The failure of our political class

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’.

Our elected representatives seldom act as ward look-outs. Dangers appear on the horizon and very often councillors know but don’t tell us. And the ship sails on … Picture by Baz

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.

2 thoughts on “The failure of our political class

  1. Following publication of our February Newsletter, the Brighton Society received the following comments from two of our city councillors.

    Cllr Sue Shanks (Green Party) emailed us to say “I am concerned at the very political nature of this newsletter, I presume you are a charity and should be non political?”

    Cllr Nick Childs (Labour Party) emailed us as follows:

    “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”.

    We agree with Nicks point on the public interest and will reply to to both his and Sue’s concerns by posting a separate are article in due course.

    Readers: do feel free to let us know your thoughts, we’d love to hear from you on this or indeed any article published on this site.

    Adrian (for the Brighton Socety)

  2. Says it all really. Cllr Shanks is joint deputy leader of the council with Ms Clare and yet she attacks you for being political when all you are trying to do is point up the issues on planning. As for Nick Childs, some of us try to ignore him for his Roman Catholic- ‘inspired’ attack on Lewes Bonfire – Lewes is not in B&H, Mr Childs – and then another request to Council to condemn British soldiers ‘murdering’ Irish Catholics – also not in our area, I would mention, referring to ‘His Holiness the Pope’ , a highly subjective term which many of us might respect but don’t subscribe to. He can hold the religious views he holds and welcome, but they are not required in the council forum.

    Just to recap then, the Brighton Society has repeatedly pointed up the highly suspicious activities of the Planning Dept. – they verified a planning application which was invalid because it contained no FVA – and they have constantly obfuscated all attempts under FOI legislation to reveal the Planning Dept’s interactions with a developer, despite repeated (and ultimately empty decisions by the toothless Information Commissioner’s Office ) against them, threatening High Court referrals which never happen.

    And, there was the unsuccessful attempt by somebody in Planning (who?) to sneak the gasworks site into a tall buildings zone. That failed, only thanks to the Brighton Society. The council could have said, ‘oops, sorry, it was a mistake, just another example of our gross incompetence’, but they didn’t. – the Head of Planning tried to defend it. Fortunately, a lawyer at the Council, who evidently has more moral values than many officers, and who is of course bound by professional ethics, said that this was unlawful and sorted it. That same lawyer has said that the planning application should not have been accepted without an FVA – which is pursuant to a binding Council resolution on the subject – but objectors would now need to apply for a court order to invalidate the application. I remember reading some time back that a Labour councillor (maybe Mr Allcock – can’t remember) had requested a report on the council’s response to FOI requests, but have heard nothing further! So, Ms Shanks, before you have a go at Adrian Hart, who is legitimately asking questions about planning, perhaps you might like to do your job as part of the political leadership ‘team’ and investigate what has been and is still going on. And that includes the alleged ‘leadership’ of Geoff Raw, who seems to have overseen the departure of quite a few senior people, with the result that the council is in even more chaos than it already was – and that is saying something.

    Adrian, in my view, for what it’s worth, your article is well within the remit of the objects of the Brighton Society. Councillors have been copied in by the Society and others to this total debacle and appear to have done nothing at all. So, if a Deputy Leader of the Council chooses to attack you, whilst doing absolutely nothing about the appalling and secretive behaviour of officers, then I hope that electors will take notice next time round.

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