Browsing the bookshop shelf is more rewarding than surfing souless sites



The next time you spot a book you have been meaning to read for ages nestling among the items conveniently suggested to you by your friendly giant online retailer, pause before you hit “one-click ordering”. There is something soulless about the process, a commercial transaction untouched by human emotion.

How much more rewarding to stroll into an independent bookstore, each as individual as its owner, in search of the latest John Le Carre, only to stroll out instead with a biography of Churchill, a compendium of crosswords, a present for your partner, and, possibly, a little bit of gossip about what the vicar told the council officer when they were in the shop last week.

Last week “super-Thursday” in the book world – the day when major publishers launch what they hope will be their big Christmas blockbusters. New books by John Cleese, Jacqueline Wilson, and Heston Blumenthal will crowd the windows of bookshops across the county. The promotion will give a much appreciated shot in the arm to beleaguered booksellers.

Sales nationwide dropped by £98 million or 6.5% last year but the rate of the decline is slowing, according to experts. Super Thursday generated sales of £34.7 million and this year booksellers are hoping for more of the same.

But beyond the once-a-year hype, entrepreneurial booksellers are showing what can be done to drum up sales. In Hove, City Books, founded and run by Paul and Inge Sweetman, is a beacon of civilisation on Western Road. Its imaginative events programme has attracted a raft of well-known authors to talk about their works. This season will see appearances by Will Self, John Lydon, Claire Balding and the Reverend Richard Coles, among others.

Events such as these foster the sense of community and help to bring the books alive in a way that the online behemoths never can.

It’s a myth that bookish people are loners – as the mushrooming of book clubs has shown.

Shut down that computer and head off to your nearest independent bookshop – you never know where that journey might take you.


This piece was first published in The Argus on October 12, 2014


Revealed: Brighton council spends millions on staff payouts

King's House, home of Brighton and Hove City Council

King’s House, home of Brighton and Hove City Council

A city council spend more than £6 million pounds over four years to compensate former employees.

Figures I obtained through a Freedom of Information request  show that between January 2010 and March 2014, a total of 436 employees at Brighton and Hove City Council have received compensation for loss of office under a settlement agreements.

The cost of ‘releasing’ these individuals was £6,333,944.90.


Compensation for loss of office is  made in cases where the council’s compensation panel considers that:

  • the level of legal risk indicates settlement of an issue should be considered;
  • there is a clear business case from a financial and organisational perspective that demonstrates the benefits and why alternative solutions are not viable
  • a settlement agreement is both necessary and proportionate in the circumstances

About one third of agreements entered into each year relate to employees who were employed in schools. The council says a “significant number” of the individuals took voluntary redundancy under its  voluntary severance scheme offered to staff in 2011/12 and again in 2013/14.


In  accordance with the statutory requirements, the council has, since the 2010/11 financial year, published in its annual accounts the amounts paid to employees in connection with the termination of their employment, if their total remuneration is over £50,000.


The requirement is to publish these amounts by job title if the total remuneration is between £50,000 and £150,000 and by name if it is over £150,000. Links to the relevant parts of the Council’s Statement of Accounts for the financial years 2010/11, 2011/12 and 2012/13 and 2013/14 are given below.


A spokeswoman for the council said: “The individuals cited in these accounts are not in addition to the 436 referred to above.  However, we should point out that in a significant number of cases it has not been possible, due to the way in which the information has been recorded, to identify the split between the contractual and non-contractual elements of the final payment made to these individuals.  This means that the figure of £6,333,944.90 will not accurately represent the compensation for loss of office for these individuals.”

Brighton council gets coy over unpaid bills

Follow the money...

Follow the money…


A city council has refused to name business owners who do not pay their rates.

The man in charge of collecting unpaid rates said that naming the firms could damage their reputation.

National Non-Domestic Rates – to give business rates their bureaucratic name  – are a tax.

The council must take recovery action against any business that does not pay.

If the business fails to pay up after receiving a liability order, the council can apply for insolvency action and  the final stage will be a committal hearing at court which can result in the business chief going to jail.

Brighton and Hove City Council refused my request under the Freedom of Information Act for the names of all limited companies in the city who have had in the past six months, or are about to have, liability orders made against them for non payment.

According to the Government’s Information Commissioner, there is a public interest in disclosing some commercially sensitive information about private companies that is held by public authorities.

The Information Commission Office guidelines state: “In the course of its role as a regulator, a public authority may hold information on the quality of products or on the conduct of private companies. There would be strong public interest arguments in allowing access to information which would help protect the public from unsafe products or dubious practices, even though this might involve revealing information that is likely to harm the commercial interests of a company.”

Graham Bourne, head of revenues and benefits at Brighton & Hove City Council disagrees.

He  said: “I can confirm that we hold this information. However, we consider the information to be exempt from disclosure under Section 43 (2) of the Freedom of Information Act and we will not be providing it to you. This exemption relates to information where disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of any person.

“We have considered the public interest test; it is our opinion that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure. We consider that disclosing the names of property owners against whom liability orders have been obtained is likely to prejudice their commercial interests; it could damage their reputation and the confidence that their customers, suppliers or financiers has in them, and it could have an impact on revenues or threaten their ability to obtain supplies or secure credit.”

So know you know. Or rather, you don’t.


Brighton Council lives on borrowed time

Going up - and so are interest rates

Going up – and so are interest rates

The decision by Brighton and Hove City Council to borrow £36.2 million for the Public Works Loan Board to fund the building of the i360 has generated many column inches, not least by me.

But in February 2011 and February 2012, the council also borrowed money (for what we do not know, but watch this space)  from a High Street bank via a less publicised route. The weirdly named “lender option borrower option” (LOBO)  facilities have raised the eyebrows of financial experts because they contain a myriad of complicated clauses.

According to figures I obtained through a Freedom of Information request, the LOBO loan agreements from the Royal Bank of Scotland drawn down by the council within the last five years, total £30,000.

In February 2011, Brighton and Hove City Council drew down a lender option, borrower option loan from the RBS totalling £10,000. The initial interest rate is 4.22% and the loan term is 60 years. The rate will be reviewed in April 2016 and every five years thereafter.

The council borrowed a further £10,000 in the same month at a rate of 4.20% and another £10,000 in February 2012 at a rate of 4.35% under the same terms as above.

 As Private Eye points out in its latest issue, working out whether these loans are a good idea or not depends very specialist know-how. Treasury rules state that a public body “using a new or non-standard technique should ensure it has the competence to manage, control and track its use and any resulting financial exposure which may vary with time.”

It may be that the council finance department is staffed with people possessing the savvy of a supremely successful spread betting expert. Or it may not.

Time – and the markets – will tell.


October 16

Update: I asked the council to explain what the LOBO loans were for. They sent me this reply:

“The council had the opportunity to restructure it’s debt during a time of low interest rates in order to reduce future borrowing costs. The three tranches of £10m debt entered into in 2011 and 2012 were undertaken to re-finance cumulative capital programme investment funded through borrowing.”

The question is , of course, what happens when the interest rate goes up.



Food for thought on the Bribery Act


Organisers of corporate jollies need to be more open about who they are wining and dining.

A conference and events industry expert said transparency is needed to stay on the right side of the UK Bribery Act. The law was introduced to make it easier to prosecute organisations that made corrupt payments.

But analysts say it was not intended to stamp out corporate hospitality.

Last year Brighton and Hove council chiefs entertained eight conference and event organisers to slap up meals in the city.

The dinners took place at English’s restaurant in East Street and Chilli Pickle in Jubilee Square in the wake of the UK Meetings Show in London. They were charged to the credit card of Brighton and Hove’s convention bureau manager as official council business.

John Fisher, managing director at the FMI Group an international hospitality agency based in Shoreditch, said that event promoters and clients have agreed a few ground rules in the wake of the Bribery Act.

1 You don’t offer hospitality shortly before or shortly after the granting of a contract for services. Most people now offer a dead period of, say, three months when no supplier is offered hospitality if a big contract is coming up or just been awarded.

2 Any hospitality offered under the banner of marketing or promotion should be openly discussed and agreed and there should be no do this get that deals or secret arrangements.

3 There is generally more leeway with private firms but as the act is aimed mainly at public sector employees in positions of discretional influence, public sector workers need to be open and above board if any hospitality or promotion is offered.

4 A public record of expenditure should be kept in a register of offers and acceptances that is open to scrutiny. There should be an internal process of approval which again is open to scrutiny. Decisions to offer or accept hospitality should be openly recorded and reviewed from time to time to see if the hospitality has been proportionate and reasonable.

Mr Fisher said: “When the act was passed Ken Clark issued some guidelines from the Ministry of Justice stating very clearly that it was perfectly ok to offer hospitality to promote good relations with potential clients provided it was ‘appropriate and reasonable’. One man’s reasonable is another man’s outrage .

“It’s all about context. If a client is going to bring say £10,000 worth of spend to Brighton then £75 quid for a meal to encourage them to do so is probably reasonable. There are no monetary guidelines in the act so you have to take a view.”

A spokeswoman for Brighton and Hove City Council said: “We have had a note from Visit Brighton that reports a successful familiarisation visit following the UK Meeting Show. Lead times for meeting and conference bookings can be in excess of 12 months and Visit Brighton is in dialogue with several of the attendees who may confirm business in the future. To date, one of the attendees has booked two meetings and used two seafront hotels. Another attendee has booked an event with a sailing organisation based at Brighton Marina. A yacht based at the marina has also been chartered by an attendee of the visit.”


Brighton council: never mind the bins, America wants to trash our services

Bin strike last summer in Brighton

Bin strike last summer in Brighton

Councillors in Brighton and Hove want to block a controversial trade agreement between Europe and the United States.

Supporters of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership say it will deliver an extra £98 billion a year to the European Union and £78 billion a year to the US.

But at the full council meeting at Hove Town Hall in Norton Road on Thursday, Green and Labour councillors called for the chief executive to write to Dr Vince Cable to express concern over the effect of the agreement on public services in Brighton and Hove

The Greens says the agreement threatens public services such as the NHS, and could undermine regulations that protect workers.

Ollie Sykes, who represents Brunswick and Adelaide ward, proposed the motion.

He  said: “The proposed deal destroys democratic decision-making. TTIP is a huge threat to our high standards for the quality and safety of our food, the sources of our energy, workers’ rights and our privacy.

“Under the deal, food products allowed in the US, such as chemically-washed poultry, could be sold in the UK – even though it’s been previously banned here. US companies will even have the right to sue governments in secret courts if politicians try to reverse privatisation.

“This secretive deal could see corporate greed trump public need at all levels of government. It must be stopped.”

But Councillor Graham Cox, who represents Westbourne ward in Hove slammed the move.

He said: “I join with many residents in wondering why on earth Green Party Councillors are spending time and council taxpayers money on motions asking the chief executive to write to someone, rather than making sure the rubbish gets collected from the streets of Brighton and Hove where they allegedly run the council.

“This is simply an attack on free trade by a party which wants to reintroduce protectionism and opposes economic growth. While I am no great fan of the way the EU uses trade barriers to prevent, for example, African farmers competing on a level playing field with their subsidised French counterparts, I am supportive of measures which enable more trade to take place between the US and Europe.

“Rather than adopting the ‘UKIP/Green Party stop the world I want to get off’ approach of protectionism, we should be embracing free trade with the whole world. Selling our products in an open market benefits Britain and those with whom we trade, and anti-free trade motions such as this will make our country poorer.”


Brighton council tax payer splashes out for officers’ slap-up meals

Fine dining for council officers

Fine dining for council officers

Council tax payers in Brighton and Hove picked up the tab for two slap-up meals for council chiefs and their clients  which cost more than £900.

The dinners took place at English’s restaurant in East Street and Chilli Pickle in Jubilee Square. They were charged to the credit card of Brighton and Hove’s convention bureau manager as official council business.

In the financial year 2013-14,  24 members of council staff had official credit cards and racked up spending amounting to £137,134.

I unearthed the details of the spending under rules which allow all council receipts and bills to be examined by the public for a limited period.

A council spokeswoman said both posh meals were connected to the UK Meetings Show, an international conference trade show held in London Olympia.

The spokeswoman said that after the show eight of the most promising potential clients were invited to come to the city to “see the conference venues, meet city representatives and get an appreciation of all that our city can offer”.

There were eight senior level conference organisers at Chilli Pickle and  two council city representatives including one from VisitBrighton. At the meal in English’s,  there were eight senior level conference organisers, including two from VisitBrighton.

At English’s the group enjoyed four bottles of St Clair wine from New Zealand totalling  £115.80. At Chilli Pickle the diners chose the table h’ote menu costing £227.50.

Other council credit card costs in 2013-14 included a six month licence for a photograph of a cricket ball hitting stumps which cost £500.51 and a waterfront sailing event for conference organisers which cost £260.

Spending on hotels and hospitality during the financial year amounted to more than £3,800.

Councillor Graham Cox, who represents the Conservative Group in Westbourne Ward, said: “I would expect all purchases on a corporate credit card to be scrutinised and authorised by a manager senior to the council officer making the purchase.”

Leader of Brighton and Hove City Council Jason Kitcat was one of a party of three people who stayed for two nights at the Hotel Gravensteen in Ghent at a cost of £474.80. When asked to comment he told me to put my enquiries through the press office. It has yet to respond.

Council officers’ receipts for meals


Brighton and Hove Credit Card Transactions




Response from the finance department at Brighton and Hove City Council:

“We have had a note from Visit Brighton that reports a successful familiarisation visit following the UK Meeting Show. Lead times for meeting and conference bookings can be in excess of 12 months and Visit Brighton is in dialogue with several of the attendees who may confirm business in the future. To date, one of the attendees has booked two meetings and used two seafront hotels. Another attendee has booked an event with a sailing organisation based at Brighton Marina. A yacht based at the marina has also been chartered by an attendee of the visit.”