Council Leader’s October report
ROOT 1066 Concludes
The ROOT 1066 international creative arts festival, funded by Hastings Council and the Arts Council, concludes this month. It has been very successful, with dozens of different events, from Chris Levine’s laser spectacular on the pier and ‘PUSH’, a new opera involving 250 local people, the ‘Battle of Hastings’ international BMX event at The Source, the ‘I am a Norman’ living history project, the Blacksmiths on the Beach project resulting in the new Viking Longboat sculpture, through to a series of small arts projects in the most deprived communities across the town, organised by schools and community groups. The focus of many of the events was interaction and participation, with over a thousand local people getting involved, and many more watching performances.
But the real purpose of the festival, along with commemorating the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, was to place Hastings more firmly on the national and international cultural map. This seems to have been successful, with good coverage of the festival and its events in the national press. It’s helped to boost tourism, and has allowed a lot of local people to participate in creative cultural events. It also promotes Hastings as good place for creative businesses to set up or relocate to.
The success of the festival will also place us in a good position for future Arts Council funding – in particular, the ‘Great Places’ scheme, which we’ve already submitted a bid to, shifting the focus for future work from visual arts to music, based on the thriving local music scene we have in the town.
So it’s been a hectic summer for those involved, but worth it. And of course, there’s still plenty to look forward to: Bonfire on 15th October with an additional community procession in the afternoon this year, and the Herring Fair on 5th and 6th November. There’s always so much to enjoy …
Generating new income remains of critical importance, to replace the cuts ingovernment grant, which will result in a £1.5m gap in the budget next year, and £3.5m by 2020. To this end, the council has advertised for an Income Generation Officer. The role of this officer is to take our income generation ideas forward, look for new ones, and begin the process of setting up council owned companies as necessary. We’ll also be getting a (free) consultation by the Local Government Association’s expert on this, to tell us whether we’re doing it the right way, and whether we’re missing any opportunities.
The first task is likely to be setting up a housing development company. This will look initially at developing the council-owned site at Harrow Lane. Another company would also be set up eventually, to buy some of the houses developed by the first company and make them available for rent. We’ll also be looking closely at property investments, making use of very low interest rates available to councils to acquire industrial and business premises – and not just in Hastings.
Ideas on energy generation will also be further explored, in particular looking for potential sites from photovoltaic arrays, as will the potential to bring services back in-house where these can be traded. And the potential for increasing income along the seafront, particularly from additional beach chalets, will be pursued over this winter.
The problem is, however, that it will take time for most of these ideas to materialise, and it’s difficult to know how much income we could actually generate – there’s no guarantee that we could raise enough money to cover the gaps in the budget. In spite of the changing noises about public sector funding emerging from the government, and the apparent quiet discontinuation of the term ‘austerity’, there’s no reason to believe that councils in the most deprived areas, such as Hastings, will get any more money. The funding formula for local government remains heavily biased to ensure the richest areas get the most money.
Churchfields Land Purchase
As part of our income generation strategy, we’ve bought a large plot of land on Churchfields industrial estate, next to the Marshall Tuflex factory. This joins with another, smaller plot already owned by the council, and will provide a bigger site that can be developed as factory units. All the council’s industrial units are fully let at the moment, so we need more, both to boost local employment and to generate income for the council.
The refreshed version of the Hastings Anti-Poverty Strategy was approved by the council’s cabinet in September. This will now go to the Local Strategic Partnership for approval, as it covers all agencies across town, rather than just Hastings Council.
Poverty remains a huge problem in Hastings. Around 14,000 households (35%) are living in poverty (according to government definitions), 17% of working age people are claiming out of work benefits, and workers living in Hastings earn the tenth lowest weekly gross pay of any local authority area in England and Wales.
While some parts of Hastings are improving significantly, with deprivation decreasing across the borough as a whole, some parts (the big social housing estates in particular) remain very deprived. One of our neighbourhoods is the tenth most deprived in the country in terms of employment and income deprivation – and that’s out of 33,000 neighbourhoods across England.
The Strategy’s priorities are:
- Education and Employment: Improve education and employment opportunities for the most disadvantaged groups.
- Health and Well-being: Reduce health inequalities and promote well-being.
- Housing: Seek adequate provision and access to affordable, good-quality homes.
You can see the full strategy, and the associated action plan, here.
Poverty is, of course, a consequence of national policy and economic strategy, rather than something that can be put right entirely locally. But there are steps that different agencies can take together to at least limit the effects of poverty, and work with the most deprived communities to improve health outcomes, job prospects and education. We can also continue to make Hastings more attractive to employers offering good-quality jobs, and help people from the poorest areas to get those jobs. Funding to achieve any of this is, however, very limited. But we are hoping to get around £5m from the ‘Community Led Local Development’ EU project (probably the last major EU fund we’ll be able to apply for) to address some of this.
However, the sums needed to get rid of poverty in the most deprived areas, not just in Hastings but elsewhere too, are far bigger than that. It’s only with a proper targeted investment programme aimed at helping the most deprived communities that we’ll be able to put an end to poverty. At the moment, too much funding is distributed on an ‘Olympics’ model, where the most financially successful areas get the most money. That’s leading to an increasing gap between rich and poor. And that has to change.
In the meantime, we can do our best to address local poverty and reduce its consequences, but there needs to be a very different national funding structure, for local government, other public services, and industry, to get rid of these inequalities.
Social Lettings Agency
This is an initiative set up by the council as a way to create a small housing stock to provide homes for homeless households. Landlords lease their properties to the council for three years. They receive a lower rent than they would get if they rented the property on the open market, but they don’t have to worry about finding a tenant, or managing and maintaining the property – they just hand it over to the council, and can forget about it until the end of the three years. This is particularly attractive to ‘accidental landlords’ (eg those who have inherited a property), but would rather bring in an income from the property than sell it – or indeed would rather the property were used for housing homeless families than sold.
After a slow start, the scheme has now 50 properties let to homeless families, which is enough to make it financially viable. However, the government is now proposing to change the rules on how it funds councils to house homeless families, and that may mean that the council can no longer use these properties for this purpose – we’d have to place homeless families in bed and breakfast accommodation instead. This seems ridiculous, and we’re hoping to get the draft new funding rules amended so we can continue with the Social Lettings Agency.
Nationally, homelessness is increasing dramatically. In Hastings, the number of people accepted as ‘statutory homeless’ (ie those for whom the council has to find accommodation, mostly households with children, older people, or vulnerable people) has increased fourfold over the last four years, to 252 during 2015-16. Rough sleeping has increased too, rising from around 10 on an average night four years ago, to 25 now. But most homeless people are ‘hidden’, in that they are staying with friends and relatives.
Reasons for homelessness and rough sleeping are varied, and include relationship breakdown, mental health problems, insecure tenancies, benefit sanctions, and benefit caps. But the increase in numbers has been made all the more difficult to cope with by the diminishing supply of social rented housing (the extended right-to-buy means housing associations have stopped new developments, as they can’t make the financing work if they have to sell the homes they’ve just built at a discount), and a big shortage of rented housing for single people, who are now entitled to much reduced levels of benefit if they’re under 35.
In Hastings, we have one of the best records in the country at preventing homelessness (ie where people who are going to lose their homes are encouraged to contact the council before that happens), but the increased levels of homelessness and shortage of accommodation are making this more difficult. We also have relatively low uses of bed and breakfast emergency accommodation, compared with similar authorities.
To complicate things further, the government is considering whether to support a private member’s bill that would require all councils to find accommodation for everyone who is homeless, including young single people. On the face of it, that seems like a good idea (as long as councils are properly funded to do it). But benefit cuts have meant that the housing benefit paid to young single people is nowhere near enough to pay the rent on the properties available. Many young homeless people also have mental health problems, which means they have difficulties sustaining a tenancy, and consequently become homeless repeatedly.
Simply making councils responsible for all homeless people won’t solve the problem – what’s needed is benefits paid at realistic levels and a better supply of affordable housing. Without this, the problem will just get worse, and councils will once again have to carry the can.
Sierra Leone twinning
Hastings UK is twinned with Hastings Sierra Leone. Of all our twinning links, this has proved to be the most productive, and is the only twinning link the council still funds. Over the last ten years, since the twinning link was established, volunteers from Hastings have travelled to Sierra Leone to offer practical help with building, plumbing, and energy generation projects, which have been extremely useful in what was once one of the most advanced and economically developed countries in Africa, but has been ravaged by a civil war that destroyed much of its infrastructure and government.
Next February, we’ll be celebrating the tenth anniversary of the twinning link, with visitors from Sierra Leone coming to Hastings. One small but significant act we’ll be doing is to replace the ‘welcome to Hastings’ sign on the A259 that lists our twin towns to include Hastings Sierra Leone. It’s a small gesture, but will be greatly appreciated by our twin town, I’m told by those involved in the twinning project. Hopefully, we’ll be able to boost awareness of the link, and get more people to volunteer to help in practical ways in our African twin town, where our levels of deprivation seem like untold riches to much of their population.
You can find out more at the twinning website here.