Council Leader’s report (January 2016)

Hastings is THE Place to Be!

Pier3We’ve been doing very well recently on various listings and ‘best of’ ratings. Already this year, English Heritage has listed the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings as the most important event of the year and the Royal Mint has now issued its commemorative 50p coin for the event. The Guardian’s prestigious review of the best places in the world to visit in 2016 includes Hastings (along with Rio de Janeiro, Bordeaux, Copenhagen and the Great Barrier Reef!), Metro, the ubiquitous London free newspaper, lists Hastings in its top eleven places to visit and towards the end of last year Hastings Old Town won the Academy of Urbanism’s ‘great neighbourhood’ award (after Hastings was the runner up in the ‘great town’ award in 2014). The standard of accommodation in Hastings is also being recognised, with this year’s ‘Good Hotel Guide’ listing six boutique hotels in Hastings – more listed hotels than Brighton and Eastbourne combined. And the standard-setting Michelin Guide 2016 also lists six hotels in Hastings as ‘delightful places to stay’ – also more than Brighton, I understand!
Commemmorative 50p
This all looks promising for tourism in 2016. As well as the pier re-opening around Easter, the ROOT1066 creative arts festival will be gearing up for the summer, and is to be launched at the London Art Fair on 20th January. You can sign up for info on that here. There will of course be the usual almost end-to-end procession of events throughout the year, starting with Fat Tuesday music festival at the beginning of February. The council is also supporting heritage events during Hastings Week, at the end of which there will be a specially grand re-enactment at the battleground itself. And on top of all that, the ‘official’ Pirate Day is back!

And that’s not all – there’s the refurbishment and decorative lighting along Bottle Alley (see later), new kiosks, and improvements to the area around the pier, with resurfacing and palm trees. And much more …

All in all, it looks like being a good year for Hastings – all we need now is a traditional Hastings sunny summer …


Budget Settlement

Budget2

The final government grant settlement for Hastings Council was announced just before Christmas. Our Revenue Support Grant has been cut by 24%. District councils did particularly badly this time, with money shifted to county councils. While this is a massive cut, and takes £891,000 out of the council’s budget, it is broadly what we were expecting. However, the government also gave councils the figures of what they should expect over the next four years. By 2019/20, government grant to Hastings Council will have been cut by 74% of the 2015/16 figure, a cut in cash terms of £2.74m – from a total net budget of around £16m. Money the council gets from New Homes Bonus (a grant for every new house built in the borough) will also be cut. Of course, councils in wealthier areas generally did better than those in poorer areas, which always happens.

From 2020, we have been told that councils will be able to keep 100% of their business rates (we currently keep 50%). On the surface, this might look good, but there will also be a system of ‘tariffs and top-ups’, whereby some councils will lose some of their rates and others will have their rates topped up with a grant. Most district councils will lose some of their rates through a tariff, to fund the county council (county councils don’t collect rates). That could mean we’re no better off than we are now, or even worse off. There’s a consultation on this system over the summer – by this time next year, we’ll know more about what the future holds.

As Hastings Council did a two-year budget last year based on this predicted settlement, there will be no need for any further cuts or job losses during 2016-17. However, in 2017-18, the situation could be very different. The council still has reasonably healthy reserves, but we’re already using those to stave off big cuts, and that can’t go on forever. We will also be looking at income generation, by selling council services to other organisations, and possibly becoming a housing developer, but it’s going to be very difficult to bridge the size of gap that’s emerging. We’re in for a very tough couple of years.


Rate Revaluation Appeals

RateRevaluationOn top of the grant cuts outlined above, the government has handed councils another big bill to pay, in the shape of rateable value revaluation settlements. These happen where a business thinks they’re paying too much in rates, and appeals the rateable value of their property to a valuation tribunal. The backlog of these appeals dates back to before councils started to retain 50% of the rates income. Councils don’t decide the rateable value of property – this is done by the government’s valuation office.

This year, for example, it was decided that all doctors’ surgeries, throughout the country, were paying too much in rates. This cost Hastings Council £250,000 in backdated business rates it had to repay. With other revaluations, the total cost to the council this year is almost £600,000 – around 3% of the council’s total net budget. The government provides no funding at all to help with this, even though it’s caused by what is, in effect, government mistakes in rating valuations. This money will have to come from our diminishing reserves. There will be more revaluation appeals next year, although we have no idea at the moment how much they will cost us. Then there’s another national business rates revaluation, and the whole process of appeals begins all over again .. with councils having to pick up the bill.


Alexandra Park Cycle Track

AlexPark

At the last Hastings Council cabinet meeting, the route for the new cycle track through Alexandra Park was approved. It will be a shared route (like the one on the busiest part of the seafront), although most of the paths in Alexandra Park will still be for pedestrians only. The consultation that preceded the decision had received a lot of responses, with numbers in favour and numbers opposed pretty even. However, it was possible to deal with most of the concerns expressed in the consultation by variations to the scheme, which include not taking the route past the cafe, more comprehensive signage, and rigorous enforcement, at least in the period immediately after the route opens.

The route will be designed and installed by East Sussex County Council, and is part of a much larger network of ‘greenway’ cycling and walking routes through the town. Although there’s no money to build the entire greenway network, we can hopefully gradually achieve it in parts, through specific grants and planning conditions on housing and other developments, as a lot of the proposed route passes through approved development sites.

The scheme in Alexandra Park will be monitored carefully for six months after it’s installed, to assess whether it’s working well, and is safe. If you want more details about the park route, you can find the cabinet report here.


Bottle Alley Works

Work to refurbish Bottle Alley, the iconic 1930s covered seafront walkway, will begin on 18th January. BottleAlley
This will involve concrete repairs, cleaning the bottle glass panels, and redecoration. The works will cost around £200,000, including a £50,000 grant the council won in a bid to the Coastal Revival Fund. Later, new colour-changing LED lighting will be installed, and possibly CCTV, depending on how much the lighting costs. There will also be a kayak hire company opening in the old kiosk and cafe, about half way along. A new kiosk will also be installed on the upper promenade immediately above, for refreshments.

After the Pier Trust re-open the pier in March, the council will carry out further improvements to that area, including another kiosk, resurfacing, new steps to the beach, a decked area with seating, and palm trees. All in all, it should be a considerable improvement.


Selective Licensing

SelectiveLicensingThe council’s selective licensing scheme, requiring landlords to apply for a licence to allow them to let property, is now operational. The scheme covers Tressell, Castle, Central St Leonards, Old Hastings, Gensing and Braybrooke wards. Landlords must apply online to get a licence, and pass a test to show that they’re a ‘fit and proper person’ (mostly about having no housing-related criminal convictions) and that their property meets basic standards of fitness. The six month ‘early bird’ discount for landlords applying runs until the end of May, which means a five year licence costs £185 per property. After that, the cost rises to £485. So if you’re a landlord, which means if you charge anyone rent for any property you don’t live in, make sure you get your licence soon!