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.
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 60 ft 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.
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.