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UK Politics

Brighton rot: Refuse collectors’ strike causes stink in Britain’s greenest city


A day trip to Brighton on the hottest day of the year should be a treat. But as the train pulls into the station, the words of the woman who answered the phone at the local Conservative Party office pop back into my head. “Bring a mask with you,” she said chirpily. “It's stinky.”

Her glee may be explained by the political stink-bomb that Brighton and Hove City Council, ruled by the Green Party, has been dealing with for the past month. An attempt to standardise council pay, which would see some binmen lose £4,000 a year, has led to series of strikes, both unofficial and official. With another five-day walkout this week, and the sun warming the piles of refuse littering the streets, the jewel of the South Coast is starting to smell. And after peace talks between the council and the GMB union broke down - residents have another week-long strike ahead.

An unmistakable tang wafts over the cobbled lanes of the city centre. Above, the squawks of seagulls are more menacing than usual. On most street corners, large communal bins spill lurid, rotting rubbish across the hot tarmac. This isn't a good look as summer rolls into a city that earns almost £1bn a year from tourism, and it is contributing to something else in the air: tension.

Ben Steers, a pub manager, became the focus of anger when he started a Facebook group calling on locals to clean up the streets. He says that he was accused of being a “scab” and “strike breaking”, so he closed it down. “I tried to do something which was nice,” he said. “People thought I had a political agenda, which I didn't.”

One florist, cleaning up outside her shop, says she had the rubbish bag she was holding ripped open by a man claiming to be a striking binman.

On St James's Street, the exploding bins are threatening the strip's al fresco dining scene. A large pile has taken root outside Cornel's Café. Manager Jason Martin began cleaning it up - but says he was warned off.

“I was tidying up because it was really bad - there were nappies on the pavement and I thought 'you can't have customers sitting out there drinking coffee with nappies lying around'. So I cleaned up a little bit and the ladies across the road in the bread shop said, 'Oh, you shouldn't be doing that, you'll be told off'.”

Down the hill at O'Fishly Healthy fishmongers, owner Kelly Yeardley is angry. It's 26C and the rubbish outside is attracting unwanted visitors. “My fish is fresh in today and there are flies in here - I never have flies and I've definitely never seen them this big. They're coming in off the rubbish bags.”

On the other side of the city, in Hove, retirees Alan Legge and Andrew Harvey  live in a bow-fronted Georgian house. The couple, who are members of the residents' association, took to the streets to clean up rubbish. Mr Legge says: “Am I a scab? No. I did a litter-pick but I can't change the bins. They do a marvellous job, when they do. But this is just disgusting.”

Up on “Muesli Mountain”, the nickname given to the liberally-inclined Hanover area, the situation is becoming politically acute. There is a by-election starting here, in what should be a stronghold for the Green Party. The city council is the only authority in Britain controlled by the party and, in Caroline Lucas, they have their only MP. But trouble is brewing.

“To do what they're doing to the bin collectors is just appalling,” says Ron Cavedaschi, an artist who displays a “Vote Labour” sign in his window. “It goes against everything that you'd imagine the Green Party would stand for and I will never vote for them now.” Phil Clarke, a teacher and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidate, says the Greens have made “a pig's ear” of the situation. “There was absolutely no way the workers would take pay cuts of this magnitude lying down. The Greens had this coming.”

Ms Lucas has come out broadly in support of the GMB, so Jason Kitcat, the Green council leader, is widely held responsible for the mess - with an open letter from his party in the local paper calling for his resignation.

A GMB statement said: “We wholly recognise that Brighton is not a pleasant place to be at the moment, and we apologise to all residents for the state of our city and for the inconvenience caused to you by this disruption.  But we feel this is the only course of action left available to us to defend our wages. Therefore, if you would like to support us, the best thing you can do is to support us in our action - which means not carrying out the work that we would normally do.”

Penny Thompson, council chief executive, said: “We are working hard with our unions to reach an agreed settlement. Discussions are continuing. The proposals we've put forward are intended to achieve a fair and consistent scheme for staff across the council. This is an historical issue which needs to be resolved. Nevertheless I'm sorry for the disruption the strike is causing.”

Mr Kitcat refused to comment.