Conservatives comment on Labour Budget plans

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Commenting on the release of the City Council Labour Administration’s Budget proposals, Conservative Group Leader Cllr. Geoffrey Theobald said: “We will study these proposals over the coming weeks but until we have the final local government finance settlement it would be wrong to comment in any detail. Particularly in light of the fact that there is still a worrying black hole in Labour’s budget of over £3 million, which indicates that they really are in a state of disarray. It is also very disappointing given that Labour don’t have a majority on the Council, that the Council Leader hasn’t once approached me, as the Opposition Leader, to ask if we can work together to try and resolve some of these difficult issues together.

Unfortunately, I think that the Labour Administration is now paying the price for blocking, with the Greens, a lot of the reforms to the Council that should have been carried out 4 or 5 years ago and which we advocated at the time. Compared to a lot of other councils, we are well behind the curve and as a consequence, Labour is having to rush through cuts to front line services without a proper coherent strategy.”

Pushing prices up will harm tourism – Cllr. Geoffrey Theobald

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Much of the success of Brighton & Hove over the last few years can be attributed to its ever increasing popularity as a tourist destination, both for UK residents and foreign visitors alike. Every year over 8.5 million people visit our city contributing an estimated £780 million to the local economy. Make no mistake – tourism is big business for Brighton & Hove.

I was therefore, very disappointed to learn last week that the Labour Administration on the Council has decided, in its wisdom, to increase visitor charges at the Royal Pavilion by 10% next year. The rationale given for the rise is that the Council needs to ‘ensure that the Royal Pavilion and Museums achieve admission income targets’ in the face of falling visitor numbers to the attractions.

Well, perhaps the Labour leadership need to go back to basic economics! They clearly haven’t learnt the lessons from the introduction of a £5 charge for non-resident visitors to Brighton Museum 18 months ago which resulted in a halving of visitor numbers. I would be very surprised if the increases at the Royal Pavilion don’t have the same effect and visitor numbers drop still further.

We are always told that the reason city centre parking charges need to be so high is to act as a form of ‘rationing’ of demand. Whenever we have proposed reducing parking charges, we are lectured about how it will just fuel increased demand and make congestion even worse. Yet the same logic apparently doesn’t apply to other charges such as for the Royal Pavilion and Museum. I gather that a task group is being set up by the Administration to try and find ways of increasing the number of visitors to the Museum. I would like to make a suggestion to the task group – try reducing the charges. You might find that visitor numbers increase, enabling you to meet your income targets.

On a more positive note, I was delighted to see that work has now started on restoring one of the city’s most iconic tourist attractions, the Volks Railway, thanks to a £1.65 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant. The restoration will provide a purpose-built heritage visitor centre at the Aquarium station to tell the story of Magnus Volk; it will create a conservation workshop to protect the historic carriages, enable restoration work to be viewed, and provide training for volunteers to develop their skills; and finally it will restore and bring back to use three of the original carriages which will increase capacity on the railway.

Diggers started dismantling the Aquarium Station and car sheds last month, and both will have their foundations completely dug out in preparation for the new buildings.

The Volks Railway is very close to my heart as it is to so many of the volunteers and supporters who make such an important contribution to maintaining the railway. It is sad to see the old buildings go, particularly the remains of Magnus Volk’s station on the north side of the car sheds. However, they have been on their last legs for a number of years and this lottery money provides the perfect opportunity to give the railway a new lease of life and a boost for this important part of the Brighton and Hove seafront.

This article first appeared in the Brighton & Hove Independent of 25th November

Homelessness is being tackled by the Government – Cllr. Geoffrey Theobald

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Following the recent report presented to Policy, Resources and Growth Committee on the challenges facing those who find themselves homeless or rough sleeping in Brighton and Hove, I was delighted to see the Government support a new Bill to reduce homelessness this week.

The Homelessness Reduction Bill will widen the scope of who is eligible for support and transform the way in which homeless people are looked after in England. Current rules, which date back to 1977, specify that only single mothers and fathers, individuals with mental health issues or victims of domestic violence and those who have recently left the armed forces can go to the front of the queue for housing assistance. However, the Government backed private member’s Bill, put forward by Conservative MP Bob Blackman, will place a new duty on councils to prevent the homelessness of anyone eligible for assistance within 56 days, regardless of their official ‘priority need’ status.

During the recent presentation to Policy, Resources and Growth Committee, the Conservative Group fully supported officer’s plans to provide a greater and more targeted level of assistance to those who need it and expressed that as a Council we should be doing everything we can to help people who find themselves in such situations, often through no fault of their own.

I am delighted to see that we as Conservatives are showing such a strong commitment to doing all we can both locally and nationally to help those who become homeless and provide them with the support they need to get their lives back on track.

The Government’s support of the Bill is in addition to a £40m programme of new measures to tackle homelessness that were announced last week which includes £20 million for local authorities to pilot new initiatives to tackle homelessness, £10 million for targeted support for those at imminent risk of sleeping rough or those new to the streets and £10 million in Social Impact Bonds to help long-term rough sleepers with the most complex needs.

In less favourable news, I was hugely disappointed that the bid to expand Gatwick airport was not taken forward by the Government, who instead opted for the development of a third runway at Heathrow. From a local perspective, the additional runway at Gatwick would have had hugely positive implications for the city in terms of creating jobs and boosting our economy. Previously, a Gatwick spokesman had said that the airport will continue to prepare for expansion, even if it is not chosen by the UK government over Heathrow. I hope they will do so following the announcement and I give them my full support.

This article appeared in the Brighton & Hove Independent published on 28th October

Local Conservatives Applaud Bill to Reduce Homelessness

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The Conservative Group for Brighton and Hove City Council has welcomed the Government’s support for a private member’s Bill to reduce homelessness, calling it a huge step for social justice.
The Homelessness Reduction Bill will widen the scope of who is eligible for support and transform the way in which homeless people are looked after in England.

Current rules, which date back to 1977, specify that only single mothers and fathers, individuals with mental health issues or victims of domestic violence and those who have recently left the armed forces can go to the front of the queue for housing assistance. However, the Government backed private member’s Bill, put forward by Conservative MP Bob Blackman, will place a new duty on councils to prevent the homelessness of anyone eligible for assistance within 56 days, regardless of their official ‘priority need’ status.

Geoffrey Leader of the Conservative Group, Councillor Geoffrey Theobald said “Homelessness and rough sleeping is a huge issue in Brighton and Hove and has got increasingly worse over this and the previous administration. As a Group we have often expressed that as a Council we should be doing everything we can to help people who find themselves in such situations, often through no fault of their own. This Bill, together with the Government’s recent £40m programme of measures to tackle homelessness, shows exactly that – a real commitment from the Conservatives in doing all we can to help those who lose their homes and provide them with the support they need to get their lives back on track.”

The £40m programme of new measures to tackle homelessness announced last week includes £20 million for local authorities to pilot new initiatives to tackle homelessness, £10 million for targeted support for those at imminent risk of sleeping rough or those new to the streets and £10 million in Social Impact Bonds to help long-term rough sleepers with the most complex needs.

Local Conservatives Express Disappointment as Gatwick Expansion Bid Turned Down

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Conservative Group Leader, Geoffrey Theobald has expressed his disappointment at today’s announcement that the Government has rejected a second runway at Gatwick airport in favour of a third runway at Heathrow.

Cllr Theobald commented “We are very disappointed that the Government has chosen not to support the expansion of Gatwick Airport. The potential benefits of a second runway for the city, local businesses and residents were hugely significant in terms of delivering jobs, apprenticeships and boosting the local economy.”

This is despite the local Conservative Group and Brighton & Hove City Council as a whole expressing its strong support for a second runway at Gatwick and the Chief Executive writing to the Prime Minister to offer the council’s support for expansion at Gatwick.

Cllr Theobald added “In terms of moving forward, I know that spokespersons for Gatwick airport have previously said that they could take the project forward without public money from Government and I would implore them to do so.

“In the meantime, the Conservative Group will continue to push for the expansion of Gatwick airport for the benefit of the city and its residents.”

Conservatives condemn Labour and Green parking scrooges

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Conservative councillors have slammed their Labour and Green counterparts for voting down their proposal to offer residents and visitors to the city free parking over the Christmas period.

Councillor Steve Bell, who proposed the Conservative motion, said: “Brighton &Hove has an unenviable reputation for ripping off motorists and makes the biggest profit from parking charges of any Council outside of London. It really wouldn’t have taken much for the Labour Administration to give this small gesture of seasonal goodwill to our residents, visitors and most importantly, the local businesses who depend so heavily on Christmas trade.”

Councillor Lee Wares, who seconded the motion, added: “We have recently learnt that the number of day trippers to the city has fallen by around 1 million. What better way to try and encourage some of these people back than to offer them free parking over the festive season. We were specifically targeting car parks in places such as London Road and Norton Road in Hove, not car parks in the most popular shopping areas in the city centre. Traders in these areas will be especially disappointed with the Labour and Green Parties.”

Conservatives seek clarity on housing ‘joint venture’

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Conservative Group Housing Spokesman, Cllr. Mary Mears, writes about the Labour Administration’s proposal to set up a housing ‘joint venture’ with Hyde Housing and the decision by the Housing Committee to defer a decision on whether or not to give it the go-ahead.

Council Leader, Warren Morgan, accuses the Conservatives of seeking to “block, frustrate and delay” his Administration’s proposal to create a joint housing venture with Hyde Housing in order to build 1,000 new homes in the city. The Labour Chair of the Housing Committee, where this proposal was debated last week, said we were “playing games” by voting to defer the decision for further information.

I can assure residents that nothing is further from the truth. We agree that in principle a joint venture is an excellent way for the Council to effectively double the return on its investment; however we feel that the proposal has been rushed through and key financial questions remain unanswered.

When over £50 million of public money is at stake it is important that we get this right. Along with the money loaned to the i360, this would bring the Council’s general fund debt to almost £100 million from the Public Works Loans Board. Is Cllr. Morgan seriously suggesting that as opposition councillors we just nod this through without proper scrutiny?

Cllr Morgan also states that this proposal has been known about for some time.

As the Conservative member on the Estate Regeneration Board I received my first detailed briefing on the 5th September with the Conservative Group only receiving a presentation 2 days before the housing committee… which we had to request!

We have been kept very much in the dark about some key points of the proposal – we don’t even know which sites will go into the joint venture, even though I understand they have been discussed for some time. Nor are we happy that the Administration is proposing that the new Board will not contain one single elected councillor!

Some people have compared our decision to call for a deferral to the Conservative Group’s support for the loan to the i360. The key difference in that instance was that we had received numerous detailed briefings from officers and lawyers many months before a decision was made.

Hyde is an ever growing Company involved with many new builds from Saltdean to the King Alfred. I’m sure residents would expect elected members to ensure proper scrutiny and due diligence takes place on such an important decision before any agreement is made.

Woodingdean Residents Unite Over Phone Mast Blunder

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Cllrs. Dee Simson and Steve Bell join the protest
Cllrs. Dee Simson and Steve Bell join the protest
Woodingdean residents have staged a public protest against Brighton & Hove City Council following the error which resulted in permission being granted by default for the erection of a 12.5 metre telephone mast and 2 equipment cabinets on Warren Road in front of the area’s historic cottages and almost directly outside a children’s nursery.

The demonstration was attended by approximately 80 residents including children, concerned parents, local residents and Ward Councillors Dee Simson and Steve Bell.

The Council refused permission for the telecommunications company’s application to erect a mast and cabinet but failed to issue the decision notice outlining the refusal in the required statutory time of 56 days. Therefore, under the regulations, planning permission is granted by default.

Woodingdean Ward Councillor, Dee Simson said: “We are really pleased with the number of people who attended this demonstration and hope that the Council stands up and takes note at the strength of feeling in this community about what has happened here. It is simply not fair for the residents of Woodingdean to have to take the brunt of the Council’s error.”

Councillor Bell added “I will be raising the issue at the next Full Council to ensure the Administration is held to account. We will not go away until a suitable solution has been found.”

Woodingdean Residents Organise Phone Mast Demonstration

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Woodingdean residents are to stage a public protest against Brighton & Hove City Council following the error which result in permission being granted by default for the erection of a 12.5 metre telephone mast and 2 equipment cabinets on Warren Road in front of the area’s historic cottages.

The demonstration will take place on Tuesday 4th October at 3.30pm on the grass verge outside the cottages where the mast is due to be placed.

The Council refused permission for the telecommunications company’s application to erect a mast and cabinet but failed to issue the decision notice outlining the refusal in the required statutory time of 56 days. Therefore, under the regulations, planning permission is granted by default.

Woodingdean Ward Councillors, Dee Simson and Steve Bell, who will both be at the demonstration, said: “We urge as many residents as possible to come along to the protest and show the Council the strength of feeling there is locally about this whole situation. It is now incumbent upon the Council, having made the blunder, to put right their error by whatever means possible. The residents certainly won’t take this lying down.”

ENDS

Cllr. Dee Simson – 07795336425
Cllr. Steve Bell – 07809100445

Cllr. Geoffrey Theobald – we do need new housing but plans must be scrutinised

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Making sure that all our residents are able to access decent and affordable housing is undoubtedly one of the most pressing challenges facing this city over the next few years. Rising prices and rents in the private sector, an increasing population including a large expansion of student numbers and a severe lack of space to build new housing have all combined to make this ever more difficult in Brighton and Hove.

At the Housing & New Homes Committee last week, Council officers brought forward a proposal to try and address some of these issues – setting up a ‘joint housing venture’ with Hyde Housing Association which it is hoped will deliver 1,000 new affordable homes.
Although we agree that in principle a joint venture such as this is a good idea (the Council would effectively be doubling the number of homes built for the same level of investment) we do feel that the proposals have been rushed through. The Conservative Group was only given a detailed briefing by officers two days before the meeting and this was at my own request.

We also have concerns about some of the financial details and potential risks to council taxpayers. For example, the Council is proposing to borrow £50 million against its General Fund yet has not carried out a tendering exercise to determine whether Hyde’s offer represents the best value for money. As a result, at the meeting our Committee members spent a long time asking very detailed questions about the plans, and in the end proposed that the decision is deferred for a couple of months in order to further explore some of these issues.

Unfortunately, the Labour Chair of the Committee didn’t take too kindly to this and accused one of our members in particular – Cllr. Joe Miller – of ‘playing games’. This is a comment which I hope she now regrets in the cold light of day. Setting up a joint housing venture is an extremely important decision for the Council and Joe and his colleagues in our Group were quite right to question officers and lawyers forensically on the potential risks to council taxpayers. In fact, had they not done so it would have been a dereliction of their duty. I can remember being in a similar situation when I was first elected to Brighton Council, being attacked by older members for doing my job, and so I back Joe 100%.

There is cross party agreement on the Council on the seriousness of the housing crisis and we really want to see this proposal succeed. Indeed, in our last local election manifesto we put forward a similar proposal for the Council to borrow money to build new homes. When we were in Administration in 2009 we also set up an innovative new company to refurbish some of the Council’s worst housing stock – a project which has been very successful.

However, the pressing need to take action does not mean that any proposals put forward by the Administration should be immune from proper scrutiny, particularly when such large sums of public money are involved.

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