Councillors and Campaigners

Argus title :

It is twenty years since I was elected a councillor of the old Brighton Borough Council, representing the then St Peter’s Ward. Those were tumultuous times, in the wake of the Brighton bombing and the miners’ strike. Thatcher was on a collision course with Labour councils and was soon to impose the deeply unpopular Poll Tax.

There was widespread dissent in the country, but paralysis in the upper levels of the Labour Party. In the wake of the defection of many Labour Party MPs to the Social Democratic Party and the terrible Labour election defeat of 1983, the party under Neil Kinnock was desperate for respectability. It waged war against its own party, purging it of left wing elements, leaving little room for dissent.

Left-wingers called this purge the “Witchhunt”. It was not long before I and others fell foul of it for refusing to pay our Poll Tax and voting against the Labour Whip. It was certainly not a comfortable time to be a councillor and I can’t say I liked it much.

However, what I really did enjoy was working with local constituents to improve local facilities. It brought great satisfaction to achieve such things as new bus stops, pedestrian crossings and traffic schemes in the face of official assurances that it was “quite impossible” to have them.

Such things may seem mundane, but they materially affect the quality of people’s lives. And when people get to know politicians as fellow campaigners, it tends to break down mistrust and scepticism. This is true even when politicians make mistakes, as I certainly did.

Now, twenty years on, I have become a grumpy old citizen. I’m looking in vain for the campaigning councillors who will improve facilities for me and those I care about. These days it seems few councillors have much in the way of campaigning zeal and those that do are as likely to belong to one party as another, though it wasn’t always so.

Local elections are due in May, a new Prime Minister is expected and changes up and down the country are likely to be dramatic. You would think that local political parties would be a hive of campaigning activity, but they don’t seem to be.

So I’ve amused myself by drawing up a list of a few of the things I’d like my ideal candidate to address.

1. The Right to Walk:

It annoys me intensely that after years of environmental chat in Brighton the interests of car drivers still override those of pedestrians – most of whom are women, children and elderly people. There’s a particularly stark example of this in a street near my mother’s home in the St Peter’s area.

Here car drivers, who are often non-residents, endanger both residents and pedestrians by their parking. At first they double-parked to such an extent that fire engines and ambulances could not get through. The Fire service complained, but nothing was done. We were told a residents’ parking scheme was being considered “for the future”.

Now, emboldened, rogue car drivers have started to “chicane park”, forcing others to do so and creating an even worse situation. Large cars and even vans park at right angles to the pavement making it impossible for emergency vehicles and sometimes even taxis to get through. Even worse, the vehicles impinge upon the pavement, in some cases blocking half the space.

Pedestrians have been denied the right to walk side by side on a pavement which once allowed a couples and families to walk comfortably. Old people needing support, and parents and children, are often forced to walk single file. While walking with my own very frail mother on my arm I have twice tripped over bumpers and bonnets, once nearly dragging her to the ground.

Despite the fact that the change has taken place without permission and is clearly causing obstruction to the highway and the pavement, neither the police nor the council seem prepared to take action.

It is known that in some student households four or five students own a car, not withstanding the proximity of public transport to the two universities. Despite this, the council has announced that it is no longer considering issuing residents’ parking permits for this area.

We’ve been waiting for a knock on the door from a local councillor or candidate asking my mother to sign a petition or attend a demonstration, but so far we’ve waited in vain.

2. The Right to Cycle:

It is widely accepted that there would be enormous benefits to public health and to the environment if many more people cycled. However, despite new cycle paths, cycling remains the province of the able-bodied, usually youthful, few who are often as indifferent to pedestrian-safety as the car drivers of whom they are so critical.

The city encourages cycling, but consultation on the strategy is inadequate and only with existing cyclists. I’m a potential cyclist, but I have poor balance and eyesight. I couldn’t whiz along pavements like the average able-bodied young cyclist and such cyclists are unlikely to be able to articulate my views.

A genuinely cycle-friendly city would be one in which children and people with limited ability like me could potter along on bicycles and tricycles, and whole families could safely cycle on quadricycles, without being hooted or sworn at by motorists or able-bodied cyclists.

In fact, none of it’s likely to happen until we have a car-free zone in central Brighton and Hove.

The Right to Equality:

Mobility issues of the kind to which I’ve referred are really about equality – the equal right of all citizens to move freely about their city. The city prides itself that it is committed to equality. But, in so many ways, in the decisions it makes, it appears to value most those who are wealthy and fashionable, neglecting those who are not. |This means that large social groups which tend to be on lower incomes, such as elderly and disabled people, women, children and those in poor health, are greatly disadvantaged. It is small wonder that a significant number of people are being forced out of the city.

I would like to see a strengthened equalities unit in the council able to effectively audit the council’s decision-making processes, taking into account impact upon all the city’s people.

The Right to Housing:

The council’s obsession with presenting the city as the place to be for the affluent young, has increased pressure on the city’s limited housing, forcing prices up and out of the range of many local people. The sale of council housing has led to a shortage of affordable rented accommodation. The influx of students to the private rented sector has allowed landlords to maximise rents by cramming students into housing which otherwise might be available for families on lower rents.

The council ought to limit the number of students who can be crammed into shared households and work with both universities to help them accommodate more of their own students

Council candidates should challenge both the council’s plans to transfer council housing to registered landlords, and the government’s refusal to properly fund local authority housing. After all, the government has been more than happy to finance a hugely costly, pointless war in Iraq. It ought to be able to fund a few council house repairs.

The council should ensure that people who come to the city because they are escaping violence are welcomed and supported and that people who need urgent help are not denied it because they lack a ‘local connection’.

Right to Safety:

Decisions about public safety should be transparent and fair, but this has not always been the case. For example, the Council and Police have made laudable efforts over the past few years to combat homophobic crime, in particular in the Kemp Town area where many gay men and some lesbians attend clubs and socialise.

However, there have been no comparable initiatives to safeguard young women who socialise just a few hundred yards away and who suffer all too frequent misogynist sexual attack by heterosexual men. Police reports suggest rape on young women is on the increase and rarely results in charges or conviction.

I want my teenage daughter and her friends to live in a city which is safe for women. I would vote for any candidate who campaigns to protect them.

It seems to me that the party political system itself often crushes campaigning energy. Independent councillors are certainly freer to act without constraint. And if candidates had to stand on their personal records, I suspect they’d work harder and communicate far better.

So the final recommendation to my fictional candidate is simply this – to stand as an independent.

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