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Brighton rocked
Local Government Chronicle – 5 November 2004

Brighton & Hove specialises in contrasts. A merger of Labour and Tory strongholds, with extremes of wealth and education. And a slipping CPA to boot, says Mark Smulian

"Come to Brighton & Hove - sea air, fine architecture, the South Downs, lively arts scene, oh, and we're a hung council, we've slipped in the comprehensive performance assessment, there are challenging social problems and one of the piers has collapsed."

That might be the prospectus that greets the next chief executive after David Panter's departure for Australia following three years in post.

The city is a rarity, as an urban resort with a population nudging 250,000 that was never either an industrial centre or a port, and has extremes of both wealth and education.

When leader Ken Bodfish (Lab) looks out of his office window, he has a fine view of the sea. To the right, if he cranes his neck, is the site of architect Frank Gehry's planned 'twisting towers' project - an internationally recognised architectural innovation.

To the left, he can see the skeletal remains of the West Pier collapsing. The three views rather sum up the city's different aspects. But does it face fundamental problems, or have the recent difficulties been a case of 'stuff happens'?

Brighton was once a test bed for New Labour. Communication director Tony Miller recalls Brighton BC "was a small council but punched above its weight and was seen as a New Labour flagship when Steve [now Lord] Bassam was leader, who was well respected in some circles".

The old Brighton BC merged with traditionally Tory Hove BC in 1997 to form a unitary council, taking in services from East Sussex CC. It gained city status in 1999.

But attempts since at putting itself at the leading edge of local government have been mixed. It sought to have one of the first elected mayors in 2001, but this was heavily defeated after a campaign focused on fears of an elected dictatorship.

The same year saw a refuse collection strike that left the city wading in rubbish, fears of a 6m overspend and Liverpool City Council chief executive David Henshaw was invited to give critical appraisal - he highlighted a debilitating silo culture.

By the time Mr Panter arrived and Mr Bodfish became leader, Brighton & Hove did not exactly look like the jewel in Labour's local government crown. Both insist change has been substantial.

The new council had to "bring together three very different cultures", says Mr Bodfish, who believes comparisons with the old Brighton are "nonsense".

Unification did remove an irrational boundary that ran through the city centre, and city status helped to end old Brighton/Hove divisions.

But Mr Henshaw's report, Mr Bodfish recalls, showed the unitary council "had been a huge jump for both officers and councillors, and a steep cultural change was still being turned around when I became leader".

The chief executive was recruited from a senior post in the NHS to tackle this, but has now left to lead the health service in part of Adelaide.

Mr Bodfish remains leader, though of a minority administration, where Labour has the cabinet but other votes are issue-by-issue with no inter-party deals.

He insists that the fall in CPA rating from 'good' to 'fair' was due only to one housing indicator, and that the commission has confirmed no deeper problem existed. Mr Panter is also sure many problems have been resolved.

He says: "I was headhunted and it was too good an offer to turn down, but I would not have even contemplated going to Adelaide, however tempting, unless I was sure the organisation was strong. I don't think any manager worth their salt wants an organisation to collapse as soon as they leave."

Mr Panter says he has sought to instil a can-do approach, does not "expect staff to do anything I would not do", and the council is "culturally very different to three years ago".

"When I arrived, the council was not taking decisions. It always wanted to get a consensus that everyone would like, and that is never going to happen," he says.

The council had budget problems with its overspend back in 2001, and last year initially faced an 18% increase in council tax. This eventually came down to 7.8%, mainly through savings in back-office costs, an area Mr Panter says he has rationalised.

One area in which Brighton & Hove counts itself a trailblazer is its integrated child social services and education department, something the government now wants all councils to have.

"I came to the issue as a fresh pair of eyes with no local government tradition, and my concern was to focus on service users," he says.

"Kids and families have needs they come to us with, and they do not fit those needs into boxes and nor should we."

However, he banned the term 'seamless service', arguing that seams are exactly what is needed.

He says: "The only clothes that are seamless are tube socks and boob tubes, neither of which are very flattering.

"You want a garment which is well made with well defined seams that give it structure and shape and you need to know where those are."

Of the council's key objectives, three are familiar: liveability, a sustainable economy and valuing people, but the fourth, 'thriving 14-year-olds', is unusual and has benefited from the integration of children's services.

Mr Bodfish explains: "That is the stage at which a council has influence, with 16+ education having moved largely to learning and skills councils. It is better for us to seek to use influence where we have it, rather than to fight that.

"We aim to make sure 14-year-olds are well equipped for the next stage in their lives."

The city has unusually polarised educational attainment. Sussex and Brighton universities have the country's highest rates of graduates settling in their university town, and 28.7% of residents have degrees. But 22.1% have no qualifications.

Behind the apparent wealth are outer estates with social problems and, less obviously, decrepit houses in multiple occupation that lurk behind some of the Regency facades.

Mr Bodfish says: "We suffer from cultural self-exclusion on outer estates. The homes are in quite good physical condition but there is a lack of confidence caused by worklessness often to second and third generations, and so little value is put on educational achievement."

Bedsit houses are "fine for students who live there for a few years but there are many people who become stuck there and there are a lot of mental health problems," he says. "People in need are not always on estates."

Some of the people in need, often with combinations of drug, drink or mental health problems, have gravitated to the city because it is a pleasant place to live.

The council feels it has more than enough to do for its own residents in need, without this influx.

Deputy leader Sue John (Lab) explains: "We had to be tough with local voluntary organisations over working with street drinkers and homeless drug addicts who come here from elsewhere, it was quite a difficult issue for them because their focus is on helping individuals."

After the 2001 strike, refuse collection was taken in-house, and recycling is now near 20%. Mini-skips in bedsit areas have solved the problem of seagulls tearing open discarded bin bags.

Mr Bodfish says: "Eighteen months ago I was deluged with complaints about refuse, but not now."

He is personally involved in a final attempt to secure external funding for the stricken West Pier, though the council has no official position. It never owned the pier, but recognises that its collapse had made it an eyesore that damages perceptions of the city.

Mr Bodfish points to the council's high rating from Ofsted, nomination for a local area agreement pilot and involvement in major projects as evidence of its health.

Whether he can bring these to fruition is uncertain, given there is no overall control.

Mr Panter says: "The loss of overall control changed the nature of my role to one more of brokerage between different groups and looking for common ground.

"No key decision has been rejected, although some votes have been lost, and fears that the budget would not get through were unfounded."

The Tories won a by-election the night before Mr Panter left, but group leader Gary Peltzer Dunn is content to wait his chance at the next elections rather than seek an unstable coalition with other parties to oust Labour.

He says: "I think Labour has learned the lesson from its early days, when it wanted the council to be seen as its shop window. It was too much into display and not content. It has had to become more concerned with delivering, than just with publicity."

Many councillors and officers visit Brighton & Hove each year because of the large number of conferences held there, which says something about the attractions of the place.

But a look behind the sea front at the bedsit-filled streets and outer estates provides evidence that Brighton & Hove is not just a wealthy resort, but has all the problems of less fashionable cities.