Last month saw Brighton & Hove Tories make a U-turn in their plans to shut down Bright Start nursery.
The report going to the Council Cabinet Member meting on the 17th January, which was due to recommend closure by Apri,l is now going to recommend that the council “ withdraw the proposal to close the nursery by the end of April 2011 and, to reassure parents and staff that there will be no change to the status of the nursery before September 2011.”
Brighton and Hove Unison,which represents all the staff at the nursery, initiated the campaign. But its success was due to working with the public service users. Or at least their parents! Nearly all those involved had never been involved in any campaign before. Some had voted Tory back in May. Some agreed with the cuts in general but expected front-line services to be protected. But we were all united in our determination to save a much loved nursery from the axe, and our determination, energy and imagination surprised the council, other campaigners, and even ourselves!
The day after they announced the closure timetable, Unison had the petition up and running. Two days later the first councillors meeting discussing closure saw the biggest lobby known of such a meeting, complete with TV coverage. The next day we had Caroline Lucas MP visiting to offer practical support. Other Labour and Green opposition councillors followed, and met with Unison and parents to discuss how we could stop the closure. And we got a real boost at the end of October when up to 100 parents, staff, children, and former parents and children led the 1,500 strong march against the cuts.
How We Campaigned
Without all the hard work of so many people it is very unlikely that the Tories would be trying to wriggle out of closure.
We marched 3 times, heading the 1,500 Brighton Stop the Cuts Coalition march in October as well as joining the “Burning of the Clocks” parade with a giant pair of scissors, and marching to full council with children and parents singing anti-cuts Xmas songs. We made our own banners, placards, stickers and balloons.
We petitioned everyone we knew, had stalls in town and at a school fair. We asked people to sign on the touchline at kids football games,inside the cinema at family films and in school playgrounds, while Unison reps and others took it round their workplaces. By the time it was presented to full council, we had 5,125 signatures – more4,000 more than we needed to trigger a debate at council, and the biggest petition they’ve been presented with.
Parents and staff spoke out at demonstrations, public meetings and council lobbies. We planned our own public meeting with a binman (who stopped the council cutting pay) speaking alongside a Labour’s Chief Whip in the House of lords,Lord Bassam of Brighton, Caroline Lucas MP and staff from the successful Save Phoenix Nursery campaign. Staff and parents also spoke out at 2 full council meetings, though the 9 year old “Old Bright Start-onian” who also addressed council must have embarrassed them most.
Parents and staff researched facts, undermined council misinformation (using the Freedom of Information Act), ridiculed council waste and wrote detailed replies to the council’s consultation documents. A fellow trade unionist at the Job Centre calculated the cost to the taxpayer of lost taxes and unemployment benefit was 2 or 3 times the “saving” of closing Bright Start.
We also blew up balloons, produced stickers, banners, and placards, met and worked with politicians.
Finally, to keep everybody informed and enthused, Unison produced a
news bulletin with upcoming events, ideas for action, and statistics on frivolous council spending.
Our campaign has been noticed by many local people as broad and dynamic. Brighton and Hove Unison branch is certainly impressed with the campaign, and it is a great lesson for all of us who face arguments that the cuts can’t be stopped. Clearly they can.
Save Bright Start Campaign still has much to fight for
The fact that the new consultation will take us way past the local elections in May, when the council will probably change hands, was in many ways as much as we expected to win.
Obviously we can’t rely on the Tories losing control of the council.
A statement from opposition Green and Labour groups on the council regarding their plans for Bright Start should they win control would now be really useful. It would send a signal to senior officers in the council that any more plans to close or privatise us are a waste of their time.
We are not in the clear yet, because the new period of consultation now planned is about taking the nursery out of council control.
Any attempt to privatise us would lead to staff leaving after a few years as they could not afford to support their own families on minimum wage. Unison is urging all parents to support us in opposing such a change.
As with Connexions, the battle is far from over. The support we have had so far from anti-cuts activists and Opposition Parties needs to continue, just as Connexions staff still need our support.
There is an important lesson for everyone here. A weak Tory council has retreated 3 times in one year when faced by popular, union led resistance. GMB members at the bin depot had to go as far as striking, but reversed a pay cut in less than 48 hours. Connexions staff and Bright Start staff have won a reprieve of sorts after popular campaigns backed up by the threat of industrial action.
More Trouble Ahead
Unfortunately, the Tories seem to be a bit slow to learn from their mistakes. They are about to start a new period of “consultation” in order to try again to get rid of Connexions staff.
Other jobs are also on the line .Carers in day centres for the elderly and people promoting healthy eating and lifestyles to schoolchildren are amongst the latest to be threatened. The Tories’ War on the Vulnerable shows no sign of letting up.
But the campaigns at the bin depot, Connexions, and Bright Start all show that there is an alternative.
Staff at Bright Start showed the council that if they were given more say in the running of the nursery, money could be saved.
Unison also pointed out how much the council spends unnecessarily £Millions on executive pay and golden handshakes, PR and image, management consultants and lawyers,and even luxury chocolates and alcohol. On top of all this, our council has over £20million stashed away in reserves.
As with the council, the nation too is bursting with wealth. One Bright Start nursery nurse walked through the first protest outside Vodaphone and explained to staff and customer that their £6Billion tax break was the equivalent to 69,000 Bright Start closures.
One commentator recently said that we were experiencing a “Tax Avoidance Crisis”, not a Deficit Crisis. As more and more people begin to see the reality of the cuts for themselves, we can show that there is an alternative. And the example of Bright Start shows how a campaign uniting the service users with the public service workers and their unions can win.