Hastings Borough Council Leader’s report (August 2016)
Hastings has once again been successful in achieving Green Flag awards for three of its parks: Alexandra Park, St Leonards Gardens and Hastings Country Park. These awards are given to parks that achieve the highest standards in the UK across eight categories, including safety, cleanliness, sustainability, and conservation. In recent years, sustainability has become a particular focus for parks in Hastings, which has meant less ‘carpet bedding’ and more sustainable planting of perennials that can be left in place all the time, rather than dug up and thrown away when they’ve finished flowering. This approach has proved to be very successful along the seafront too. Innovative management of the Country Park, by using Belted Galloway cattle to graze invasive weeds, and heavy horses for ‘bracken bruising’, have contributed to the award there. And of course, there’s the work in Alexandra Park lakes and streams, with the ‘floating islands’ of vegetation along with natural filtration and aeration to clean the water and reduce the numbers of coliform bacteria (i.e. those resulting from faecal contamination).
This more sustainable approach to park management will be extended in future years, with more areas of mown grassland allowed to develop as wildflower meadows, and more sustainable planting, although this approach will differ between parks. For example, St Leonards Gardens is a historic park where the aim is to recreate a Victorian pleasure garden, so the way that’s managed will always be different from a ‘natural’ park such as Hastings Country Park. But the council will continue to look for innovative ways to make our parks attractive, sustainable and pleasant places to visit, for local people and tourists alike.
The Fisheries Local Action Group project brought around £1m in mostly EU money to Hastings to fund projects to support the local fishery. Earlier this year, Hastings was notified that it had been successful in its first stage bid for a second round of FLAG funding, and was one of only three fisheries involved in the original FLAG funding to be included in FLAG2. We have now been asked to submit a Local Development Strategy, which explains how the funding will be used. This time, a smaller number of bigger projects is being proposed, including an ‘e-commerce’ platform for the fishmarket, a new ice maker, apprenticeships, solar energy arrays, continuing with our local fish fairs, and the development of a ‘Hastings Fish’ premium brand. Around £800,000 of EU money is available for Hastings, making over £1m available overall with other matched funding. You can see more details in the report to the council’s cabinet here.
A year ago, the Hastings and Rother Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) awarded Hastings Council £1.82m to deliver a series of projects over a two-year period to improve health outcomes in key areas, and reduce health inequality.
During 2015/16, around £600,000 has been allocated on projects in four key areas:
- Preventing ill health
- People experiencing health inequalities
- Health and Wellbeing Centre(s)
- Housing – people and places.
The projects cover a wide range of issues including: improving and sustaining physical activity for inactive adults, mostly through ‘social prescribing’ by GPs; promoting learning for unemployed adults with long-term mental or physical health problems; improving awareness of domestic violence and abuse (DVA) for primary healthcare professionals; consultation on developing options for Health and Wellbeing Centres in existing community venues; strengthening housing and support services for rough sleepers and the street community; and strengthening the Winter Home Check Service with financial support for ‘major’ heating and insulation measures for eligible people.
Most of these projects were planned and set up during 2015/16, but will be delivered in 2016/17.
The 2016/17 programme will involve £1.2m of funding to deliver the three major projects:
- Health and Wellbeing Centres: setting up the centres identified in the consultation exercise in the 2105/16 programme;
- Healthy Homes – People: making people’s homes more suitable for them, with adaptations and additional support, to make it easier for them to leave hospital care;
- Healthy Homes – Places: making people’s homes warmer and safer to improve their health, through grants to owner occupiers and enhanced enforcement action against bad private landlords.
These measures help some of the poorest people in Hastings in our most deprived communities. For full details, see the cabinet report here.
Last year, the council introduced its ‘selective licensing scheme’ in seven wards (Braybrooke, Castle, Gensing, Ore, Old Hastings, Tressell and Central St Leonards). There was an initial discount period of six months during which landlords could apply for a licence and it would cost them only £185 per property for a five-year licence, rather than the full £460. After a slow start there was (not surprisingly) a rush at the end of the discount period, with licence applications for around 40% of all rented properties received during the discount period. Council officers will carry out an inspection of all properties where a licence has been applied for, to check compliance (mostly on safety issues) with the licence conditions.
There’s now a backlog of applications which officers will process over the next few weeks and get all the licences issued. Then enforcement will start. Technically, anyone now renting a self-contained property to a tenant in one of the prescribed wards is now committing a criminal offence if they don’t have a licence, but the initial focus will be on identifying all rented properties and telling landlords that they need to apply. This will be done by door-to-door visits, as well as by responding to reports from councillors and anyone else of ‘problem’ properties that they suspect or know to be privately rented, but have no licence.
Experience from other councils shows that about a third of landlords simply refuse to apply for a licence until they’re taken to court – which is a mistake as not only do they still have to pay for the licence (for the same fixed five year period, whenever they apply), but they have to pay legal fees and court costs too. So if you know anyone who is letting out a house or flat (even if it’s part of their own house) in one of the wards covered by the scheme, get them to apply, to avoid being taken to court!
You can find more details of the scheme on the council’s website.
Council Housing Company
Subject to the agreement of cabinet, Hastings Council is intending to go ahead with setting up a Housing Development Company. Around a hundred councils have done this, or are in the process of doing it. The company will be an independent private limited company, but wholly owned by the council. Its purpose will initially be to develop council-owned development sites for housing, but it could purchase other land or indeed compulsorily purchase abandoned sites that have been ‘land banked’ by developers. It could also purchase existing houses, to provide homes for rent. It could even develop housing outside of Hastings.
The purpose of this company would be primarily to raise income, to help the council bridge the £3.5m gap in its budget brought about by the cuts in government grants. But it would also be looking to build good quality, sustainable housing, with an element of either social housing or fair rented housing owned by a (separate) housing rental company. This company would buy housing from the development company and become a provider of rented housing – so the council would, in effect, become a provider of rented housing again, for the first time since it transferred all its housing stock to a housing association almost twenty years ago.
A report will be going to the Council’s cabinet in the autumn to set up this company and begin development of key council-owned sites.
Town Centre Problems
The warm weather has brought with it a spate of problems in Hastings Town Centre associated with street drinking and anti-social behaviour, particularly associated with the public areas by Kampson’s pharmacy and the pedestrian underpass.
To most of us, the prospect of sitting around on the street drinking all day, getting involved in drunken brawls and being generally unruly doesn’t seem very appealing.
But the street drinking community has increased in size recently in Hastings, as it has in other seaside towns in particular, such as Eastbourne, Brighton, Southend, Bournemouth, and many others. The reasons for this aren’t entirely clear, although it probably relates to other pressures around unemployment, benefits sanctions, and homelessness (although most street drinkers aren’t homeless).
Support services are available to help those who want to give up alcohol, but street drinking is a ‘lifestyle choice’ so most don’t want to accept support. Also, the public nature of street drinking, apart from being damaging to the local economy and off-putting to tourists as well as local people, means that anyone attracted to that lifestyle can be more easily ‘recruited’ – especially vulnerable people who are looking for an escape from their problems.
The consequences of becoming a street drinker aren’t good. Street drinkers have a life expectancy of 46, but this is misleading – their lives as street drinkers are probably no more than four or five years. It’s a very self-destructive lifestyle.
So far, it’s a problem that hasn’t been solved. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t a crime to drink on the streets – rather, there are local laws in place that allow police officers to confiscate alcohol if they believe it’s a source of anti-social behaviour. So the police have difficulty in moving them on – most of the time, they’re not breaking any laws. New Public Space Protection Orders, due to come into force in the Autumn, will ban street drinking, but the only possible sanction is a fixed penalty notice – and most street drinkers are unlikely to pay those, or even remember that they’ve been given one.
As far as the town centre problem goes, the council is intending to temporarily remove seating from the area by the underpass, to disrupt current behaviour patterns. However, the problem will most likely move to somewhere else. That particular area can be redesigned too, to make it less attractive to street drinkers, including a children’s play area and/or soft landscaping. But that won’t cure the problem.
What’s really needed is a national response. At the moment, many different statutory and voluntary agencies are involved with both help for street drinkers and enforcement, but while a lot of effort is put into co-ordinating these, they don’t all necessarily agree on a solution. So for now, we’ll have to continue to look for local solutions, working with the police and all the different agencies involved. It’s not just that street drinking is ‘unsightly’ and bad for business, it’s killing a significant number of local people, in a slow but inexorable way, in gradually growing numbers. We have to find a way to stop that.