of solar energy programmes making good use of Labour’s feed-in tariff legislation. My worry is that the Green council’s over-zealous approach is actually putting people off environmental initiatives and limiting what we can deliver in practice.

  3. Speaking as a Brighton-resident Green Party member (though not necessarily a cheerleader for the current administration) …

    It’s not surprising that this piece focusses on transport issues, given Brighton’s appalling traffic problems. I think the comment about Greens seeing the car as a luxury is just wrong; I’d argue that the Green perspective is much more about how planning and development policies – including those followed by Labour in national office – have entrenched car dependency, with all the environmental problems and social division that brings. It’s often forgotten in all this that a third of the population has no access to a car and that car use is closely linked to income. And that’s before you consider the public health and road safety issues, where the impact of car use falls disproportionately on the poorest and most vulnerable in society. I think the author of this piece falls into the same trap as Labour nationally of seriously underestimating how car dependency is linked to issues of equality and social justice. And that’s an equation that matters on individual streets – a 20mph limit has a huge impact at street level, making them more open and liveable for people without cars. The people who benefit most from taming urban and suburban traffic are, I’m afraid, precisely those who are most excluded from a political debate expressed in terms of middle-class entitlement (“squeezed middle”, “hard-working families”, and all the rest of it).

    And, in Brighton, I think that any political party aspiring to run the city has to ask itself whether it is really credible or sustainable to plan for a local economy based around encouraging car-borne visitors to the city. Of course this is a long-term question; it’s about asking where our city will be in 20 or 30 years’ time and how you manage a transition that protects jobs. I think Labour’s recent adoption of Park and Ride is a sign that it’s not asking the right questions – it is still falling into the trap of thinking that economic prosperity in the long term is about allowing faster access to the city centre for incoming traffic, and that’s before you consider the fact that in most circumstances – and certainly in a city wedged tightly between a national park and the sea – Park and Ride simply doesn’t work. It effectively subsidises increased local car journeys while shifting the externalities of car use to the suburbs. It’s economically regressive and causes congestion in residential areas around Park and Ride terminals, as well as involving concreting over land and – as with the last Tory administration plans – turning residential roads into rat-runs. There’s loads of literature on all of this, including hard evidence that Park and Ride is quite likely to increase car use and emissions; and that’s before you consider the problem of where you put the car parks in a city like Brighton.

    I think for Labour to present itself as a champion of Brighton’s environment it has to ask itself fundamental questions about what a sustainable city looks like. I don’t see much evidence of that, to be frank; to win over the small ‘g’ green vote in Brighton Labour needs to be far more radical (and all of this costs, too, so persuading Ed Balls that matching the Tories’ expenditure plans is a self-defeating and nonsensical thing to do. But I digress).

    In short: you may well criticise the Green administration (although it might counter that it has achieved some major steps forward, like the Lewes Road scheme or even the Seven Dials improvements – elm tree shenanigans aside, at a time of unparalleled austerity). But where is the Labour vision?

    • Hi Neil, thanks for the post. I do believe that attracting visitors to Brighton and Hove is vital for the local economy, particularly providing jobs for people who grew up in the city and have trouble finding employment when they leave school. The Green Party is officially against economic growth, although local councillors seem to tell a different story when talking to the city’s business leaders.

      We can send a message to people that if they insist on driving they are not welcome in Brighton and Hove – that’s pretty much what we have already done with our ridiculous seafront parking charges. But it’s wishful thinking that those people will come here by public transport instead – most will simply drive somewhere else, like Eastbourne or Bournemouth where visitor numbers were up last year while ours were down. A massive own goal for climate change, and we scupper our local economy at the same time. Looking at the queue of traffic that forms coming into the city at the start of summer weekends, and the same queue back out again at the end of the weekend, it seems common sense to me to try to stop some of that traffic coming into the city centre at all. Park and Ride would reduce congestion on the streets, alleviate parking problems and improve the poor air quality we have at the moment.

      We do need to do more to put together a vision of what Brighton and Hove under Labour would look like, and two years before the next local elections we are working on that. In the article and elsewhere I mention that co-operative structures are a part of this, and that we would focus on what benefits people will actually see from moving to a lower impact economy. In the meantime, I have rather lost sense of what the Greens’ vision was for the city and how they are delivering it, particularly given the news this week that recycling is down and emissions are up.

      • Neil Schofield // July 5, 2013 at 11:48 am //

        I’m not going to disagree with a lot of what you say – especially in the last paragraph. The CO2 figures are poor (though old) but the recycling levels in the city are an obvious disgrace; and people in all parties should not shy away from confronting that, least of all in the ruling administration. I’m afraid countering with air quality numbers apparently falling is not really good enough – it could just be due to the churn in the vehicle fleet (especially new cleaner diesels). Ultimately you have to look at these figures against the background – increasing CO2 numbers could be due just to people using more heating in cold winters and car use is closely linked to economic activity. Nevertheless I am deeply concerned that a Green administration appears to be rationalising away the emission and recycling numbers. And my point about a Green vision is aimed just as squarely at the current administration as Labour, because I know – going about my daily life in the city and talking to people of all political persuasions and none – how badly people have lost sight of what the Green administration is for.

        However. A couple of points.

        First, growth. In my view (and this is one of the reason why I’m a slightly semi-detached member of the Green Party) the Green Party narrative on growth is confused and contradictory. Yes, there is no doubt that the pursuit of long-term growth based purely on monetary valuations is hugely damaging – for the obvious reasons that externalities are left out of the calculation and the righting of environmental wrongs counts as an economic good rather than a cost (firms cleaning up oil spills contribute to GDP). There is a huge literature about this; and also about how growth correlates with inequalities as well as environmental damage. And it is more than a valuation problem. In my days as a DfT official (words you don’t often hear from a Green Party member) I attended conferences on environmental evaluation and, believe me, they generate far more heat than light. Much of the problem with road-building comes from attributing values to things like time and accident costs, using stated preference techniques that – in my view – don’t really stand up to scrutiny and certainly don’t allow complex local issues to be addressed (and many roads – including the Bexhill by-pass – are built for political reasons when even that limited appraisal doesn’t stack up). But in the shorter term, yes, in an environment where there is mass unemployment, empty shops and hardcore poverty, you have to have growth. Sustainable growth, of course; growth that is carefully accounted and discounts externalities over long periods of time, and which tries to understand that many of the effects of economic activity cannot be priced and need to be subject to democratic scrutiny and accountability (for a Green vision of how this can be done, the writings of Elinor Ostrom on the commons are an absolute must – I firmly believe that without an understanding of commons you just can’t get to grips with these issues). Stimulating an intelligent debate in the Green Party about growth is not Brighton Labour’s problem, of course (be grateful).

        Where all that leads is to the second point about car-borne visitors. Yes, of course people growing up in Brighton need jobs. But if you look at the economics of the car-borne visitor economy, does it really provide that? I am very interested in the flows of wealth that this provides; if those visitors are spending in Brighton and some of that spending immediately flows out of the city in the form of profits to businesses run from out-of-town, that’s not really generating sustainable local jobs (especially when many of those businesses are national chains who are using workfare, which is effectively a government subsidy for unfair competition against local businesses. And one of the most interesting effects of the concentration of retailing, for example, in the hands of a relatively small number of big chains is that although supermarkets obviously have lots of people working in them, the number of people working in retailing in their catchment actually falls. They don’t create jobs at all).

        Moreover, you talk about punitive parking charges. I’ve long thought that part of the alleged effect of parking charges is far more about economic slump – but I think you have to look at the bigger picture. If you reduce parking charges to encourage more traffic, who is paying the price? I’d argue that it’s the communities through whom traffic flows, in the form of noise, pollution, community severance and general quality of life; just as the price for Park and Ride (which, the literature overwhelmingly shows, generates trips, does not substitute car journeys, requires costly subsidies and has a bad environmental effect around parking sites) is paid by the peripheral communities near the sites and of course by council-tax payers – many of whom, of course do not have cars – who are paying the subsidies.

        In all of this, I’m not sure that thoughtful Greens and thoughtful Labour are not that far apart. But it has to be a democratic process, in which people are genuinely engaged. The people who pay the highest price for the politics of car dependency – the poor, the immobile, children – are also those who are furthest from the democratic process. I want to see a real democratic and grounded debate about what our city should be, informed by sustainability and long-term issues of quality of life.

        Apologies for the length: but it’s a really big debate.

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