The failure of our political class
Across the twenty years I’ve lived in this city it has become apparent that when citizens voice an objection to something the council is doing others are keen to point out a basic flaw. Namely, citizens are responsible for placing a council administration in power. If we are unhappy, runs the argument, then the ballot box can fix it. Setting aside the myriad debates on how just or fair our electoral system is (and briefly noting that the Green Party administration did not assume control last summer as a result of an election), the idea that the people get the council they deserve merits some investigation.
Newsletter readers will know that on these pages and on the Brighton Society’s website our scrutiny of suspect large-scale planning applications and their frequent approval by the council increasingly highlight the issue of public awareness. In a nutshell, if residents citywide know of a grotesque over-development looming on the horizon early enough they might have a chance to oppose. They may even propose something much better, something orientated around environmental and human needs.
The ongoing campaign to oppose a development at the old gasworks site in east Brighton is a case in point. Civic groups like the Brighton Society, the Regency Society and an array of community groups across the city came together to oppose the proposals. Importantly, they were able to catch on to the true nature of the proposals long before the application was logged. Through these groups, significant numbers of the public have been made aware of the plans and galvanised to register objections (please note: more objections are needed).
Bitter experience tells us that getting wind of a juggernaut of unscrupulous development inching its way toward us is key. West of the gasworks, the 2018 neighbourhood campaign for a better solution to the old Amex site was denied this head start. Residents were reassured by council drawings published in 2013 extolling the virtues of the Edward Street Quarter. The vision was sensitive to the community and the surrounding built environment. Unaware that backroom decisions about an entirely different development had already been made, the reality revealed by ‘notice of application’ letters tied to lampposts came as a shock. From this moment in February 2018, the statutory clock began ticking all the way to the July hearing. Over the years (though with a few uplifting exceptions) some of these hearings may as well have been theatre scripts written long in advance.
The murky quasi-judicial world of planning departments are undemocratic. If planning officers having meetings with developers behind closed doors isn’t troubling enough then consider the PR and ‘events’ organisers that developers deploy. In 2018, this included the ‘community’ dinner held for neighbours close to the Amex site (but mostly for Argus photographers) which omitted to invite them. Here the Mayor sat alongside residents bussed in from far and wide.
My personal chilling favourite is cited in Anna Minton’s excellent book Big Capital. She describes the 2008 plans to demolish the King Alfred sports centre on Hove seafront. Based on Frank Gehry designs for 750 luxury apartments, the project generated sufficient public controversy to warrant a surprisingly corny but no less shocking tactic. Minton describes how an events company was hired to approach local drama students and, according to one student, offered ‘cash in brown envelopes to attend a planning meeting and ‘shout down the local opposition’.
Of course, the notion of Brighton and Hove’s ‘political class’ should not be applied to senior officers alone. 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’. So long as diligent councillors are spread thin with party matters and putting out the fires started by ill-conceived policy, time devoted to constituents is compressed. Little wonder that the less than diligent councillors make their constituents a low-priority.
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 breath 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) what the people really want. 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.