Is the Brighton Society a political organisation?
– a reply to Cllr Childs and Cllr Shanks.
We’d like to thank the councillors who contacted us after reading the February 2022 Newsletter. In raising their respective criticisms, deputy Green Party leader Sue Shanks and Labour Party Planning Spokesman, Nick Childs provide us with a useful opportunity to re-state how our mandate intersects with the sphere of politics.
Brighton Society trustees, like the membership at large, are made up of all democratic political colours and none. The outlook diversity this achieves reinforces our strength – namely, the ease with which we find common cause on issues relating to the built environment and planning decisions.
It should surprise no one that the Brighton Society is obliged to sail into choppy waters which are both ‘party’ political and political. In the case of planning, we might add ‘quasi-judicial’ given this arena is indelibly linked to central government policy-making. Navigating these waters does not make the Brighton Society a political organisation.
The criticism came in separate communications. Cllr Childs said this:
I note with concern the political advocacy for political groups and/or individuals in this newsletter. Is the Brighton Society now a political organisation? Could you please clarify this matter, which would of course be a matter of public interest.
Cllr Shanks echoed this concern:
I am concerned at the very political nature of this newsletter, I presume you are a charity and should be non-political?
It seems highly likely that these concerns relate wholly or in part to a Newsletter opinion piece about the planning process titled The failure of our political class. In broad terms, the ‘failure’ that this article describes transcends party politics. Insofar as Green, Labour and Conservative parties resist or are complicit with the will of powerful developers, we simply give credit or criticism where it’s due. Spanning decades, the Brighton Society’s criticism has been directed at the process. Invariably this points to central government regardless of which party holds office. Lately, our focus has been on the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Because our council cannot demonstrate the all-important ‘five year housing land supply’, central government effectively suspends vital planning regulations in the favour of developers who can squeeze the highest number of new homes into a site – regardless of good architecture, type or size of dwelling or affordability. In this sense, we recognise that government places a gun to the head of planning committees but can’t help noticing those moments when councillors (from any party) fawn over dreadful proposals.
An example of giving credit where it’s due is of course the £350 million Marina development – dubbed by Nick Childs “a Poundshop Dubai” – which was eventually refused by planning inspectors in 2020. The tallest of the tower blocks would have been 28 storeys high. We give full credit to councillors like Nick Childs and Bridget Fishleigh (though not Sue Shanks – sorry Sue) who eviscerated all aspects of the design including, as always, the lack of “affordable” housing. They had the courage of their convictions despite the risk that the application might have been turned down at appeal. (In the event, it never got that far – the developer appealed before the council got around to making a decision – fortunately common sense prevailed and the appeal was rejected!)
It was almost certainly the last two paragraphs of The failure of our political class that ruffled the feathers of Nick and Sue. Summing up its characterisation of the political class in relation to the sphere of planning, the article states:
Increasingly, new and inexperienced councillors rely on officers to guide them through all aspects of governance, be it planning or environment and transport, schools strategies, budgets or anything else. Our council is more or less a technocracy. As such, it has scant regard for democratic process. In turn, officers rely on elected councillors to go along with their ‘recommendations’.
The implied criticism of councillors is very much a case of ‘if the cap fits’ and this penultimate paragraph goes on to recognise diligent councillors “spread thin by party matters and putting out the fires started by ill-conceived policy”.
However, we think the mention of independent councillors and, specifically, Bridget Fishleigh provided the zinger comment triggering Nick and Sue’s accusation:
This is why our city needs a dramatic shift. A new era of independent councillors derived from civic life and community and business enterprise would breathe oxygen back into local democracy. Opposed to the byzantine ways of Hove Town Hall and the tribalism of parties, independents can embody outlook diversity but still agree on the things most people want. As the big parties disintegrate, the election of independents might one day influence a shift toward a council that becomes largely invisible. In this model the town hall becomes a machine that simply serves citizens by maintaining (occasionally enacting) the basic conditions of a functioning city. Gone would be the strategies and vanity projects cooked up by powerful officers and party ideologues with little or no public consultation. I note that independent councillor Bridget Fishleigh is offering the city a lightning rod for achieving this very thing.
On the accusation of ‘political advocacy’ (and if complaints are winging their way to the Charity Commission), we would first point out that most who read this article will have noted the ‘politics of planning’ context within which advocating for more independent councillors is situated. The thumbs up for councillors of no party affiliation is explicitly argued as a potential asset for active citizenship within the realm of planning. Second, we would point out para 2.2 of the government guidance on ‘Campaigning and political guidance for charities’, which states “Campaigning, advocacy and political activity are all legitimate and valuable activities for charities to undertake”.
Both the figure of Bridget Fishleigh (as Brighton’s only genuinely independent councillor) and the spectre of an imminent influx of independent councillors, rile our political parties. And for good reason. After the 2019 May elections, with the council so finely balanced between Green and Labour, Bridget Fishleigh became a politician with considerable kudos, not least because she tirelessly serves her constituents unencumbered by the tribal needs of party. That the Brighton Society would advocate for Cllr Fishleigh’s new Brighton and Hove Independents Group (as a lightning rod for dozens of candidates to gather around her in the 2023 election) is self-evidently a call to disinvest big ‘P’ politics from the democratic business of running a city well.
That this would disconcert them (betraying their view that genuine citizen-representation poses an existential threat to the party monopoly) is also self-evidently an argument for independent councillors. For this we thank Cllrs Childs and Shanks and welcome all contributions to this debate.
The Brighton Society