Britain’s only Green Party-led city council has again been pitched into turmoil thanks to a planned referendum on raising council tax by 5.9 percent – a measure that council leader Jason Kitcat insists must be enacted in order to balance the books. His party has called for his resignation.
Nationally the party is out-polling the Liberal Democrats, currently residing at around eight percent in opinion polls. But in Brighton, their four-year-old administration has seen industrial action by bin men over an equalities dispute, rocketing parking charges leading to an outcry from the town’s tradesmen, and constant infighting between the “mangoes” – greens who are yellow (liberal democrat) on the inside, and “watermelons” (green on the outside, red on the inside).
Kitcat, who has already declared his intention to step down in May, has even found himself at loggerheads with Caroline Lucas, the party’s only MP, who hopes to hang on to her constituency of Brighton Pavilion in May. Yet he is defiant, telling the Times: “It is a high-profile thing being the only green council. It is challenging for our party in terms of philosophy and experience. We have not been in charge before.
“We have reduced the carbon footprint year on year. We have installed solar panels, insulation and efficient boilers into council homes and we are launching a new low-emission zone,” he said. “We have changed parking tariffs to push people off the roads and the air is cleaner.”
His opponents are less impressed by his party’s record in power. Recycling rates in the city have plummeted from amongst the best in the country at around 40 percent, to amongst the worst with just 26 percent of waste now being recycled. According to Warren Morgan, the Labour group’s leader, that takes Brighton down the recycling league to 305 out of 350 councils.
Mr Kitcat was also forced to negotiate a deal with unions over equal pay in order to sidestep a £700 million legal bill. The settlement meant that some female employees were granted a pay rise and three years of backdated pay, but the move infuriated the bin men who went on strike before Christmas.
The deal was also opposed by the “watermelon” faction led by Phélim MacCafferty. “Phélim and Caroline Lucas and the Watermelons were all out on the picket line, opposing Jason’s deal on equal pay,” said Morgan. “It’s an experiment that has failed. Unlike the rest of the country, where people are looking at alternatives to the main parties, here people want a return to normality.”
Peter Kyle, the Labour candidate for Hove & Portslade, said the “pantomime council” was both “damaging and silly”.
Now Kitcat has proposed a 5.9 percent council tax rise in order to balance the budget – a legal requirement – without cutting services. Under government rules, any local authority wanting to raise council tax by more than 2 percent has to put the decision to a referendum. If the idea is backed by full council next month, the referendum will go ahead on May 7th, the same day as the General Election.
The council’s 14 Labour representatives are opposed to the measure on the ground that it will cost £1 million to run, the cost of which will be laid at the feet of taxpayers. However, along with the Conservatives’ 18 councillors, they may abstain, allowing the motion to go through.
Meanwhile the Conservatives, who are campaigning for a tax freeze, are privately hoping that it will pass, as they are keen to split the left wing vote and hope that the referendum will get their supporters out to the polling stations. Graham Cox, Conservative candidate for Hove & Portslade, said: “Our citizens should have the opportunity to vote in a referendum on the level of council tax.”
But the general consensus seems to be that the Green administration has been an ‘omnishambles’. Tony Mernagh, executive director of the Brighton and Hove Economic Partnership put it down to ideology and inexperience. “There is huge political naivety and they haven’t helped themselves. Half of them are very good but the rest are destructive,” he said.