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Home » Editor's Pick, Features

REGENCY Interviews Brighton and Hove Council Leader Mary Mears

Published by on Friday, 5 December 2008No Comment

 

mary-mears

Brighton and Hove Council Leader Mary Mears

As we approach the end of the year our editor, Tony Davenport, went to meet the Leader of Brighton & Hove City Council, Councillor Mary Mears for a chin-wag about our city, over a nice cup of coffee.

 

TD: You’re a genuine local aren’t you?

MM: Well, I was born and bred in Brighton and throughout my life have worked extensively in the city, mostly in my family business, which is greengrocery. My father had a market stall after he left the army, and everything has built up from that. I’ve raised my family here too – I have one son and two grandsons.

TD: How did you get involved with local politics?

MM: I’m very opinionated when it comes to what I feel strongly about, and friends said I should either put myself up for election or shut up, and so I did the former! The first time I stood for Marine Ward in the old Brighton council, but lost by 200 votes. Next time around I was offered a safer seat, but I wanted more of a challenge as I was sure I could do it, so stood again for the more challenging Marine Ward and won! It gave me a good background because this former ward included Roedean, the Marina, Sussex Square, Lewes Crescent, and Whitehawk – a very diverse ward and I found it really interesting and challenging, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

TD: What would you say is your primary interest in the council?

MM: My real passion in politics is housing – if you get that right, everything follows, from children in the school environment to adult social care – it’s really fundamental for people’s wellbeing. I always took a real interest and worked on this, so when the Conservatives came took control last year I became Chair of Housing and when I became Leader of the Council I took this interest in strategic housing with me. 

As I said, if you get housing right, you have taken the first step and my ambition is to ensure we really get to grips with it. The council has nearly 13,000 properties around the city and there was a bad situation between tenants, council officers, and council members, where tenants didn’t talk to the officers. We’ve set up focus groups to mend bridges and get people talking, a crucial piece of work, so tenants then started coming to the council and working with the officers and I’m delighted that last Friday the tenants held an inaugural city-wide assembly. We’re also putting together a way of trying to fund decent housing and although the tenants said no to transferring council housing to a housing association,the council still has to meet central Government guidelines on housing, and  there’s a massive gap between the target and the present situation.  We are therefore setting up a company to lease properties and we will then borrow money on the rental income, with the money going back into the housing account and we are hoping to go ‘live’ on that in April. We have an excellent Cabinet member on housing in Maria Caulfield, but I always like to keep an eye on what is going on. Our council stock is not meeting decent home standards and it will be a massive achievement if we can get that right.

TD: People often see Brighton and Hove as our own little world, but as you have already mentioned you are quite dependent on central Government for funding, aren’t you?

MM: Generally, yes. There are limitations due to government guidelines, and a wide range of performance indicators we have to meet. Our council’s funding settlement from central Government is one of the lowest in the country and so against these limited resources there are enormous pressures. For instance the Government wants to see a large growth in housing in this area but currently we do not have the resources for what they would like.

TD: And no money in Icelandic banks I trust?

MM: No! We have excellent finance officers who are incredibly diligent. We did have money in an Icelandic bank but they removed it some time ago but some of our colleagues in other councils got very badly burnt.

TD: I have my ear to the ground, and gather you have been doing lots of things involving local businesses. Can you tell us about that?

MM: Yes, local businesses are one of the ways in which Brighton and Hove is quite unique  as we have so many small independent traders. I think it makes us what we are and if we lose that, Brighton and Hove could be any high street in the country – just multinationals. With this financial downturn it’s important for the council to do as much as possible to support small businesses. 

We’ve introduced a range of measures, including a commitment to paying invoices to small businesses within ten days. We’re also looking at business rates and spreading the payments over 12 months instead of 10. We’re trying to look at businesses on a one by one basis and coming up with solutions such as taking rents one month in advance instead of three. From 5th December we are also stopping town centre roadworks and we’re delighted that Southern Water and gas companies have signed up to this initiative, for twelve days over the Christmas period, to encourage people to come to the city. We’re holding meetings with traders and hoteliers, so we are actually listening to what they are saying and working with them. One of the first things we did when we came into power was to set up a meeting with small traders and we’re also meeting with London Road businesses to discuss the problems of street drinking.

TD: It’s interesting that you mention these various consultations. As a resident I always felt that under the last administration consultation was considered a tedious exercise to be conducted and then ignored, rather than a meaningful dialogue. Are you saying your administration is different?

MM: Absolutely. I don’t believe in a top-down approach. My colleagues and I want an open and transparent administration. There’s really no point listening if we don’t take on board what people tell us.

TD: I gather you now have an online  webcasting system?

MM: Yes, it’s all quite new. We webcast full council, cabinet and planning meetings so people can watch live via our website and residents can also look at the archive of previous meetings. It’s one of the many ways in which we are trying to interact with residents because we are elected by them and spending their money so it’s very important that they get a feeling for what the council is doing. It’s all part of our commitment to open and honest engagement with the public.

TD: The King Alfred is a hot topic at the moment. I’ve been reading that a couple of Labour councillors are criticising the council for not taking the “Plan B” approach with regard to the project. Why didn’t you?

MM: As an administration we’ve been restricted on what we can discuss for legal reasons, but that restriction ended on 9th November when the agreement fell through. I can tell you now that what people have read in the papers is wrong. There was no “Plan B” provided by Karis Developments.

TD: So what will happen now?

MM: In the short term we are putting money into the King Alfred, not closing it. There’s remedial work now and it’s ongoing because sadly nothing has been spent on it since 1975. Longer term we’re looking at possibilities on the site and though the original brief was very clear about providing leisure facilities for the city, it grew into an enormous development with housing as well and we want to take it back to the original brief of providing great leisure facilities.

TD: Tall towers themselves are rather contentious to many people – what are your views on them along the seafront?

MM: It would be wrong to say ‘yes’ to all, or ‘no’ to all, so we need to take each case on its own merits and to be very clear when passing planning permission as we’ve got a fantastic coastline and have to remember that. We don’t want developers to think it’s a closed door here but on the other hand we don’t just want developments which ‘will do’ – they have to be really fantastic because after all we have to think not only about now, but the future. If you look at the city, some conservation area buildings were put up a hundred years ago and others were put up recently – ask yourself, which ones will still look good in the future? Brighton and Hove is a very special place – new developments must always reflect that.

TD: What do you have planned for next year?

MM: It’s going to be an interesting year as we’ve got no knowledge of just how long the downturn will last, but we have a very clear direction for this council. We want to see core basic services delivered because although people are struggling and losing jobs they still have to pay council tax. So we have to ensure we deliver high quality, value for money services. We inherited a vast number of major projects around the city, and we’re now looking carefully at each one. The top priority is the Brighton Centre which is crucial to the economy of the city, tourism, and conferences. It’s vital that it is redeveloped as this will have a major knock-on effect on jobs, so we are working hard on this at the moment. We’re also looking at the other projects realistically to see if they’re viable and if we can deliver. This policy is ongoing as we think it is important to look at each one with fresh eyes. We’re also doing lots with the voluntary sector and we have created a new cabinet portfolio specially for Communities and the Voluntary Sector. Councillor Dee Simson is working in this role to ensure we are not duplicating efforts and can get the best results for our city.

Editor’s footnote

I went into this interview with an open mind and I must say that I was impressed with what I heard. Mary is open and friendly and obviously loves this city where she was born. Let’s hope that she will be able to deliver for the residents and businesses in the next few years.

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