Council Leader’s report (February 2016)

University of Brighton in Hastings

Hastings Loves Its UniversityThe review proposed by Brighton University of its Hastings campus is very worrying. It’s a purely internal review, carried out by accountants, with no opportunity for the local community, or any local interested groups, businesses, or others to have any realistic input.

Hastings received over £12m in public funding to set up a university here. Originally, as the University Centre Hastings, several different universities were involved, including Brighton University, Sussex University, Kent University and Greenwich University. The purpose of this funding was to help Hastings’ economic regeneration, to offer local people access to a university degree course, and to build links with local businesses and other groups, carrying out research and training to benefit the town. About a year ago, a ‘Memorandum of Co-operation’ was signed between Hastings Council and the university, which stated that the council and university would ‘undertake to form a collaboration with the aim to positively affect economic and social regeneration within Hastings and St Leonards’, and committed the university and council to ‘maximise our shared role to transform the experience of those who live, work, study in and visit the town’.

When the review, and the possibility of closure, was shared with Hastings Council on 25th January by Debra Humphris, the new Vice-Chancellor, it came as a complete shock – until that moment, the university administration had been entirely committed to the Hastings facility, and are still completing recent refurbishment works to the Havelock Road building. A new film and media suite was recently opened, to considerable acclaim.

The Brighton University Centre in Hastings has had its problems – the number of students studying here has never been enough to give a true ‘campus experience’. Adequate accommodation, especially for first year students, has never been provided, and student social facilities have not yet been properly established. So it has struggled. But that doesn’t mean it can’t succeed. If the original vision of a campus of up to 2,000 students were realised, if good-quality student accommodation were developed (on any of the still available sites that the university has considered), and decent student union facilities established (the boarded-up building in Priory Square was acquired by the university for this purpose), then numbers of students could be increased. And this would be good for Hastings, and continue to help our regeneration, in line with the original funded purpose of a university in Hastings.

So the news that the university might close has been met with universal dismay. The response from Hastings Council, East Sussex County Council, the Hastings & Rye MP, the Chamber of Commerce, the non-statutory sector, and pretty much anyone else who has commented has been expressed with one voice: the university in Hastings must remain. Hastings Council will be co-ordinating a formal response to the review, with contributions from different sectors and organisations across the town.

Hastings and Rye Labour Party has begun a campaign to save the university, with an online petition you can sign – you can find that here.

Hastings needs its university – it’s at the heart of our town, and is a core part of our renaissance. It must be expanded and developed, not closed!


Budget and Corporate Plan

The council’s draft budget and corporate plan are now out for consultation. You can see them, and comment, on the council’s website.
Consultation closes on 12th February – the council will adopt its budget and corporate plan at the special council meeting on 24th February. As reported last month, because we did a two-year budget last year, there are no significant cuts and no job losses inBudget concept this year’s budget. Next year will be very different though, with a £1.5m gap still to be filled, and no obvious way to achieve that without significant cuts to services. Finance officers have also told us that the minimum level of reserves we need to keep must be increased too, because of the threats from rating revaluation appeals (see my last month’s report for details on that). It has recently been revealed that a revaluation appeal is being pursued by NHS hospital trusts, which will amount to £1.5bn nationally. For Hastings, it would mean repaying £4.5m in rates income (Hastings Council would be liable for £1.7m of this). For some councils (Oxford, for example, has four major hospitals in its area) the bill would be huge – and some smaller district councils simply won’t be able to pay it. So the Local Government Association is hoping the government will sort this out nationally – for one branch of the public sector to be pursuing a huge claim against another branch of the public sector is daft anyway, and hugely wasteful (the revaluation cases are brought by private accountancy firms).

But there are other ways in which a financial crisis in local government may be reached even sooner. There are, I’ve been told, two county councils where the treasurer will tell councillors that they don’t have enough money to cover their expenditure during the coming year – so their budgets aren’t legal. They have proposed cuts to services to meet the huge cuts to their government funding, but officers don’t believe the cuts are achievable. There will be a lot more councils in that position next year (although not Hastings). As it’s mostly county councils that find themselves with the biggest problems, this is affecting mostly Tory-controlled councils. So it looks like the government will have to act somehow – the risk is that by bailing out the county councils, they’ll take even more money from district councils such as Hastings.


White Rock Baths

image006After a long and very complicated project, the White Rock Baths skateboard and BMX arena is about to open. It opens officially on 13th February – see their website here:

The Source Skatepark is run by two Hastings-born brothers, Richard and Marc Moore (pictured) who started up their skateboard sales business back in 2003.

The facility will include the main competition arena (in the old main pool), a plaza and training area (in the old training pool), and the largest BMX and skateboard shop in Europe. There will also be a sunken garden in the open central area (presumably appropriately set out for skaters!). And there’s a cafe and viewing area, which is open to anyone to go in and watch. The park will be open from 10am to 10pm, seven days a week.

The park has cost over a million pounds to develop and build, with funding mostly from Hastings Council and East Sussex County Council, with The Source funding the fit-out. Hastings Council carried out the project to restore the building itself, transforming what was a crumbling, abandoned ice rink into a space The Source could use. It’s been a very difficult project, largely because of water penetration and flooding, but they’ve got there in the end. And now, we have a world-class facility for an Olympic sport here in Hastings, which is likely to attract visitors not just from all over the country, but from all over Europe. And events there will be watched all over the world, thanks to high-speed fibre broadband and video equipment that’s been built in. So it’s been a long journey from Richard Moore’s conversation in a pub that sparked the idea, but finally we’ve got there.


Taxi Licensing

The February cabinet meeting agreed to end the current restrictive scheme for hackney
image008carriage licence plates. The scheme applies to taxis that are allowed to stop when hailed, and wait at taxi ranks, rather than private hire vehicles that you can book over the phone or online – there is no restriction on the number of those.

Currently, only 48 hackney carriage licences are allowed in Hastings at any time. The licences can be traded and sold on to different owners, which means they have in the past been of considerable value.

However, the days of restricted hackney licence plates have been numbered for a while, as more and more councils phase out the scheme. Across Sussex, only 3 of 13 councils currently operate a restrictive scheme, including Hastings. Government advice is that restrictive schemes should be ended, and to keep such a scheme would involve the council carrying out an ‘unmet demand survey’, which would cost around £20,000. There is, of course, no budget for this.

So what’s been agreed is to introduce a delimited scheme, but with strict quality control measures in place. Potential operators will still have to apply for a licence, and the requirements will be considerably stricter than for private hire vehicles, for example, for new applications, only allowing licences for vehicles that are wheelchair accessible. The details of these new quality control requirements will be worked out in consultation with the local Hackney Carriage Association.


Bottle Alley

Quick update on this – work has now started on refurbishing Bottle Alley, and will continue into March. The concrete repairs are being carried out now, which will be followed by redecoration, and cleaning of the bottle glass panels. New lighting will be installed later, after the alley has been restored, but we’re still intending it will be colour-changing LEDs, ideally co-ordinated with the LED lighting around the pier.

Hastings Pier

Pier3Because work on the pier is so weather-dependent, and it’s been a stormy winter again, the opening of the pier has been delayed – latest date is ‘not later than the middle of April’, with a gala celebration of the opening planned for 21st May. So it seems unlikely now that the pier will be open for Easter, which is a pity, but beyond anyone’s control. When it is open, it’s likely to be a major tourist attraction, with the council carrying out further works to the area of the promenade by the pier, with new surfacing, palm trees, and new steps to the beach. To find out more about the pier, see the Pier Trust’s website.

Like White Rock Baths, the restoration of the pier has been a long and complicated process, with the council’s part beginning in earnest on 7th May 2010, when Jeremy Birch and I met Jess Steele from the Pier Trust on the day after the election that brought Labour back into overall control of the council. We discussed how we could co-ordinate the compulsory purchase of the pier with their Heritage Lottery bid. From there, a long and difficult process began, with a slow, complicated compulsory purchase undertaken against Ravenclaw, the pier’s owners, who were based in Panama, and probably didn’t actually exist – they never replied to any correspondence or CPO documentation, which made the process all the more difficult. Then the pier burned down in 2010, although fortunately the historic structure wasn’t affected, but of the pier buildings, only the western pavilion at the pier head was saved. Undaunted, the Pier Trust and council continued with the CPO and lottery bid, both of which were finally confirmed in September 2012. Restoration work began early the following year.

Overall, the council spent over £1m on the pier, in legal fees and other work for the compulsory purchase and grants to the pier restoration itself. The total cost of the restoration has been £14.2m, funded mostly from the Heritage Lottery grant, but also by East Sussex County Council, and by local people, through a community share offer. And now, finally, it’s all about to come to fruition. And it’s all been worth it!


Observer Column

I also write a fortnightly column for the Hastings Observer, on a variety of topics. You can see all these columns that I’ve written on the Hastings Council website.