Hastings Council Leader’s report (December 2016)
Council Housing Company
At its cabinet meeting on 5th December, Hastings Council will consider a report recommending that it sets up a housing company. The purpose of this would be to borrow money to buy poor condition properties, improve them, and make them available for rent. The reasons are twofold: to generate income, going a little way towards offsetting government cuts to council grants, but also to improve properties and make them available at fair rents. Note that these would not be ‘council homes’ in the traditional sense, as they will be owned by a private company. This would have the advantage that they would be exempt from the Right to Buy. While Right to Buy might be a good deal for tenants, it makes it impossible for councils or housing associations to develop long-term housing funding models, as housing providers can’t then rely on long-term rental income to pay off the loans taken out to buy the housing. The housing has to be sold at a big discount, so the amount received nowhere near covers the borrowed capital.
The company will be wholly owned and controlled by the council. Its directors will be council officers, it would operate under a company policy determined by the council, and all its profits would return to the council. In the future, the council will also look at developing housing itself, initially on council owned land, and transferring this to the company too, to provide housing for rent.
Many other councils are now pursuing this option; it seems to be a good way to both generate income and provide rented housing with a secure, responsible landlord.
Frost Fair Fun
Last Saturday saw the St Leonards Frost Fair, one of our new and growing winter events. This one is pretty much entirely put on by local businesses and volunteers. The picture shows Cllr Terri Dowling, the councillor for Central St Leonards, joining in the festivities! The parade was followed by a Frost Fair market in King’s Road, with the (very tasteful) Christmas lights switched on at dusk. It’s yet another event that has established a niche in the busy Hastings calendar, thanks to the enthusiasm and generosity of local people.
The transformation of St Leonards town centre continues apace, too. Almost all the shops in Kings Road are now occupied, with several new retro shops, a couple of new cafes, and a delicatessen opening soon. The Spar shop is being completely refurbished after a fire, and the Co-op will be expanding into the old Lloyd’s Bank premises to create a new ‘flagship’ town centre store. Norman Road west is now well established as a bijou shopping centre, with cafes, specialist shops and a cinema. Norman Road east needs a bit of revitalisation, with the bank and former Norman Arms still closed, but this will change, as more businesses start looking for premises in St Leonards. The council would be willing to consider the compulsory purchase of any empty property if a local business wanted to use it.
The seafront is looking good too, with a couple of new cafes, and several new shops and restaurants along Marina, although again one building there remains very neglected – the council are pursuing Grotbusting there, but it’s been very complicated because of multiple, changing ownerships that have meant a number of abortive attempts to sort it out. But overall, St Leonards is looking good!
St Leonards Post Office
This post office is on the PO’s latest list of over 300 crown post offices facing potential closure. At the moment, the post office are telling us they are still ‘seeking a retail partner’, which means a larger shop in which they could have a post office counter, as they do in WH Smiths in Hastings. When they have found a partner, they say, they will conduct a consultation on the closure and new arrangements.
Depending on the nature of any new arrangements, the council would oppose closure of post office facilities in St Leonards. All the bank branches in St Leonards centre have now closed, which means local businesses are dependent on the post office for cash deposits. A good post office, offering a full range of services, seems essential for central St Leonards. I’ll post a link here to the consultation as soon as it’s announced – please do make a response.
White Rock Masterplan
Last week, a community workshop was held to get views on the redevelopment of White Rock Gardens. Around 50 people attended, from local community groups, voluntary groups, and businesses.
White Rock Gardens was once a thriving sports and leisure area, but has become somewhat tired and unused, with tennis courts and bowling greens that are no longer used, and other unattractive and rather shabby facilities that could be improved. The area being considered through a ‘masterplanning’ process covers an area from the pier up to Summerfields Woods, extending to (and including) the Falaise Fitness centre and the museum in the east, to the Magdalene Road convent site in the west. The council owns all this land, but there is no funding for redevelopment, so income would need to be generated through housing or commercial development on part of the site.
Ideas expressed at the community workshop varied, but there was a general view that the existing sports facilities, including the pool, fitness centre and indoor bowls and Clambers were rather tired and outdated, and should be relocated together in a new sports centre towards the north of the site. A new theatre was also a popular idea, along with a conference centre and new hotel. All the groups understandably wanted to keep a significant amount of open space and refreshed gardens, especially at the south of the site. It was also felt that roads running through the area (Falaise Road and White Rock Road) should be closed, with coach parking relocated to a new coach park on Bohemia Road.
These were, of course, just initial ideas arising from one workshop. But it does demonstrate the enthusiasm and creativity there is amongst local groups for a regenerated White Rock Gardens. What is and isn’t possible will largely depend on how the sums add up, and how much commercial or housing development would be needed to pay for all the other work. But for now, the consultants working on the masterplan will use all these ideas (and more) to produce proposals for broader consultation.
White Ribbon Day
On the 25th November, Hastings Council marked White Ribbon Day, with street stalls in St Leonards and Hastings town centres. Speakers at the Hastings event included me, Rosie Ross (Hastings police commander), Judy Rogers (Mayor of Hastings), Julie Gilbert-King (Hastings Fire & Rescue Service Commander), and Huda Caglayan from Hastings Youth Council.
We encouraged people to sign a pledge to not commit, condone or ignore domestic violence, wherever and however it happens. Hastings Council first received White Ribbon accreditation for its work against domestic violence in 2014, and has recently, with funding from the Clinical Commissioning Group, set up new posts at the Conquest Hospital to identify and work with victims of domestic violence. Both stalls got a lot of support from local people, many of whom signed the pledge ribbon.
But numbers of reports of domestic violence are increasing in Hastings, which has the highest number of such reports in East Sussex. This is something we all must play a part in, to make sure it’s recognised, the victims are supported, and the perpetrators dealt with.
Bathing Water Quality
It was announced last week that Hastings had again this year achieved the EU water quality standards, achieving a ‘good’ rating at Pelham Beach, and an ‘excellent’ at St Leonards. This will hopefully mean we’ll retain our Blue Flag status for St Leonards beach.
This is the second year the new water quality standards have been in place. When they were first announced five years ago, Hastings was set to fail, which would have meant big signs on the beach telling people the bathing water was unsafe, which would have been disastrous for local tourism. A high-level panel was convened by Jeremy Birch (former council leader) and including the MP, to bring together the council, Southern Water and the Environment Agency to improve bathing water quality. The problem at Pelham Beach was the outfall from Alexandra Park stream, which at that time was heavily contaminated with faecal bacteria. A programme followed to clear contaminated silts out of ponds in the park and further upstream, and to trace misconnected toilets, plumbed into surface water drains that fed into the park stream.
Dozens of misconnections were detected, which had to be put right by property owners. A major, innovative project was also developed to use ecological methods to get rid of contaminating bacteria in the park stream and ponds. These included floating islands of vegetation to slow water flows, opening culverts to create streams tumbling over rocks to oxygenate the water, and natural filtration systems. And it worked.
The work has now been completed, but water quality will be continuously monitored throughout the summer. If it starts to fall, we’ll get Southern Water and the Environment Agency back to the table. For now though, we want to make sure we retain at least a ‘good’ water quality (rather than just ‘satisfactory’), and will also keep up the pressure to get Pelham Beach up to an ‘excellent’ standard.
Queensway Gateway Road
The legal objections to the Queensway Gateway road now seem to have run their course, and construction work has begun. The road will connect Queensway with the A21, running behind Sainsbury’s car park, to the Pets at Home/Dunelm entrance, creating a new roundabout there. The SEAT garage will be relocated. Junction Road will be closed completely, and Maplehurst Road will be closed to through traffic. So east-west traffic along The Ridge will be have to travel to Queensway, and then back to the A21 along the Gateway Road.
Although this is longer, it should cause fewer hold-ups than traffic joining via Junction Road as it does now. It will also mean that east-west through traffic is more likely to use the new link road, rather than coming into the town centre, which will also ease congestion. The road is scheduled for completion next April, although road construction projects have a long history of overrunning!
Sorting Office Visit
Early morning last Thursday, in time to witness a spectacular sunrise along Hastings seafront, I went with the mayor and deputy mayor to visit Hastings sorting office, for our pre-Christmas visit. It’s a very busy time for them – not so many Christmas cards nowadays, but a lot more small packages, which makes the job even harder. The postal operatives work from 6.30am to 2.30pm, with a 40-minute break for lunch, and no other breaks at all. And, they told us, it’s got tougher since privatisation, as they’re now having to work harder to generate profit for their new private owners.
Despite all that, they still do a wonderful job in getting all our cards and packages delivered in time for Christmas. Hopefully, one day, the Royal Mail can be renationalised, and run again for the public good rather than private profit. Until then, I wish them good luck and season’s greetings, and send them my gratitude for a hard job well done.