Lunacy of the town that turned Green

Published by The Mail on Sunday (27th April, 2014)

With the sun shining down on a shimmering sea, children playing on the beach and families thronging its cafes and boutiques, Brighton seems the perfect postcard portrayal of English serenity.

Strolling down the cheerful promenade, the resort’s celebrated blend of raffish charm and Regency elegance appear little changed over the years. It is difficult to imagine this is the home of a civic revolution.

Yet this is the greenest city in Britain, the launchpad for an attempt to reshape the nation’s political landscape – and the result is a dismal farce.

A rising tide of splits, stunts,  U-turns, gaffes and divisive industrial disputes has alienated voters and angered businesses here in a city better known for its bohemian tolerance, while outlandish proposals for a ban on bacon butties and plans to use sheep for traffic calming have earned only derision.

The serious side of politics has suffered, too – a demonstration  of the dangers that await when protest parties win power. A doomed attempt to impose the biggest council tax rise in the country ended with humiliating warnings that Whitehall could be forced to take over the Town Hall.

Welcome to the Green Republic of Brighton and Hove.

Starting with just one councillor in 1996, the Green Party’s rise to power in Brighton has been unprecedented and rapid. In 2010  there was the election of Caroline Lucas as the MP for Brighton Pavilion – the party’s first Westminster seat – and then came the capture of the city council just a year later.

A clever mix of protest, pavement politics and promises of change proved popular with residents, many of them families forced from London by soaring house prices, students, or those attracted by the city’s liberal approach to life.

In 2011, the Greens ousted the Conservatives to become the largest group on the council with 23 seats. According to their leader Jason Kitcat, this was to be the future of British politics.

It is hard to share his optimism. The party’s cuddly combination of middle-class idealism and municipal inexperience has hit the rocks of political reality as it grapples with a fast-growing city of 275,000 people in tough economic times.

‘Winning was the worst thing possible for them,’ said one opposition councillor privately. ‘You can see they still want to be popular the whole time and dislike responsibility.’

The Green honeymoon was short-lived.

Take the surreal story of an elderly elm tree. First the Greens voted to upgrade a roundabout in the city called Seven Dials, but then found that there were protests to protect the 170-year-old tree beside the site. Eco-warriors camped out in the branches and pinned poems to the trunk. The national media showed an interest. So the Greens switched sides, joined the campaign to spare the 60ft elm from the chop and then spent a small fortune altering their own traffic scheme.

Then there was its manifesto pledge for ‘Meat-free Mondays’, which would have banned bacon rolls and beef pies from council-run staff canteens. It led to complaints from manual workers and the proposal was ditched.

Residents were similarly  surprised at Green plans to introduce livestock to one of the main routes into the city  as part of a ‘speed reduction package’. The scheme was deferred after protests.

There have been times when it seemed that the business of town hall administration was descending into absurdity on a daily basis.

Brighton was declared a ‘no fracking zone’, even though there is no prospect of shale gas drilling in the city. Needless to say,  Green councillors have flocked to anti-fracking protests in nearby Balcombe, where Caroline Lucas was among dozens arrested last summer. She was cleared of public order charges last week.

At last month’s council meeting,  a Green member accused a former Tory leader of wearing a swastika. She wasn’t. It turned out to be a traditional Irish emblem on her necklace.

Yet beyond the comedy lie serious consequences. After three years of political mismanagement, Brighton’s citizens face soaring charges for council services and increasingly scruffy streets. Yesterday, the Greens were under fresh attack after part of the seafront collapsed into a pub below. Even recycling levels have fallen to half those achieved by Tory-run Bournemouth.

The governing party is fatally split with, inevitably, divisions erupting into the open. Unlike other political parties, Greens do not ‘whip’ members into line to get policies passed, and meetings can descend into rows more suited to the Punch and Judy shows down on the beach.

A slim majority of moderates under amiable council leader Mr Kitcat have fought ceaseless challenges from a cabal of hard-Left councillors led by his deputy Phelim Mac Cafferty, a prominent gay activist.

The different factions are known  as ‘mangos’ (green on the outside yet yellow, like Lib Dems, in the middle) and ‘watermelons’ (green on the outside but red in the middle). The groups sit apart in the chamber during council meetings.

So serious are their differences that outside mediators were reportedly called in to reconcile the two sides. Mr Kitcat narrowly survived the latest attempt to depose him only last month – thanks to the support of his Polish-born wife Ania, a fellow moderate on the council.

So much for the new politics.

When refuse workers went on strike against efforts to stop long-standing Spanish practices in working hours and to harmonise pay with female council staff, they were supported by the watermelons – Mr Mac Cafferty and eight colleagues.

According to one councillor, some  of these staff earned more than £50,000 a year by manipulating allowances and overtime payments. ‘They must be the highest paid bin drivers in the country,’ he said.

The strike last June led to the strange sight of the council leader telling binmen to get back to work, while his deputy joined the picket line as rubbish piled up in the streets. Ms Lucas, the MP, added fuel to the fire by backing the protesters. Earlier this month, the unions threatened another strike.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the Green utopia – and the dignity of a proud and successful city – came two months ago when Mr Kitcat proposed a 4.75 per cent council tax increase. Supposedly a response to government cuts, this was interpreted by opponents as an effort to unite his fractious forces.

The huge rise required a local referendum, the first since the Coalition Government brought in new rules to protect taxpayers. Yet even holding the vote would have cost at least £300,000.

The whole initiative was defeated in the council chamber, leading to deadlock over the budget. Officials warned that a team from Whitehall might have to take over the running of their city.

Days later, Labour and some moderate Greens backed a compromise increase just under the two per cent permitted without the need for a referendum. As Labour leader Warren Morgan put it: ‘The rise might have been fine for those who can afford organic food, but not everyone lives in the trendy city centre.’

Then there was the case of the Christian councillor who opposed gay marriage. Christina Summers said she was ‘accountable to God above any political party’, so she was abused by her colleagues and drummed out of the Green group.

‘I was called everything from a bigot to a fascist,’ she told me. ‘For some of these people, ideology is far more important than personal relationships. They just think anyone identifying as a Christian is against homosexuals.’

Ms Summers now sits as an independent. ‘I feel very sad, since our election successes were amazing achievements,’ she said. ‘Unfortunately they have no understanding what being in government means, which is the need to show some compromise.’

This from a party that claims on its website to be committed to ‘a caring, inclusive and democratic society’ that enables everyone to ‘follow their interests’.

A 74-page report on ‘Trans Equalities Strategy’ to eliminate discrimination and avoid discomforting transsexuals asked for gender- neutral toilets and transgender-only sports sessions. Doctors were also urged to stop identifying patients according to gender on forms at GPs’ surgeries.

Residents are being offered the category ‘Mx’ (for Mixter) alongside Mr, Ms and Mrs on council forms. This prevents ‘an unnecessary sense of exclusion and frustration to be forced to accept a title  that doesn’t reflect someone’s gender expression.’

Political rivals say that a Green addiction to gesture politics is changing the nature of the city. It does not take long to find evidence supporting their claim.

Typical was the Occupy Brighton camp set up shortly after the Green takeover. At first it was praised by party councillors. Inevitably, however, the cluster of tents began to attract people with drink and drug problems. It was eventually closed down after a fireman was assaulted while putting out a blaze.

Graham Cox, a Tory councillor and former head of Sussex CID, said the Green council promoted an image of Brighton as a place of protest and alternative lifestyles that welcomed the homeless.

‘They don’t care about things like cutting the grass and keeping flower-beds tidy, so our town is getting scruffier. They are basically hippies who don’t give a damn about such things.’

Others residents I spoke to said the same. And, sure enough, walking back along the main street connecting Brighton with Hove, I found five rough-sleepers on one 200-yard stretch amid the smart cafes, food shops and clothing outlets.

Luke, 47, was sitting on a cardboard sheet in a shop doorway reading a Wilbur Smith thriller. ‘I came here because I heard that the facilities were good with drop-in centres and free food,’ he said, adding that he had been pestered by drug dealers offering him free samples.

The council has also been accused of attracting travellers. Its policy was described by one rueful Green councillor as ‘come in and take over our parks’ – which is precisely what happened last summer.

Council officials unlocked the gates for 30 travellers’ caravans to enter Wild Park, the area’s largest nature reserve with spectacular views over the city.

Their action – reportedly taken to prevent injuries should the travellers try to break in – made it harder to evict the group, costing local taxpayers thousands of pounds in legal fees. This pushed up the bill for dealing with illegal travellers last year to nearly £200,000, the second highest in the country.

Yet the gates were unlocked again last month to let in another convoy of 19 caravans.

Little wonder that a poll last summer found the party plunging to third place behind the Tories and Labour, a disaster for this fledgling political force in its heartland.

Time and again I heard complaints over transport. Parking fees have soared – one woman told me she was giving up her part-time bar job since it was no longer viable once she had paid the charges.

As for the business community, one boss of a Brighton-based green business who was initially delighted when the party took control of the council told me: ‘Now it’s just embarrassing – they’re making a pig’s ear of everything.

‘They have fine ideals but lack any sense of reality. How could they not see that if you double the price of parking in a downturn, it drives away business?’

At least the cycle lanes look good.

Mr Kitcat told me he was proud of his party’s record, especially raising the minimum wage for council staff and contractors and improving Brighton’s air quality. Yet the council leader – a republican educated  at one of the country’s top public schools – admitted he was disappointed by the internal dissent.

‘This is the first time we have  been in administration and it is definitely a learning curve,’ he said. ‘While it is a lot messier than  people going with the party flow, isn’t it quite healthy to have this freedom?’

Caroline Lucas, whose marginal seat is threatened by the meltdown in the Greens’ popularity, denied the party was any more divided than others in local politics.

But Ben Duncan, a prominent ‘watermelon’ who has proposed taxes on tourists and the introduction of ‘cannabis cafes’, said there were major philosophical differences between Greens seeking revolutionary change to society and those not wanting to alarm voters.

He admitted wanting to kick out the council leader. Indeed, in a blog he said that Mr Kitcat had betrayed both his city and his party.

Contempt is growing for mainstream politics and, on the eve of local elections next month, voters must question if they really want more of these alternative protest politicians actually taking office.

They might heed the words of one Brighton shopper I met. ‘They seemed to have so many fresh ideas,’ she told me. ‘Now we just roll our eyes at any mention of the Greens – they’ve turned out even worse than the others.’

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