After Caroline Lucas MP became the first Green Party MP in the UK in 2010 many within the party half hoped they wouldn’t go onto take control of the local council. The reasoning was simple – with an austerity agenda being forced on local councils by the Conservative led government, the party would have to implement this agenda going against both their own principles and public expectations.
But they did win the council elections. In 2011 Brighton and Hove council became the UK’s first Green council.
Despite the difficult economic climate in which they came to power, the council has had some success. In a less than flattering article in the Guardian John Harris comments:
Thanks to the council’s crusade for better pay, 102 of the 400 private UK businesses that pay the living wage are located here. The local Greens have embraced imaginative policies on housing and regeneration, and officially declared hundreds of acres of council land “open-owned”. Brighton has become the world’s first “One Planet” city”.
In truth the list of successes could go on. If you want more ask the highly responsive council leader, Jason Kitcat – I am sure he would be more than happy to give you a list.
Despite these successes though the local Greens have also taken quite a kicking. A local poll in late 2013 found that the Greens had dropped by 12% from their 2011 high.
This drop in popularity is partly explained through simply being in power, but it also reflects a sad record of in-fighting (quite publicly) and also implementing policies which have, at times, left them on the opposite side of some Trade Unions, local residents and, on one occasion, the local Green MP Caroline Lucas.
To illustrate both the public infighting and anger at some of the policies take the words of local Green Party Cllr, Ben Duncan:
“Jason Kitcat’s policies have time and again betrayed working people, city residents – and the electoral interests of the Green Party of England and Wales.”
But perhaps the most public of grievances came during the bin collection strike – that left piles of rubbish piled up in the streets. Something which even the most a-political of voter would both notice and care about.
This led to calls of the council being in disarray.
And with another round of cuts being imposed from central government (£25 million annually, £100 million over four years), this already difficult situation promised to become even worse for the local Greens. How would they continue to run this council under such tight economic constraints?
In one stroke though the local party seem to have managed to manoeuvre themselves away from this unpopularity and towards a progressive, positive and democratic solution.
Jason Kitcat writing in the Guardian has set out a two-fold policy. The first part of it is his administration’s support for 4.75% increase in council tax (with exemptions for the worst off). This they hope would protect vital council services despite the cuts from central government.
This move has been criticised (almost inevitably) by the leader of Labour opposition as something local residents can’t afford.
Which is a point nulled by the second part of the plan – to hold a referendum on this policy in May 2014. In stark contrast to Labour, Lib Dem and Tory councils this Green led admiration is giving local residents a say in how they respond to this imposed austerity agenda.
If residents feel they can’t afford this tax rise, they can vote no in the referendum.
This move has won much support. In today’s Guardian there was a letter signed by economists, university professors and even a local Labour activist supporting the move. The letter stated:
“The decision of Brighton council to hold a referendum on whether to increase council tax to pay for essential services is a bold commitment to democracy and equality… Everyone is feeling squeezed as a result of the Tories’ draconian cuts to local government and public services, but a political contest over which party will manage austerity more effectively won’t change the terms of debate. Money raised collectively, spent collectively and targeted where there is the most need is essential… As belief in politics withers, here is an example of a local council trusting the people to make a big decision. They should be applauded.
And so I add my voice to that call. Despite everything, well done Brighton and Hove Greens!