council

Brighton Greens’ council tax move shows the fight against austerity is on

[Cross-posted from my article over at Left Foot Forward yesterday]

Brighton and Hove’s Green council is taking bold steps to counter austerity. Last week the administration proposed a 4.75 per cent council tax rise to protect vital adult social care services for the city’s elderly and vulnerable residents, as well as funding for the third sector which has been badly hit by national cut-backs.

Brighton-JPEG

After three year of callous cuts from central government, Greens in Brighton have said enough is enough, arguing that radical solutions are needed to circumvent the next round of austerity being forced upon cities up and down the country. Brighton is the second hardest-hit unitary council nationally in terms of the budget reductions the coalition have forced upon it. 

That’s why they are planning to hold a referendum to let local people choose between sweeping cuts to adult social care or give around a pound a week extra.

Less than a fiver a month to protect the elderly seems like a fair ask, despite times of course being hard for Brighton residents. As Green council leader Jason Kitcat has said:

“This is the right time to ask the people what they think is the right approach – do we cut back services or pay extra, £4.53 a month or less for the majority of households, to show we really are a caring society?”

That’s not to downplay the truism that raising taxes is rarely popular, but councils face little choice. Caroline Lucas, throwing her weight behind the move, put it clearly:

“This is an appalling situation, for which the government is alone to blame. A referendum would allow the people of Brighton and Hove…to decide on the best response.”

And it’s not just Greens supporting the campaign to let Brighton decide their services’ future. The local GMB and Unison branches have spoken out in favour of the referendum, with Mark Turner, the city’s GMB branch secretary saying:

“This new budget would protect frontline services in adult social care. Cuts would have absolutely terrible consequences on people’s lives. It is only right that the public have a chance to vote on this proposal.”

The proposal for Brighton&Hove will pass in Council in February, unless opposed by both Labour and Tory councillors. It would then proceed to a ballot on 22 May – the same time as elections for European Parliament, significantly saving on administration costs.

However, the Tories and Labour in Brighton seem to be planning to stop the referendum. The proposal was rejected by the Brighton&Hove Labour Party within fifteen minutes of the announcement. They’ve also called on the minority-run council to step down, and are planning to propose a vote of no confidence, with leader of Brighton and Hove Labour Group, Warren Morgan calling for “a cross-party caretaker administration to run the council till the elections in 400 days.”

Such a care-taker administration can only mean one thing – a Labour-Tory coalition. Essentially Labour is seeking to get into bed with the Conservatives just to spite the Greens.

Meanwhile, the Tories are likely to be wedded to the coalition’s ideological council tax freeze, which is year-on-year shrinking the local state and depriving residents of key services hit by a combination of increasing demand and austerity.

In the face of such opposition, the minority council is in an extremely difficult place. That’s why it’s important that people inside and outside Brighton who support public services back the ‘#BrightonDecides’ campaign.

This Saturday, Young Greens from across the UK are heading to Brighton to campaign in favour of the referendum. We’ve also written to the national press, encouraging all Brighton&Hove councillors, and indeed councils across the country, to give the voters the chance to fight the toxicity of austerity.

Unlike other parties, the Green Party fundamentally opposes austerity – not just in words but in actions too. It’s a brave position, and it’s one that other councils, instead of simply capitulating to permanent austerity, should follow.

Cornwall Council apologises for offensive Christmas newsletter

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks after the ‘pay your rent before it’s spent’ newsletter from Cornwall Council was sent out and received by tenants across the county on Christmas eve. I complained to the council on the 30th about the content of the insulting winter publication and received this statement below on the 7th (after an unsatisfactory online response here).

Thanks to everyone who has followed the campaign and put pressure on the council to act and to treat its tenants with the dignity and decency they respect.

The next step for the council should of course be to refuse to evict anyone hit those hit by the bedroom tax and other welfare ‘reforms’ which have pushed thousands into poverty, and to put a stop to the planned £3-£5 a week rent rises for 2014.

This is a start, though. I’m going to leave the mini-campaign here because I’m mostly satisfied that this is an apology (even if some of the response continues the attitude of the newsletter re. ‘the consequences of people not budgeting correctly and not prioritising their debts’).

(Names have been deleted, and I have made some text bold – otherwise it is verbatim).

Dear Mr Mortimer,

Your Complaint about Cornwall Housing Limited

I write in response to your complaint to Cornwall Housing Limited dated 30th December 2013 which has been passed to me to respond to.

Thank you for your comments regarding the recent article ‘Pay your rent before it’s spent’ in the Winter 2013 edition of our tenants newsletter.

The newsletter is intended to provide information and advice to our tenants on a variety of topics.  The article you refer to was in no way intended to patronise any of our tenants or customers and we apologise if you found it offensive. Cornwall Housing feels it is important to remind all tenants about the dangers of falling into rent arrears and the article offered advice to anyone who was experiencing financial difficulties and urged tenants to contact us if they were struggling.

It was also intended to remind tenants in east Cornwall that we no longer give two ‘rent free’ weeks at Christmas.

The article about possible rent rises was submitted by Cornwall Council. The Tenants Forums had specifically requested that we publish this information as soon as it was available as they believed that tenants would want to know about any proposed rent increases as soon as they were suggested.

With regard to your point about Welfare Reforms, Cornwall Housing and Cornwall Council have taken a proactive leading role in understanding and explaining the Government’s Welfare Reforms and how they affect people in Cornwall and we continue to use the newsletter as a way of keeping tenants up to date with what is happening, though this information may not be relevant to all of our tenants we feel it is important to make everyone aware of the help and support we can offer. We deal with homelessness first hand so know the consequences of people not budgeting correctly and not prioritising their debts.

The newsletter was printed and sent to reach customers before Christmas but some customers received it later than intended because of delays to the postal service. These delays resulted in some copies being delivered during the festive period. This is something we will consider when putting together and sending out the newsletter in the future.

Thank you for your suggestion regarding ethical banks and credit unions, we will try and incorporate this information, if relevant, in future

Once again we apologise for any offence which was certainly not the intention of the article.

I conclude that I partly uphold your complaint.

I am satisfied that this matter has now been dealt with and therefore I will close the complaint from further investigation.  If you feel that your complaint has not been answered or that you have further information to demonstrate that the response is incorrect, you may refer the matter to the Cornwall Housing Complaints Coordinator who will escalate the complaint to a step 2 complaint. [details about stepping up the complaint have been deleted].

Please find (enclosed/attached) a leaflet regarding the complaints process for your information.

Yours sincerely

[Council officer]

Communications Officer

Cornwall Housing

Tel:0300 1234 161

Cornwall Council newsletter scandal – the ‘apology’ that never was…

Since writing my blog post on the Cornwall Council Christmas newsletter (which contained the message ‘pay your rent before it’s spent’), the story has sort of…exploded*.

You’d think with so much negative coverage for the council they would just admit that the newsletter was offensive, patronising, in bad taste and poorly timed. My family received it on Christmas eve – not a time when you want to hear that the council will bring the bailiffs in if you don’t cough up, or that you will be evicted. Also not a good time to announce rent rises of £3-£5 a week (hundreds of pounds a year) on the same page, alongside the claim that the government’s benefit ‘reforms’ are not viewed as a valid reason for underpayment.

As I’ve said elsewhere, the whole page perpetuated the myth of council tenants as reckless with spending, poor at budgeting, and the notion that poverty isn’t the cause of things like the bedroom tax and low wages but of the fecklessness and carelessness of the poor. It’s a slap in the face to thousands in Cornwall.

Was there an apology? Well…no. Yesterday the council posted an update on the scandal on its site – presumably to deflect the growing chorus against its actions. It said:

The article was intended to remind tenants of the importance of keeping on top of their rent payments over the festive period…[and] that we no longer give two ‘rent free’ weeks at Christmas.

Referring to homelessness (and implicitly, evictions), it went on to say:

We have seen first hand the consequences of people not budgeting correctly and prioritising their debts.

This is basically just another veiled threat to kick out struggling tenants for under-/non-payment of rent. But the final line is priceless:

It was certainly not our intention to patronise our tenants in any way and we are sorry if some people have interpreted the article in this way.

Basically, they are apologising for their tenants’ supposed misinterpretation of the clearly insulting newsletter. They are apologising for what they see as their residents stupidity. Essentially, ‘we are sorry if you got the wrong end of the stick’. It puts the blame on the tenants rather than the council. It’s not an apology therefore, and I’ll be seeking an actual formal apology and retraction from the council itself – not an apology for their tenants.

In sum, the council’s response continues the patronising attitude of the newsletter – that tenants are idiots to be belittled. It is not much better than the original article itself, and it certainly isn’t a retraction.

How did I hear about the ‘apology’ that never was? Twitter. No formal letter, no visit, no phone call. Instead, the council said:

I told them my family was waiting for a full formal apology. None yet.

What have the actual (Lib Dem/Indy) councillors responsible said? This is from the BBC article:

Liberal Democrat councillor Geoff Brown, cabinet member for housing, said he was sorry if anyone was offended by the newsletter, but the council was trying to help tenants by stressing the importance of people being “very, very careful and managing their money”.

Again, not actually saying sorry, just apologising for tenants’ ostensible myopia. I don’t even need to say how patronising the phrase telling residents to be “very, very careful” at “managing their money” is.

Without wanting to start a new People’s Front of Judea, the response from Labour has also been disappointing, criticising only the timing of the article, not the content or overall message and tone. “The timing of the newsletter was terrible”, said Labour councillor Michael Bunney.

But the story is kicking off. Let’s hope Cornwall Council see sense and do the right thing. Better than an apology though would be a pledge not to evict tenants hit by the bedroom tax and a pledge not to raise rents. People cannot afford the housing & council benefit cuts, and hundreds of pounds extra in rent a year.

Feel free to write to comments@cornwall.gov.uk if you have any thoughts for them!

—–

*It’s the most viewed article on the blog with nearly 500 views in around a week, and it has sparked national coverage in the Morning Star (in print), BBC News Online (here), BBC Spotlight, and the Cornish Guardian (next week – with a news piece, plus  a short comment by me).

Here’s the full message:

Cornwall Council tenant newsletter

Cornwall Council’s offensive newsletter: ‘pay your rent before it’s spent’

Something pretty disturbing and offensive came through the door of my parents’ council flat on Christmas eve. It was Cornwall Council’s seemingly innocuous winter housing newsletter to all council tenants in the county. Skimming through the pages I spotted this full-page message:

Cornwall Council tenant newsletterYep, this arrived on the doorstep on Christmas eve – a message not to spend money over the festive season and instead to send all your money to the Independent/Liberal Democrat-run Cornwall Council.

It was offensive on a number of levels – not just its timing but the implicit assumption that council tenants can’t handle their own money, that people’s poverty is self-induced and that social housing tenants are reckless with their spending – no doubt on fags, booze and Sky TV in the perspective of the political right.

Not only that, but after the obligatory information about help with payments, the second half of the message is dedicated to how many people they have tried to evict since April – 29, they inform us, as well as about a hundred legal cases sent to solicitors in recent months. They also tell us that the welfare ‘reforms’ are not a valid reason for underpaying rent – the bedroom tax is apparently not an impediment to making ends meet. At least not for Cornwall Council.

Scroll down and, after you’ve got past the stuff about how likely you are to be evicted if your rent payments slip at the end of the year, the council announce they will be ‘reviewing its current policy on rent setting’ – in non-council speak, hiking rents in 2014 by between £3 and £5 a week – a significant rise. But, in their logic, this also won’t be a valid reason for falling behind on your rent. Nope, raised rents, benefit cuts and the bedroom tax aren’t the cause of difficulties – instead Christmas spending is. Reckless tenant spending is the only true source of poverty.

On a side note, the whole page is also incredibly idiotic after the national scandal that was Hammersmith & Fulham council’s ‘Christmas card‘ to their tenants:

This made national headlines and fundamentally humiliated the council – and rightfully so.

I spoke to Alex Folkes, a Lib Dem member of the council administration, who said he would ‘look into it’ after the Christmas period. But if council tenants don’t get a break from the administration, neither should the administration get a break from tax-payers, especially after this offensive slap-in-the-face was delivered a day before Christmas. As if struggling families don’t have enough to worry about.

For some reason the Cornwall Council newsletter hasn’t created such a stir (yet). But it should, and can.

If you want to let the council know your thoughts, please write to comments@cornwall.gov.uk, cc’ing in housing@cornwall.gov.uk and customerservices@cornwall.gov.uk or call 0300 1234 100

You can also write to:

Cornwall Housing, Cornwall Council
County Hall
Treyew Road
Truro
TR1 3AY

We Need to Talk About Brighton

This is an edited version of an article cross-posted from Green Left, the eco-socialist current within the Green Party

Ask a Green a few years back whether they’d expect to be in council, and they might not have been too optimistic. Ask them whether they’d think a Green council would ever face strike action, and they may have laughed at you. Yet that’s exactly the situation we face today as a party. A Green administration, albeit a minority one – is facing hundreds of its refuse workers going on strike for a week, starting on the 14th (today), against proposed pay cuts that could see some losing up to £4000 a year, according to the GMB. We are in office, as the saying goes, but seemingly not in power.

Several local parties and individuals – including the local Brighton and Hove Green Party, Caroline Lucas (who has pledged to join the picket lines), and some university branches (including my own) – have spoken out against the bin worker pay cuts in a thus-far shambolic dispute that has seen a noble attempt to equalise pay between male and female staff leading to up to £95 a week income reductions for the (largely male) CityClean workers, idiotic comparisons to the winter of discontent by certain Greens, plausible accusations of potential strike breaking (yes, strike breaking from a Green council), and the outsourcing of the pay proposal decision altogether in order for Greens to claim ‘it wasn’t our decision’. Yet Jason Kitcat seems determined not to budge. It is, frankly a mess.

Internal discussion about this sorry state of affairs has sadly been minimal at best, actively stifled at worst (as a proposed motion to the next conference illustrates). This will not suffice. The Greens are coming under attack over this from all other sections of the left, and Labour (as well as every other supposedly progressive grouping) will exploit this to its fullest unless we change tack and handle the situation properly. If we don’t tackle the issue head on, the other parties will do it for us. We need to talk about Brighton partly because, frankly, everyone else is.

It’s not good enough to say that since the Greens are a federal party ‘it’s up to Brighton’. Brighton Greens – both the local party and our only MP have spoken. It’s now up to the rest of the party nationally to back them up in this. We have, bar some very honourable exceptions in the likes of Alex Phillips and others, a rogue council, refusing to cede to the wishes of its local party, its constituents, and (from what I gather) the rest of the party nationally. Sadly GPEX and Natalie Bennett have appeared silent on the issue.

Worthy though bringing in a Living Wage and attempting to equalise pay between male and female workers is, a Green council should never cut the pay of some of the least well off. That should be a given. As a party which has the strongest record on workers’ rights in terms of policy, strike busting should never have even been rumoured, let alone an actual possibility. Let’s be clear. The bin workers are by no means living gold-plated lifestyles. A Living Wage is a solid base, but it should be a minimum and something to build on, not to undermine through slashing allowances. Though the motives of the Labour-affiliated GMB union aren’t entirely pure, the grassroots members’ reasons for going on strike (on a 96% majority) are.

There are some hopeful signs. Leading figures in Brighton & Hove Greens have at last made public statements about the strike action, though still seemingly refusing to back down over the pay cut proposals. The GMB has agreed to re-enter negotiations. And the candidate for the Hanover & Elm Grove by-election, David Gibson, is a solid trade unionist who opposes the measures to equalise pay down instead of up.

Nonetheless, myself – and I imagine thousands of other Greens – never thought we’d have to ever be in the position of backing workers striking against our own council. We need to be having a serious discussion about the possibility of setting ‘needs budgets’, and if not, discussing whether we should be in office at all if we are forced to act as a mere smoke-screen for Tory-Lib Dem cuts. At what point do we start to consider that to stay in office and continue to implement cuts would be to breach our fundamental principles? As the Green Party conference in Brighton approaches (provided it isn’t moved to avoid potential strike ‘embarrassment’, as has been considered), it’s time to get backtracking on the proposed pay cuts, fast – and time to start talking.

Josiah Mortimer (@josiahmortimer) is a Green Party activist and student based in York.

The real fourth party is here to stay…

[Reposted from my Green Party column at The Yorker]

You’d be forgiven for thinking amid all the hype about UKIP that the Greens had dissolved as a party and headed to the pub to drown our sorrows.

But the striking thing about the council election results is that though a certain hard-right protest party has crept ahead of the Greens in terms of councillor numbers – though not by much – the Greens remain distinctly the constant fourth party in British politics.

The party made some real breakthroughs, and continued a steady march towards becoming a major force, stepping on to councils in Essex, Cornwall, Kent, Surrey, Devon and Warwickshire for the first time. And on Warwickshire County Council, the Greens not only won extra representation, but kicked out the Tory council leader by several hundred votes. That’s what it’s all about folks – a definite highlight of the political year. The York Young Greens’ youthful counterparts won seats in Bristol and Oxford, too

The Party’s steady growth is potentially unstoppable. ©Commons.

Our reach is spreading, setting us up for next year’s European elections, where a mere 2% swing could see the Greens tripling our number of MEPs from two to six. Easily achievable – especially after this election extending the Green hand to previously untouched areas, and continuing the rapid conversion of the West Midlands to a Green heartland.

So what do this week’s council elections show? Aside from a new presence on six councils, and a net gain of five seats, it shows the Green Party message of sustainable and local economies is getting through in these tough times. It shows that our message of a Living Wage for all is speaking to people whose wages have stagnated over the past 30 years under a failed neoliberal economic model. Our opposition to austerity and its ramifications – cuts, privatisation, outsourcing, reduced public services – is resonating. The party’s growth is steady – unlike UKIP’s flash-in-the-pan anti-politics which could fade now that they hold the balance of power in some councils.

The Green Party now has 141 principal authority councillors. Yet the coverage of our successes has been dismal. Why? Well, the party itself is less sensational than a collection of EDL-supported candidates and conspiracy theorists rising from seemingly nowhere. But beneath that, there’s a sense that the largely right-wing media have reasons not to fall in love with us like they have the party of the public-school educated stockbroker’s-son Nigel Farage.

So the Greens have to work much harder than the anti-immigration lot do to get a positive front page in the Daily Express or the Sun. But if we wanted their endorsements, we wouldn’t be the party we are. And that’s something to be proud of. A party without wealthy ex-Tory backers, without xenophobic rhetoric, and without ecstatic tabloid coverage is gaining ground, slowly but surely. The real fourth party of British politics – one that actually has an MP – is, possibly unlike UKIP, here to stay. And with a positive message of social and environmental justice, the Green Party’s steady growth is potentially unstoppable.

The Greens’ new election broadcast puts re-nationalisation on the agenda

The Green Party’s new election broadcast for next month’s council elections has now been released. And it’s fantastic.

It’s a strident, progressive (or socialist, even) video, and one which shows the Greens to be at the forefront of the fight against neoliberalism and its manifestations – the bedroom tax, runaway finance and privatisation. The fundamental message is that ‘austerity has failed – the cuts aren’t working’.

The most uplifting part of the video though – as highlighted over at Bright Green – is the line ‘we’ll return our energy, water and rail networks to public ownership’. Combined with an environmental message, it’s bang on, and I must admit I gave a little cheer when I heard it. Because the majority of the public stand against the privatisation of our utilities, pioneered by Thatcher in the 80s – 61% of them do, in fact.

It’s not just going with opinion though – it’s saying what Labour won’t say, and it’s saying something central to Green values – public ownership over private profit. Exactly the kind of message we need to convey, and showing real leadership on an issue so often unquestioned in the media.

The Greens are standing around 1000 candidates in the council elections, and we’re expecting gains. Last year’s elections saw about a dozen extra wins, something we can build upon this year. With around 150 councillors, the Greens are now showing that we’re the party of social and environmental justice (as leading ex-Labour figures recognised last week…) – and this latest broadcast makes that incredibly clear.