May’s local elections in Brighton & Hove brought a decisive shift in the balance of power and campaigners in the city have been working hard to ensure their new councillors are committed to climate and nature This blog by Paul Norman of Hanover Action describes how Brighton’s activists are holding their new representatives to account.
Local elections in Brighton & Hove on 5 May entailed a whole council vote for 54 councillors. Following SECA’s appeal to its members, Hanover Action: Towards a Sustainable Community took on the task of contacting all the candidates standing in the city to encourage them to sign up to the ABCD Climate and Nature Pledge. Whilst SECA highlighted the next steps with elected councillors in this blog, in Brighton & Hove many elected councillors hadn’t signed the pledge, and so in consultation with SECA we developed a post-election pledge sign-up drive.
For the last two decades the city has been split three ways, with no one party having overall control of the council and Greens, Labour and to a lesser extent Conservative groups having influence. As the results were counted on the night of 5 May, it was clear that this was all to about to change. The city had moved decisively from a Green Party minority administration (reduced to a rump of seven seats) to a Labour one (up to 38 seats). The Labour Group had a large majority securing overall control of the council, but only two of them had signed the pledge during the election period. For our pledge work, the outcome was problematic. While six newly elected Green councillors had signed the pledge, their influence would now be extremely limited by the dominant Labour Group of 38 councillors – just two of whom were pledge signatories.
That meant 46 newly elected councillors (or 85%) were not engaged with this key climate and nature pledge. So we arranged with SECA to hold open the Pledge Register until the end of August. This gave us time to go back to each elected councillor, congratulate those pledge signatories who got elected, and urge non-signatories to sign up. So, what did we learn from this? What has been the impact so far?
Learning from the experience
As many SECA members involved in the pledge campaign will know, it is not easy to contact candidates putting themselves forward for election. For reasons of security and/or privacy the vast majority now withhold their contact details. This leaves campaigners with only the election agents to contact, and they only provide a physical mailing address! With several hundred candidates in the city vying for 54 seats, a huge quantity of paper letters, copies of the pledge and explanations had to be snail-mailed to election agents. It is noteworthy that after the election, all councillors were issued with an official email address (and phone number) within days. This meant the post-election follow up was supremely easier than during the campaign period. Further, several email responses from the new councillors suggested that they had not seen our letters, suggesting some filtering and/or inefficiency of election agents’ communications with the candidates. In short, post-election, we have easy direct dialogue with councillors to encourage them to sign the pledge, although many we heard from were already complaining of email overload.
What has been the impact so far?
In contacting the Labour Group councillors now running Brighton & Hove City Council, we had a mixed response. Hearteningly, with days, nine Labour Group councillors responded positively, increasing the Labour pledges to 11 (out of a group of 38, or 29%). We were delighted that one of them was the Labour Party Group leader Bella Sankey (pictured) – and we hope this will have a further positive impact on others coming forward. Some of those responding positively by email struggled to (find time to?) follow through with the pledge. With kindly prompts and offers of assistance we are getting there, but that does leave a significant level of non-engagement (i.e. not even replying to our email messages) from 27 Labour councillors (three of whom are my personal ward councillors!). For the Green Party opposition, the single non-pledge signatory has indicated their pledge is on its way.
We will continue to chivvy non-signatories with at least one final request. This will be informed by our local mapping of councillor membership of committees. Locally we have pledge-related business within a Transport and Sustainability Committee, City Environment, South Downs & The Sea Committee and Housing and New Homes Committee that track directly to the carbon reduction, circular economy, and biodiversity issues that we are so concerned with. Concerningly, many of the pledge signatories are not members or chairs of these specific committees. So as highlighted in Sally Barnard’s June blog, the follow-through strategy on delivery of the pledge objectives is important, and will increasingly be so, when the Climate Emergency UK data on Local Authority performance (rather than rhetoric) become available from autumn 2023. At that point, we all need to network effectively and coordinate with other groups in our localities in holding our elected representatives to account – as the climate and biodiversity crisis will be increasingly impacting on our communities.