Opposites begin to attract

26th April 1996 at 01:00
The wedding of Brighton and Hove councils looks, in retrospect, like one of the most obvious decisions made during the reorganisation of local government.

To the outside world they are already a single entity, embodied in a sprawling seaside conurbation and the name of the disaster-prone local football team, Brighton and Hove Albion. Some residents, however, were reluctant. Locally, Brighton is the right-on racy resort known for its large gay population, while its neighbour is the genteel suburb for retired people, jokingly called Hove Actually because of residents' insistence that they live west of the border.

Local politicians blew hot and cold about the merger, with East Sussex County Council fighting a strong rearguard action against the scheme, which will deprive it of a third of its powers and resources.

Next Thursday sees the election of a shadow authority which will plan for the future but not actually take power until April 1, 1997. The new councillors - 48 from Brighton, 30 from Hove - also have the task of setting up a unique unitary authority, the only one created from two separate councils. Combined with the delicate job of extracting the towns' assets from the county before next April, there is a lot of work to be done.

Creating an education authority is likeliest to be the council's biggest headache and will account for some 40 per cent of its overall budget. Although Brighton, as a former county borough, once ran its own schools the new council may find it hard to live up to the reputation earned by East Sussex since 1974 - one of the few counties with no opted-out or selective schools.

Initial concern among headteachers - partly fuelled by East Sussex - has given way to a determination to work with Brighton and Hove and give the new arrangements a chance. People have been reassured by the two councils' decision to set up planning commitees, working in tandem with officials from East Sussex.

Jointly overseeing the transition are Brighton councillor Pat Hawkes, a former president of the National Union of Teachers, and Hove counterpart Freda Warman-Brown, a retired head of secondary school services in the London borough of Hounslow and daughter of the Labour politician George Brown.

Brighton has had a Labour council for a decade and Hove acquired one last year. Predictions for the first unitary council are of a comfortable socialist win, if not a landslide, so councillors have been able to start on much of the work needed to transfer ownership of the towns' 78 schools and 1,494 teachers. With no grant-maintained schools, 27,000 pupils and a budget of about Pounds 83 million it will be larger than most London boroughs. "We're a bit like Islington sur mer," says Pat Hawkes.

The team has also completed a vision statement, with contributions from governors, heads and unions, but more detailed work must wait until after the elections, when an education committee and officials can be appointed.

According to Pat Hawkes and Freda Warman-Brown, the initial target is a "seamless transition". In the longer term, they believe there will be many benefits from enabling schools to link up with Brighton and Hove's other facilities and events, including the annual arts festival and sporting facilities such as the county cricket ground.

There are plans to keep existing diversity in the system. Hove secondary schools have sixth-forms, whereas Brighton has two sixth-form colleges, and Ms Hawkes says that wherever possible parents should be able to choose which school their child attends. She admits, however, that: "Allocations are the most daunting challenge: that, and meeting special needs requirements." The money to build a new secondary school will also have to be found, and although councillors would like to promise universal nursery classes they are being cautious.

Glyn Jones, Brighton's chief executive, says education is a priority for the new council. "We see it as a way of regenerating the economy in the medium and long term. We already have a well-trained workforce, but, given the flexibility of life to come, for a workforce to be both well-trained and flexible will begin to reduce the dependency on a low wage service-based economy."

Perhaps the biggest headache of the next few months is the process of "disaggregation" - extracting assets from East Sussex and arguing for the towns' rightful share of government finance.

Both sides are being careful not to upset the other, but in the past there have been claims that Government cash allocated for Brighton and Hove might have been distributed elsewhere in the county and worries that East Sussex might asset-strip the towns before losing control.

At county hall, education director David Mallen disputes that any money has been withheld from Brighton and Hove. "I think anyone would find it very hard to prove that," he says.

"Obviously everyone is going to be putting forward a case for making a fair distribution. If Brighton is arguing its case on urban deprivation, there is considerable urban deprivation in Hastings and part of Eastbourne, and considerable rural deprivation as well," says Mr Mallen. Moreover, the county's biggest education project this year involves spending Pounds 2m at a Brighton secondary school.

Wrangles over cash aside, there is a surprising degree of unity and goodwill surrounding the new education authority. The heads' and governors' consultative groups are optimistic.

Education consultant Peter Howlett, who was involved in the break-up of the Inner London Education Authority and has been employed to advise Brighton and Hove, said: " Brighton has a history of being an education authority, there is a cohesion about the area and while it is not without its challenges and problems there are also some high-achieving children."

He added: "So far we've had a shadow shadow education committee. Next week work starts for real."

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