Brighton has a well established reputation for being ‘alternative’. The city returned the country’s first Green MP and the first green-led council, and it was among the first councils to reinstate the committee system. Now the minority administration is vying to become the first to put a council tax rise decision to the electorate.
Whether by design or not, the party that has traditionally shunned leadership is at the forefront of a debate that has wide-ranging implications. This is a battle for localism – for the right and the ability of local councils to set local tax to fund local services according to the priorities of local people.
It is a classic David and Goliath battle: the minority council, painted in the media as somewhat oddball, dares to take on the commonly held assumption that the public wants Scandinavian services for American taxes. It is a high stakes game.
The bar is almost impossibly high. As if asking people to vote for higher taxes were not enough, there is the unpalatable question of the cost of running the referendum, the lack of flexibility in the wording of the referendum question, the need to spend more money campaigning, and the obligation to poll the whole electoral roll, not only council tax payers.
Yet Brighton’s Greens, who unlike other councils are not tied by national party conventions, are the first to to be brave – or insert another adjective if you prefer – enough to put their convictions to the test.
They face two major hurdles. First is to get the plan through the council. The Greens hold 21 seats but Labour (14) and the Conservatives (18) do not support it. As Green leader Jason Kitcat says, it is technically possible if some dissenters abstain.
In the unlikely event the plan is passed, the public will be an even greater test. A ComRes opinion poll in October suggested the Greens would come third if an election was called, and Brighton’s own consultation on support for a rise was far from conclusive. Only 6% of the 659 respondents supported a rise outright and half said they would support a rise under some circumstances at some point in the future.
A referendum in Brighton would truly be democracy in action. Whatever the outcome, this is a historic case. The local and national news stories will go some way to disabusing people of the common perception that council services are funded entirely from council tax, and will ensure that more people are aware of cuts to central funding.
If a referendum were to be held a ‘no’ vote would probably finish off Britain’s first Green administration. But it could also open up a conversation about publicly sanctioned services cuts – and a debate about the role of local government in future.
A ‘yes’ vote, meanwhile, could change the whole dynamic between central and local government, and between voters and the council. The implication would ripple much further than Brighton’s beaches.
The latter scenario is unlikely. But if it can happen anywhere, it would be Brighton.