Council Leader’s report (March 2016)

Council Budget

image002The Hastings Council budget was approved at the full council meeting on 24th February. A two-year budget had been approved in 2015/16, and the predictions for the amount of government grant the council would get were, although pessimistic, largely accurate. So there were no further cuts to jobs or services proposed for 2016/17. The council’s total net spending for 2016/17 will be £15.7m.

As reported before, the Revenue Support Grant (RSG) we receive from the government was cut by 24% this year. By 2020, this grant will disappear altogether, for all councils. This is supposedly going to be replaced by 100% local retention of business rates, but at the moment we have no idea how that will work – there will also be a system of tariffs and top-ups in place, which may well mean that we retain no more of the business rates locally than we do now. This year, the government also introduced a £300m, last minute, ‘transition grant’ for councils, based mainly on big increases to the rural services block of the RSG. This benefited councils in rural areas, which tend to be more wealthy areas, and more likely to be Conservative controlled. The result of this was that Hart, the richest district council in the country, got over £1m. The richest council in East Sussex, Wealden, got £500,000. In Hastings, we got £5,000. This quick fix managed to quell the growing rebellion in Tory councils, and prevented a couple of county councils from running out of money (which they would otherwise have done). But it doesn’t address the longer term problems in local government finance, which is unsustainable in its current form.

In Hastings, we managed significantly higher levels of savings than expected in 2015/16, with £178,000 more than budgeted in estates income (mostly from our factory units), and £100,000 from senior management restructuring. However, in spite of this, we’ve ended up with a larger than expected deficit of £881,000, because of rateable valuation appeals – see previous reports for details of this.

So this year’s budget will include a maximum 2.07% council tax increase (for the Hastings Council portion of the CT bill), amounting to £5 a year for a band D property. We have ended the one month’s CT exemption for properties after they become vacant because of sale or change of tenancy, and we’ve saved some money from closure of the Cross Street toilets, agreed earlier in the year. But we’ve protected the full Council Tax Support scheme, which means that the poorest people will still have to pay no council tax – in all other councils in East Sussex, everyone, regardless of their income, now has to pay at least 20% of their council tax.

There is some limited growth in the budget, but mostly for essential spending – for example, we’ve had to allow £200,000 for works to the inland cliffs in Hastings (such as the cliffs along the edge of West Hill, by the castle), to make them more stable.

Which leaves us with £881,000 to fund from reserves. This is what the reserves were set up for, back in the years when there was more money around. But the reserves will not last forever – we could do this for only 2-3 years. Next year, there’s a £1.5m gap in the budget, even if we continue to use reserves at that level. By 2019, that rises to £3.5m. We are doing a lot of work on income generation schemes, including sustainable energy generation, establishing a housing development company, property investments, and bringing services back in-house where we can market them commercially. We will also be continuing to bid into external funds, especially EU funds – the council has over £10m worth of bids to EU funds in at the moment, although EU funding will of course end if we leave the EU (and I am sure will not be replaced by the current UK government, at least not for poorer areas such as Hastings). So it’s going to be a difficult few years ahead, and it seems likely that cuts to some services are inevitable.

The Tory group did put forward an amendment to the budget at the council meeting, which included freezing the council tax, making £700,00 of unspecified service cuts, creating a £250,000 fund to give grants to businesses, and paying consultants £50,000 to do a survey of what services local people wanted to cut. Officers pointed out to them that the figures in the amendment didn’t add up, and that it would consequently not be legal, but they voted for it anyway.

But having said all that, we remain optimistic. We will do all we can to generate income and bid into external funds to replace our lost government grant. While some services may well disappear, they will be replaced by new initiatives, depending on the external funding available. So we will continue to be an interventionist, transformational council, doing all we can to regenerate our town.


Alexandra Park Water Quality Works

You may have seen articles in the local paper and BBC South East about the image003works currently taking place in Alexandra Park – I also discussed these in my column in the Hastings Observer (see link at the end of this report). This is the final part of the programme to improve bathing water quality, which had been triggered by the news a couple of years ago that Hastings Beach would fail to pass new EU bathing water quality standards. The source of the contamination was quickly traced to the outfall pipe for the Alexandra Park stream.

The work that followed involved several different strands, including tracing over 100 toilet misconnections, where dodgy builders had plumbed toilets (typically where home owners had ensuite bathrooms fitted) to surface water drains, most of which flow into the Alexandra Park stream. But there’s also the contamination from birds and animals in the park – perfectly natural, but it all ends up in the stream.

The latest works follow on from the ‘floating islands’ that had already been installed in the park ponds, and include fast-flowing streams that flow between the ponds, tumbling over stones to oxygenate the water. One of the ponds also has air pumped through it, drawing water through natural stone filters, in much the same way that aquarium filtration works. The effect of all this is to slow the overall progress of the water, but get more oxygen into it, which in turn encourages the growth of micropredators that eat the bacteria associated with faecal contamination, and prevent anaerobic fermentation in the silt on the bottom, which can lead to unpleasant-smelling and toxic compounds being produced. This way of dealing with water contamination, by accelerating natural processes and creating the right environmental conditions, is, perhaps surprisingly, innovative and unusual, and could well win awards for the council and our contractor.

All of this leads to not just much improved water quality, but a prettier park, with sparkling, tumbling steams between the ponds. And it’s no coincidence that we find such things attractive – it’s hard-wired into us, because splashy, sparkly fast-moving water is more likely to be safe to drink, something our ancestors would have known about millions of years ago.

Before these latest works were started, the work on misconnected toilets had already reduced contamination to an extent such that the Hastings Beach now passes the new bathing water standards, with a ‘good’ rating. But our aim is to achieve the top ‘excellent’ rating, as we have at St Leonards Beach. These works should help us to achieve that.

The one thing that still needs attention is the outfall pipe on the beach. This is owned by Southern Water, and looks awful. The priority so far has been to clean up the water that comes out of it. But now that’s been achieved, we will put pressure on them to replace it.


Register Office and Council Offices

image004The new Hastings and Rother register office has now opened in Hastings Town Hall, with much improved facilities for registering births, marriages and deaths, as well as a refurbished council chamber for conducting wedding and citizenship ceremonies. They’ve made a good job of it, and it’s great to see the Town Hall in much more regular use, and open again to the public through the front door. The only HBC service now operating from the Town Hall is the contact centre, at the rear of the Town Hall, as before.

Thanks to the rent paid for the new register office by East Sussex County Council, Hastings Council has been able to entirely refurbish Aquila House as a new civic centre, where almost all council staff will work from. The new staff accommodation is complete, and work is now almost finished overall, with the scaffolding coming down soon. The new committee rooms and council chamber will be on the upper ground floor, with the entrance through the Tourism Information Centre. The TIC frontage will also be replaced, which will mean closing the TIC for two weeks after Easter. We have also let part of the first floor to Learn Direct (a training agency), who will also have a reception area on the ground floor, in the TIC.

Although the work has taken longer than programmed, we have ended up with an arrangement that works better for everyone, with a much better register office and much improved facilities for council staff, and for members of the public attending council committees.


CAN do!

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We have just learned that HBC was successful in its bid for EU funding to the CAN (Climate Active Neighbourhoods) scheme. This scheme will provide a total of £845,000 to make homes more energy efficient, mostly in the Ore Valley area, tackling fuel poverty in both private and social rented housing. The project will involve both physical improvements to properties and help to residents to improve their fuel efficiency and reduce their fuel costs. It will be a significant help to residents in one of the poorest parts of town.


Devolution

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The rather vague and ill-defined way in which this has been done is causing a lot of the proposed deals to fall apart – the ‘Greater Hampshire’ bid (involving Hampshire, Southampton, Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight) seems to have crashed now. The 3SC Bid for our area (involving East Sussex, West Sussex and Surrey) is still progressing, but its future is far from clear. As more details emerge (and there still aren’t very many), there are more doubts about whether it’s wanted, especially amongst the district councils – the Surrey districts seem to be getting particularly sceptical. In East Sussex, we’ve all been going along with it so far, on the grounds that it’s better to be on the inside trying to shape it, rather than outside opposing it.

But the whole thing is far from clear, about what the region is proposing to do (beyond a fairly un-detailed promise to improve infrastructure and build homes). Proposals for ‘double devolution’ (passing powers from county councils to district councils) are attractive, but vague at the moment. And the government is still saying that the whole region should have a directly elected mayor who will take executive decisions, rather than involving all constituent councils.

And then there’s the Brighton conundrum, who have also submitted a bid for a ‘Greater Brighton’ bid, involving Brighton and several neighbouring districts – so some councils are in both bids. Two overlapping regions, with some districts in two regions, is obviously daft, and wouldn’t work. But it’s also difficult to see how a region without Brighton in it would work – and Brighton don’t want to join with 3SC.

If it all falls apart, then a ‘Greater Sussex’ bid might be the phoenix that arises from the wreckage, with East Sussex, West Sussex and Brighton. That would be my preferred option.


Goodbye to John Hodges

image007It was with much sadness that we had to say goodbye to John Hodges, borough councillor for Old Hastings and county councillor for St Helens and Silverhill, after he died on 11th February. John was also a HBC cabinet member, where he was chair of the Charity Committee. John had spent most of his life in Hastings and was much respected amongst the local business community, having been a senior executive at General Dynamics. But he had also been a member of many different boards and charities over the years and had worked hard to promote Hastings and bring about its regeneration. He was a tireless campaigner for Hastings, a committed socialist and a trusted personal friend. We shall all miss him, and the special skills and knowledge he brought to the council.

John will be replaced in the cabinet and as chair of the Charity Committee by Colin Fitzgerald, councillor for Silverhill.


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.