In an exclusive interview with The Seagull, council leader Bella Sankey goes into more detail on the council's new city plan, which outlines its priorities for Brighton & Hove from 2023 to 2027. One thing is clear from our talk with her: the council is committed to finding ways to combat a decade of government underfunding, the budget shortfall from the previous council, and the cost of living crisis to improve services in the city.
Funding, economic mismanagement, and income
Having read through the report in detail, we had a lot of questions to ask the councillor. Namely: where is the money for all of these changes coming from, given the national government cuts over the last decade and the huge budget shortfall thanks to the previous administration? Councillor Sankey said:
Brighton and Hove has the double whammy of Tory austerity that everyone has had, but we've also had twenty years of no overall political control, and, in my view, two green administrations where one of the hallmarks is economic mismanagement.
Councillor Sankey described the council's position as 'particularly difficult', but that she's 'definitely somebody that believes where there's a will, there's a way'. So where is the funding coming from? She told us:
Often in these discussions, it's straight to savings and cuts. When I say income, I don't mean more disproportionate hiking charges. That's another criticism that I'd have of the last administration, that where they sought to get their income wasn't the right place. So we've asked for an immediate review of all of the council's assets to try and ensure that we are generating as much income as possible from the assets that we have as a council.
The council plans to 'think creatively' about its income: for example, reviewing allotment services and trying to bring down the waiting list for allotments. 'A small example', Bella said, but one that showcases 'the kind of direction we want to go in'. Being 'fiscally responsible' was a key mantra of the time we spent with her:
That's why we put in place the quite immediate budget controls, and it's not easy and it's not ideal, but it needed to happen. We don't want to get to a situation like the last administration did last year where it's all happening too late. And then you have to make, not just difficult decisions, but flawed decisions because you're panicking.
Measuring success and time boxes
The city plan document is full of progress measures, indicating metrics that the council can measure their progress against, but no timelines or targets–we wanted to know whether Councillor Sankey has any plans to devise such goals for success.
She says the city plan was always intended to be a 'high level' document that, in another world, could have taken more than half a year to produce. We were told they did not have time, or in some cases it was not appropriate, to include specific targets, but that directorate plans will flow from the document and include targets and strategies to help 'deliver the vision'.
We've also been promised more specifics over the coming months. Councillor Sankey said:
Actually measuring progress with metrics, as long as you're drilling into the data and measuring the progress, that is a more valid way of measuring success than kind of what I think a lot of politicians tend to try and do these days, which is to pluck numbers out of the air.
Take the Tories bringing immigration down to X level: that didn't work out for them, because they were trying to produce a target about something that was so outside of their control. And a lot of stuff we do things are outside of our control.
The new council's challenge is huge and their situation difficult: they might have won a huge majority, but there's a lot they want to do, not a lot of time to do it in, and not a lot of money to do it with. On top of that, moving from no overall control to such a large majority 'creates its own kind of pressure'. So what are their priorities? Things they can control.
One thing that's different about our administration, is that we're very fixated on the things that we've got control over. And we're not going to get drawn into kind of endless grandstanding over things that we don't have control over.
She told us about a conversation at Full Council about Southern Water. In a short space of time, they brought forward concrete, tangible things they've gotten Southern Water to commit to: water testing, and a feasibility study on water fountains. She said:
The Greens, by contrast, have spent years and years talking about compensation and have actually got nothing to show for it. And so we are about action, but also focusing on what we can do, not ideological grandstanding.
The importance of action and delivery
We wanted to know how the council plans to monitor things that don't have progress measures attached to them. She assured us that every output in the plan is going to be tracked internally, and that they will be 'keeping a really close eye on how we're doing against all of these measures… if things aren't where we want them to be, we'll be driving them on'. She said:
This is all about action and delivery. What we've already shown in the last eight weeks is that we are an administration about action, we are not interested in hot air or good intentions: we do want to deliver and we have to deliver because we have a whopping majority. And so there are high expectations, rightly so, about what we're going to do.
Food poverty and insecurity
For the first time in the city's history, the council has a food poverty lead, Councillor Mitchie Alexander, who has a background as a community activist growing fresh vegetables for food banks, and as a development worker for CHOMP, the school holiday food hunger project.
Councillor Sankey spoke about how 'awful' it is that there is a need for so many food banks in the city, but that as a council they are committed to doing what they can to support the food banks while they're needed; a cost of living strategy which will include measures on food poverty is set to come out any day now.
She spoke about how lucky we are as a city in terms of our locations, with so much land and sea around us that produces food, but that we could be thinking more about food sustainability. 'I'm not going to ban pineapples', she promises, but 'we do really need to do a bit of reflection and think about how we can source more food locally'.
Food sustainability is what the Greater Brighton Economic Board says that it wants to look at and as administration we're really supportive of.
I don't think there are enough mechanisms by which in the city you can get food locally, cheaply. But I think that the local authority potentially has a convening role in that, working with other local authorities to join up food production and consumption.
Where are the new homes to be built?
The question on everybody's mind: what are the council going to do to make housing more affordable to people in the city, both for buying and renting? And not just on the outskirts of the city, but in the city centre itself. Councillor Sankey said there's a lot the government is doing that's making things 'very difficult' for the city, and 'we obviously need a Labour government to sort that out'.
Truss' budget last year had a very, very direct effect on estate agents: December is normally their quiet month, but it was actually their busiest month last year, because they had so many people just instantly having to put their house on the market because of the impact or because what they knew the impact will be on their mortgage this year or next year.
We're committed to using every lever we can to deliver more decent and affordable homes. Part of that is building or buying homes ourselves as a council, and part of that is driving up standards through landlord licensing, through our principal residence policy to ensure that we're not getting more and more second home owners in Brighton and Hove.
She talked about how one of the things the council is keen to do is a study on affordability, and the impact that rent control could have on affordability in the city. If it was something that a future government allowed councils to do, she thinks it could make a big difference.
Plans to increase support for small and midsize enterprises (SMEs)
The plan also mentioned 'important plans' to increase support for SMEs: we wanted the details on what that would look like. And, unsurprisingly, it all comes back to housing. Councillor Sankey spoke about a Brighton Chamber event where business owners were pleased their employees used flexitime, because none of them could afford to live in the city. She also spoke to a hospitality business owner who had to put their staff up in an Airbnb over the summer because they were served a no-fault eviction and couldn't afford somewhere else to live, and another business owner who has had to put up wages so much to afford housing that their profits are suffering.
I knew housing would be an issue, but I don't think I'd previously appreciated how much of it how much it is an issue for SMEs in the city. Again and again and again, everyone has been feeding back: housing, housing, housing, you need to sort out housing.
The council wants to focus on affordability, housing quality, energy costs and inflation: these are the things that have really been hitting people. And on energy costs, she said:
One thing I'm really struck by from the last administration: you'd expect the only place in the country that's experimented with green administrations twice in the last decade to have a really good plan in place for moving the city's energy system from carbon to sustainable, but there isn't.
If we can move things on in terms of energy in the city, that would be a massive gain for our businesses, but also mean that we're delivering on our net-zero ambitions as well. And so that's something that we're going to be really focusing on over the next six months.
Last year, Brighton, especially the area around the Clock Tower, had the third-highest pollution level in the country according to Friends of the Earth. Specifically, it had high levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) which come from traffic fumes. The national target is 40 micrograms of NO2 per cubic metre of air–the Clock Tower was found to have an annual average of 90.8, more than twice what it should be. We wanted to know how the council plans to improve the city's air quality, and what specific actions are being implemented to reduce carbon emissions and work towards net-zero.
Councillor Sankey is concerned that there isn't enough of a net-zero plan currently, something the council plans to review. But she wants it to be more comprehensive and connected and, crucially, evidence led, 'not just kind of piecemeal initiatives that are kind of eye catching, but not really structured'. She said:
We're very keen to build an integrated transport system, but also really increase our electric vehicle (EV) charging. We need cycle hangers, not just in certain bits of the city, but right across the city at the moment, and there aren't many EV chargers on council states. And again, I think that tells you something about the priorities of the last administration.
Now to the ever-controversial cycle lanes! Councillor Sankey wants to devise a whole city plan and plot out where we need our cycle lanes in consultation with residents, so they're put in the most strategic places that make sense to cyclists. She said she's lost count of the number of times the city's cyclists have told her that they dislike the current cycle lane layout.
I think the thing about the Labour Party and the Labour administration lately is that we understand that you don't deliver on climate goals by leaving out whole swathes of the population, particularly people that are on low incomes, actually, you need to make sure that you are tailoring your climate solutions to everybody's lifestyles and needs and finances.
The council is also 'absolutely committed' to developing the Park & Ride system: "You don't deal with air quality without a functioning Park & Ride system, and that's something that's already underway."
How does the council plan to involve community decision-making processes?
Something that's been very clear throughout Team Seagull's reading of the City Plan is that the council really plans to involve relevant communities in the decision-making processes. This isn't a new thing for the councillors, however, as they undertook what Councillor Sankey believes to be 'the biggest listening exercise that the city has ever seen, politically'. She said:
I think we already have a better understanding than previous administrations do about residents in a much more egalitarian way. We want to carry that through into administration, so we're thinking about what our processes for consultation engagement will be.
She's particularly concerned about making sure those who are digitally excluded have their voices heard, and that the council 'find every way to communicate and engage people'. Luckily, she says, the councillors are already 'real champions in their communities… they are genuinely embedded in their community'.
We have an amazing resident population that is creative and insightful and has a lot of local knowledge, ideas and imagination. I think that's what we want to drive that is kind of bringing those to the fore. It's not about highly paid consultants in London, telling us what to do in the city. It's about the residents of Brighton & Hove.