How Green Was My Brighton?

caroline-brighton (2)With the Green Party losing control of it’s one local authority, there will no doubt be many obituaries – as well as a few sighs of relief from some of their Councillors who may have preferred to stay in opposition over the last few years! Much of our criticism from the left focused on their implementation of government cuts or their attempt to cut refuse collectors and street sweepers pay in the name of equality.

On these two issues I would argue that if you claim to be anti-austerity and say there is an alternative to cuts, the moment you start cutting saying “there is no alternative”, you demobilise, demoralise and confuse many anti-cuts activists. To be fair, nearly all Green council candidates were at least  honest and refused to sign a pledge to not vote for cuts if they they were elected in 2011. As for the attempt to cut pay, this was a legal issue about equal pay. When women in Fords Dagenham went on strike for equal pay, only an idiot would think that they wanted male worker’s pay lowered to their level. But to comply with equal pay laws that is exactly what Brighton and Hove council tried to do!. As wrong as the greens were, few union activists believe Labour or Tory would have done anything different, despite the political capital they tried to make out of it.

Time to Assess the Greens on their Environmental Policies

Now that the Greens are gone, I think it’s time to look at how successful they have been in their own terms – i.e. on environmental policies. Afterall, one thing we can all thank the Greens for is helping us realise that the need to act to stop global warming is the key issue facing all of us.

Local authorities in the UK have less autonomy from central government than virtually any other country in the world. Its no wonder the vast majority of people don’t vote in council elections. But despite doing politics differently, the Green Party also had to do “politics” properly, which means calling yourself a Party and challenging established power at all levels of government. Once they won office, as a minority party, in 2011 they tried to implement a pro-environment agenda at all levels of the council. Many of the things they have tried shouldn’t be that controversial. But sometimes their ideas were just plain daft- like trying to force the refuse collectors not to have meat on the menu at their canteen every Monday. Other ideas such as solar panels on council buildings were costly, but the kind of investment in the planet’s future that needs to be prioritised by all institutions.

Brighton has some of the most polluted streets in the EU, and have sometimes been criticised by groups like Friends of the Earth for policy failings. In this piece though I will focus on something a local council can in theory control, something that is key to destroying our local environment and increasing carbon emissions – The Car. This is of particular importance for Brighton people living in a city classed as the most dangerous in the UK for cyclists and pedestrians.

Public Transport

Most buses in Brighton and Hove are run by one bus company, Brighton and Hove Buses, a part of Govia which now controls most trains in and out of Brighton too. I wouldn’t expect the Greens to break the law saying a council cannot run cheap public transport. But with the planet at stake perhaps I should expect  just that. And with a multi-million pound company rake in profits while hiking up fares is something that they could at least launched a mass campaign about.

Since they won office, the price of a day saver on the buses has gone up by almost a third. People who can’t afford smart phones and computers have to pay more too, even though these are the very people also least likely to own a car. Over the last 5 years there have been yet more cuts to the support the council  gives to public transport users. The response from the Greens is just to say sorry, we use buses too, and say that other councils are doing worse. Having said all that , the Greens have stood up to the Labour backed car lobby and have continued the national trend of bringing in more bus lanes, thereby preventing a load of cars with one or two passengers delaying buses with dozens of passengers. This is a good thing, and inherently democratic.The left should be campaigning for more bus lanes. But it’s a bit futile if the fare increases make it cheaper for a family to travel by taxi, and anybody who has to run a car would be bonkers to spend a fortune on bus fares too.

Cars and Car Use

road rageFor various reasons, none of them being Brightonian’s lifestyle politics, car use in Brighton and Hove is one of the lowest in the UK outside London. With the Greens running the council, Clarkesonesque car drivers groups have had a field day attacking the council for policies such as lowering speed limits, raising parking charges or expanding the number of bus lanes. But talk of the Green’s “war on the motorist” is pure fantasy.

The gradual introduction of 20MPH speed limits across much of the city is something that all socialists must surely celebrate. In fact I think it should be 15MPH for private vehicles. Given that council’s of all colours have been doing this for at least a decade, I was shocked by Labour’s alignment with the Clarkson-Drive-Faster wing of British politics. Local people should inform the incoming authority in Brighton that if they reverse the speed limit reduction, and anyone in our families are hurt or killed by a car doing more than 20MPH, we will look at taking legal action against individual councillors.

The whole saga of the 20MPH zones has revealed the futility and powerless of local authorities. Sussex Police (not elected) publicly stated that they would not implement the new limits agreed by the (elected) council. Some democracy we live in! The Greens were recently criticised just for trying to stop drivers doing 40MPHPedestrian-Risk-by-Vehicle-Speedor a 20MPH zone, when the police refused to act!

Finally, one of the last policy decisions the Greens made was to provide backing for a huge seafront tower. They told us it would bring in the tourists and hence money to the city. Hilariously, the “i360” green-propaganda website says that it won’t cause more traffic or pollution as that’s all caused by locals. Living right by the A23 gives the lie to that every hot summers day. As does the councils own SCOOT traffic light system, complete with placebo pedestrian crossings (!), designed to get traffic from London into the town centre as quickly as possible and making life a misery for all those who regularly have to cross it on foot.

Cyclists and Pedestrians

Most cycle lanes are unusable by anybody who wants to travel all around the city. No car driver would put up with having to get out and push for part of the journey, or deal with two or three times the number of traffic lights on the road. Furthermore, many of the so called cycle paths are on the pavement, antagonising pedestrians and encouraging those wankers on bikes who cycle on the pavement frightening parents with small children and elderly people. Other cycle lanes are simply a sign saying you can cycle the wrong way down a narrow street – so my journey to work often involves wondering if the car driving straight at me even know’s I’m in a (barely marked) cycle lane, and wondering if he’ll give me enough room or knock me off my bike.

As for those who chose, following government advice, to walk, Brighton’s pretty miserable. As well as the stink of cars, Brighton is one of Britain’s few cities without a pedestrianised street.The nearest we got was the 2007 £1.75million “New Road” improvement by the Pavilion – nice to look at and walk along, until you realise that the council were so scared of the car lobby that they let cars drive down it at 20MPH!  Where there are restrictions on vehicles, it appears to be voluntary – once again, Sussex Police seem to be the people deciding policy here rather than the elected council.

Meanwhile, nothing has been done to improve pedestrian crossings.Waiting times continue to lengthen and crossing time shortened, as the prime policy of any council is to keep traffic moving.In fact, pedestrian crossing have been worsened with the introduction of new harder-to-see lights.

Finally, there is the plain daft. I’m the first to complain about the way pedestrian are forced to walk through narrow routes flanked with railings as if we’re animals to be herded apart from the cars. Brighton seems a lot more pleasant with a lot of those railings now removed. However, anyone with young excitable children crossing a busy road at a crossing now has to cling on to their young ones for dear life. Not the best way to win over the public really.

Air Travel

Apart from making the right noises about stopping more runways at nearby Gatwick Airport, you wouldn’t think there’s much a council could do to slow global warming caused by air travel. Many of their Councillors have made an individual pledge not to fly, due to the massive carbon footprint of each flight. However,those in the council unions expected a new policy for staff regarding flights were mistaken. Some thought that for all those staff who could show they got a train or coach to any destination over,say, 500 miles as part of their annual holiday, would be granted an extra two days leave to for the extra travel time. Nothing happened on this – perhaps no-one thought of this as an planet saving idea outside the trade unions. Maybe we need to start a national campaign for this through the Campaign Against Climate Change.

Could it have been different. Some cheap policy ideas for a pro-earth council

Just because I don’t believe it was worth the Greens taking office in 2011, and that council’s have so little power, and that policy decisions can seemingly be delayed past the term of office of the ruling party by council officers, doesn’t mean there’s nothing else Brighton and Hove Green Council could have done. Here’s just a few ideas that wouldn’t cost much but could set the city on the road (!) to being the UK’s first car free city.

  • Residential Roads could be car free. When the town is at a standstill due to snow, residents walk around their street talking to each other,enjoying the quiet, and seeing their children have space to play. Imagine if the money spent on local ballots about car parking had instead been spent on given residents of any non-through-route street the power by majority-vote to close the street to through traffic. Residents could still park, but the street would become a community and part of it a place for children to play. All this would cost is the price of a few planters. Over time, I believe more and more people would see others living in such streets and want the same.
  • Traffic Lights could have their timing mechanisms altered to give pedestrians more time to cross. They could be set like they were when I was a kid – you pressed the button and the light changed immediately,,scrapping the current make-’em-wait for 45 seconds rule. This would make walking much more attractive. Sure, it’d make it slower for cars
  • Remove Parking Spaces Again, this could be done with just a few pot planters – or just a pile of bricks! It’d drive motorists mad – but however “eco” a car might be, there’s simply not enough room in Brighton for them anyway. Its already one of Britain’s most congested cities.
  • Keep Cars Out of Public Parks The local paper goes mad if a few travelers park in the local park. The police will eventually move them on. But why not stop all cars getting into parks. A few bollards would do it. Parks are surely the one place where our kids should be free to run around or cycle safely.

A Final Word on Congestion Charging

Brighton’s Greens have been talking about a congestion charge for years. The fact that it never happened is probably due to the need to bring it in over the lifetime of a few councils. The fact that the Greens even talked about it betrays their inability to understand class politics. There is a clear need to move to car free cities. Keeping cars out of a central area would be a great start, or at least rationing the amount of cars allowed into a central area.

There are two ways of rationing when resources are limited.

It can be done according to wealth; the ability to pay the charge.

Or it can be done according to need.

All those who think that the “right to drive” (sic) should be rationed by ability to pay clearly has more in common with neo-liberalism than they realise. Being an old fashioned Marxist, I believe in “to each according to their need”. The technology that would be used to charge motorists who drive over the underground electronic equipment could just as easily be used to keep out (with threat of wage-linked fines) all those who didn’t need to drive in the central area. Anybody living or working in that area, alongside disabled drivers could be exempted. I think this would cut traffic by far more than the traffic decline in central London, and would encourage most drivers to find an alternative to getting into town while keeping their right to drive to work or take longer trips.

Those Green Party members who understand the class politics behind these proposals deserve our support. While most Green party members have a passion for social justice, there are also too many who think that climate change needs to be tackled and think that it’s possible to do this at the expense of social justice.  This view – understandable considering a tipping point in the next few years could make questions of social justice irrelevant – is for some Greens combined with a belief that we need to  throw everything we have at getting into “power” at a local level. The lesson of Brighton is that this approachcan undermine the fight for the planet as it has the fight against cuts.

Action is urgently needed on climate change, and local councils should be in the front line in the battle against the damage done to both the global climate and our lived-in environment by the car. Four years of a green council, for all the positive things it has tried to do, has in my opinion failed to bring us nearer to stopping climate change. Rather than just hope to win one or two dozen extra councils every few years, its time to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new strategy.

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One thought on “How Green Was My Brighton?

  1. Unfortunately cars are here to stay reducing the average speeds of travel increases the emissions due to longer journey times, slower speeds mean lower gear used thus increasing engine RPM thus increasing emmisions. The trick is to get all people in and out as quick as possible without interruptions but the “Patchy” infrastructure of Brighton and Hove is not going to allow for that. Plus the recent disaster of making lewes road single lane by adding a bus lane is ludicrous I wonder how much pollution has increased along that route ?

    Unfortunately everyone is biased, car drivers want faster roads, cyclists want slower roads with cycle lanes, pedestrians want pedestrianised zones and in the end you cant please everyone when any changes are made so best to leave as is.

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