The last time the Conservatives ran Brighton & Hove City Council was between 2007 and 2011.
During this period there were no strikes in the City – a record that as Conservatives we are very proud of and reflects the positive and successful way in which we managed services and finances on behalf of residents. It was the Conservatives that maintained a good working relationship with departments and the unions and delivered stability of service delivery in this City.
Since 2011, under the subsequent administrations, there have been many strikes, most famously the bin strikes which made international headlines.
Right now, we are in the middle of yet another strike in Brighton & Hove, with the City’s Housing Repair Workers having been on strike for one week with another 10-day strike at the end of September looming.
The strikes the City has faced since 2011 have almost without exception resulted from poor policy decisions concerning the City’s key services and sadly have hit the City’s most vulnerable the hardest.
With the severe consequences of strikes for our City, it is more important than ever for councillors reflect on how they come to pass and what can be done to prevent the need for them in future.
The story of another strike
The current situation the council finds itself in should be a cautionary tale of the consequences of poorly thought through policy decisions.
Two years ago the Council’s administration made a policy decision to move the City’s Housing Repair Service for its council houses ‘in-house’.
In the opinion of the Conservative Group this was a mostly ideologically-driven decision by councillors which do not like the idea of the private sector providing contracted services to the City.
A budget of £112,000 was earmarked to cover the cost of setting up the new service and a reserve of £982,000 put by from the City’s Housing Revenue Account.
In raising our Conservative Groups’ opposition to the plan, I pointed out the Housing Revenue Account is a very important budget item, formed from the rent contributions of tenants and leaseholders of the City’s council houses and is meant to be used for repairs and maintenance to their properties.
Using this fund to pay for set-up costs to bring a service ‘in house’ for ideological reasons could not be justified in our opinion.
However, our concerns were waved away and the decision to bring the services in-house proceeded.
How strikes hurt the most vulnerable
Now in 2020 the consequences of this decision have come to bear, and the City’s housing repairs service is in crisis.
The council, having already blasted through the initial budget for this project for set up costs has now spent millions more; and is facing rolling strike action having been accused of breaking its commitments over the wages of staff being brought in-house.
I have spoken to the leader of the GMB union Sussex branch many times and must say I agree with him that the council has failed to meet the commitments that it made when they decided to bring the service in-house. The council simply didn’t think through the implications of what it was proposing.
Unfortunately, as with all these strikes, it is the City’s vulnerable residents that have suffered.
The millions of pounds wasted on this process has been paid for ultimately by the poorest residents in the City renting the city’s Council houses. Every Councillor has tenants who pay rent into the Housing Revenue Account and to have this funding squandered on set up costs is unforgiveable.
This, combined with the current lack of repair capacity due to the strikes, has added to lengthy waiting time many face waiting for basic repairs.
The Conservatives have been contacted by one council tenant in Hangleton & Knoll who is still waiting for work associated with the removal of asbestos from her roof to be completed. It is causing great anxiety for her which she shouldn’t have to face with two young children.
The lessons the council must learn going forward
The crisis in housing repairs now joins a growing list of scandalous failures in service delivery from the council.
Time and time again we are seeing policy decisions that are poorly thought through and that end in financial disaster for our city and its residents.
Councillors must stop taking decisions on ideological reasons and start making considered decisions based on evidence.
The goal for the City must be a return to good management, better communication with stakeholders and sensible considered policy delivered by the last Conservative administration which saw no strikes. We must always recognise it is residents’ money we are spending.
There is now an immediate need for the council to engage in the process of resolving this dispute and get a housing repairs service up and running again for the people that need it. This responsibility now lies with the Leader of the Council.