Free bus travel or bin strikes? – The Greens running local government

How is the Green Party coping with running local councils?

Green Party co-leaders Adrian Ramsay and Carla Denyer

Greens and power are two things that haven’t traditionally gone hand in hand. But as Green Party of England and Wales members gather for their conference in Birmingham this weekend, power has very much been on the agenda.

In his first speech to conference, newly elected party co-leader Adrian Ramsay made reference to the growing number of countries governed by Greens, with Green Parties in Finland, Ireland and New Zealand now holding office. North of the border, the Scottish Greens are now in government jointly with the SNP. And in more than a dozen local councils in England, Greens are also in sole or joint administration.

It was the latter that was discussed most heavily on the first day of the party’s conference. At a main room panel, titled ‘Greens in Power – Making a Difference’, members heard from a number of the Councillors running local authorities across the country. From Brighton to Lancaster, York to Herefordshire, they all had a similar message – having a Green around the decision making table enables Councils to deliver on climate change and on tackling social injustice.

Three of those Councillors – Siriol Hugh-Jones from Brighton & Hove, Ellie Chowns from Herefordshire and Zoe Nicholson from Lewes – spoke to Left Foot Forward about their time in administration. They discussed what they see as their biggest achievements, and the challenges they’ve come up against in the context of a global pandemic, combined with the increasingly constrained financial and regulatory environment local councils exist within.

All three of them were able to reel off an impressive sounding list of things they’ve delivered while in office. Unsurprisingly, many of these were tied to tackling the climate crisis. Zoe Nicholson – who shares power in Lewes with Labour, the Liberal Democrats and some independents – talked of the Council having a “really clear and – I think – Council-leading carbon reduction plan” with the Greens in office. She claims this has reduced emissions by 15 per cent, and also pointed to efforts towards “decarbonising [the] housing stock” as evidence of the Greens delivering on the climate locally.

The story from Brighton & Hove was similar. Siriol Hugh-Jones, who is part of the only administration where the Greens hold office as the sole party of power, also talked up her Council’s record on the climate. She boasted of £27 million of investment in “carbon-reduction measures”, and talked through a range of initiatives from new cycle lanes to e-cargo bike schemes being implemented to address the city’s climate impact. Like her fellow Green Councillors, she also spoke of the action Brighton & Hove Council were taking on retrofitting homes, saying that “a small army” was needed to implement this and talking about “giving young people the skills that they need to enter that sector”.

Perhaps the most interesting climate-addressing initiative, however, came from Ellie Chowns. In Herefordshire, the joint Green-Independent administration has implemented a policy of free bus travel anywhere in the county on weekends, using money earmarked for Covid-recovery to deliver it. According to Chowns, this is a direct result of Green involvement in the administration – with Council officers initially proposing free car-parking as a way of stimulating local economic growth in the wake of the pandemic. Chowns says she saw this as “subsidising something that’s counter-productive, socially and environmentally”, and said the money should instead be “going on buses and bikes, not car-parking”.

But, in keeping with the Greens’ stated commitment to fight for both people and the planet, all three Councillors also talked of work which wasn’t solely, or even primarily concerned with tackling climate change. Housing was a key talking point. Chowns – whose time in office followed 12 years of majority Tory rule – says that one of the achievements she’s most proud of since taking office in 2019, has been “starting to build council housing for the first time in a generation”. Similarly, Hugh-Jones – joint chair of Brighton & Hove’s Housing Committee – claimed the Greens in office have “built more council homes in the last year than has been the case for many years”.

Beyond housing, Nicholson pointed to a scheme whereby the lowest income households in Lewes have been given a 100 per cent reduction on their Council Tax, having revised a previous initiative which gave these residents an 80 per cent discount. Hugh-Jones highlighted Brighton & Hove Council’s “anti-racist schools strategy” and “a trans-inclusion schools toolkit”. These initiatives echoed things discussed in the main hall panel – with a Stroud Green Party representative highlighting their Council group’s attempts to deal with the town’s legacy of colonialism, in part through seeking to remove racist statues.

It’s not all rosy though. The backdrop of the pandemic hasn’t made life easy for local councils. Nicholson described the context of Covid as “deeply challenging”, saying the impact of the pandemic was “really significant” on the tourism dependent local community. For Chowns, this – combined with the constraints placed on local government – means being in administration is “really tough”, and requires change to be made “step by step, inch by inch”.

Beyond Covid, the difficulties facing the Green Party in local government are perhaps most keenly felt in Brighton & Hove. Having taken over from Labour in 2020, the Greens were recently rocked by a bin strike called by GMB. The strike was called off last week, with workers receiving a pay rise, and disputes over shifts being resolved.

This wasn’t the first time Brighton & Hove’s Greens have faced industrial action from refuse workers. When the party last ran the Council – from 2011 to 2015 – a painful bin strike was triggered by attempts to deliver equal pay that the GMB argued would see some workers lose £4,000 a year. This caused bitter divisions inside the party and called into question the Greens’ left wing credentials well beyond the city’s boundaries.

For Hugh-Jones, the party’s previous experience of running the Council, combined with a concerted effort to engage constructively with trade unions was key to reaching a solution to this year’s dispute. She says the strike was resolved through “a lot of long, hard negotiation, and being willing to listen”, with “their approach this time around” being more effective to address the union’s grievances, adding that “we appreciate the importance of developing those union relationships”.

She was also at pains to argue that the that Greens were supportive of improving workers rights. “Fundamentally, as Greens we want people to be properly paid. We want workers to have decent pay and conditions, and the spin-off for this that we are getting rid of the lowest pay grade in the Council, which means that across the Council there will be a pay-rise for the lowest paid”, she said.

The GMB’s statement confirming the strike had been called off, however, didn’t suggest the Greens held a pro-worker position. It instead stated that the “GMB union has delivered for working people”, and that “we are very proud of GMB members for standing up for themselves to win their own respect and fair treatment.”

Whether Greens continue their past trajectory and establish more of a foothold in local government remains to be seen. But with Councils across the country facing more and more acute financial pressures in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, problems like these will continue to be put at those Greens’ who are in administration’s door.

How they handle this will be a big challenge for the party. The first Green administration in Brighton & Hove cast a long shadow, with the bin strike and accusations of facilitating austerity following the Greens for years.

With the Green Party continuing to pitch itself nationally as a left wing alternative to Starmer’s Labour, people will expect this agenda to be followed through when Greens are in power locally. How effective the party is at implementing its platform in the most challenging context local government has faced for years may well be key to the Greens’ future prospects at the ballot box.

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