Friday, 6 June 2008

New Neighbourhood Charter for Eastern Road - great, but hardly a substitute for cash...

It's not everyday I find myself in such illustrious company, but this week I joined Council leader Mary Mears and Brighton's top cop Paul Pearce in taking the pledge - singing up to the Government's latest wheeze, that is, the Eastern Road Neighbourhood Charter.

In a nutshell, the Neighbourhood Charter - one of 12 pilot schemes in the country - is a contract between the community and the providers of local public services to meet tough new minimum standards on rubbish collection, street light repairs, contact between the police and the public, that sort of thing.

So far, so good. The logic of the charter is sound: give our neighbourhood (and, eventually, of course, every neighbourhood) the opportunity to set its own priorities for action and the ability to hold the police, Brighton and Hove Council, and the health authorities to account to make sure they deliver them.

The Eastern Road area is one of the most deprived in the city. Though it is surrounded by pockets of affluence, regarded as some of the most desirable areas to live in the whole country, here we are blighted by a range of 21st Century urban afflictions – poor air quality, a high fear of crime – especially amongst the area's many older residents – no local community secondary school, problems with housing management, and a hospital with one of the highest levels of MRSA infections in the country, to name just a few.

Last year residents were asked exactly what they thought about living in the area in one of the most detailed neighbourhood attitudes surveys I've ever seen. The answers were clear – people were proud of their area, but wanted to see public services that enabled and empowered them to live greener, healthier and safer lives – and the results of that survey have formed the bedrock of this Charter.

But it makes no sense to me that residents are being promised great new service delivery standards while government funding for local services is tighter than ever, and falling.

The whole project is overshadowed by the reality that this charter has come on stream in a year when the Government has effectively slashed funding – for Sussex Police, for Brighton and Hove Council, and for local neighbourhood renewal.

And that its launch comes just a month after the council here was forced to abandon its open, democratic system of decision-by-committee by a central Government edict and in the face of cross-party and widespread public opposition.

There's not much we can do about Government cuts and the erosion of local democracy – but the Charter we are launching today gives us an opportunity to rebalance the relationship between public services and the community in which we live. I really hope it works, and knowing the people of this quite special neighbourhood, I don't doubt for a minute that it will.

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