Hastings Council Leader’s report (February 2017)

To comment on any of the items below or obtain further information, please contact Cllr Peter Chowney.

Budget Update and Toilets

Consultation on the budget is underway, with final decisions to be made at the Budget Council meeting on February 22nd.
Not surprisingly, the most controversial proposal has been the closure of public toilets at Ore and Harold Place. So it’s worth responding to some of the points that have been raised.
Around 40% of council toilets have closed in England over the last ten years, with more under threat in the current budget consultations. Some councils have got rid of public toilets altogether. Newcastle-upon-Tyne has no public toilets. The entire City of Manchester has just one. Sheffield has closed 25 of its toilets, with none left in the city centre. There are few public toilets left in central London, with none along the South Bank. Along the south coast, Bournemouth is considering closing 14 of its public toilets and Poole has already closed all four of its town centre toilets. There are no public toilets in Brighton City centre. By ‘public toilets’ here I mean ‘free-standing’ toilet blocks. There are of course public toilets in department stores, shopping centres and public buildings such as libraries and museums.
Here in Hastings, the Council maintains 16 public toilets. Half of these are on or close to the seafront. The Council’s public toilets cost around £380,000 a year to run (in cleaning costs, pay for attendants, rates, and utility charges). The amount of money the council has to provide services has more than halved since 2010, with a £2.2m cut in government grant over just the last year. Many services have already been reduced. But as for other councils, it’s now becoming increasingly difficult to protect the more ‘visible’ services such as public toilets.
The Harold Place toilets are particularly expensive to maintain, costing £64,000 a year. One of the key factors to consider here will be the availability of other public toilets, particularly ones accessible to disabled people. As in other towns and cities, Hastings Council is not the only provider of public toilets. There are five other public toilets within a 500-metre radius of Harold Place, all of them accessible to wheelchair users: there are Council-run toilets at Pelham Place, as well as toilets available to the public at Debenhams, Priory Meadow, Hastings Library and Hastings Pier. This is more of a problem for Ore, where there are no other nearby public toilets.
However, the decision on these toilet closures is not yet finalised. There may be alternative ways to provide toilet facilities at no cost – for example, the Harold Place building, which is in poor condition and in need of expensive repairs, could be replaced by a café with toilets available to the public or by automated pay toilets. Other suggestions have been submitted as part of the consultation. We’ll consider all these carefully before making a decision. But after years of budget cuts, spending reductions on the Council’s core services, such as toilets, are sadly inevitable.


Education Futures Trust

The Council’s Cabinet meeting this week approved the lease of the old Firs football ground to Education Futures Trust. The Firs is the old St Leonards football team ground, next to the Pilot Field, home of Hastings United, on Elphinstone Road. It has been semi-abandoned for a long time, apart from the multi-use games area (MUGA) which was installed a few years back.
Education Futures Trust have for some time occupied a small office on the site, but are now going to take on the whole thing, leasing it from the Council. They’ve already done a lot of clearance of paths and open spaces using volunteers. Their plan would be to build small wooden buildings as classrooms and indoor activity areas on the concrete bases of the old spectator stands. They will maintain the MUGA and a grass sports pitch, as well as creating an environmental area around the outside of the site for local people to enjoy.
For those not familiar with the work of Education Futures Trust, you can find out more about them here.
EFT provide high quality, innovative support and learning tailored to the needs of children, families and vulnerable adults in Hastings and the surrounding area. They’ve already achieved a lot, and have been very successful at fund raising to support their activities. Expanding the work they do will be a huge benefit to Hastings, especially to children who are excluded from school or otherwise don’t get on well at school.


Sierra Leone Twinning

Deputy Mayor Nigel Sinden will be visiting our twin town of Hastings Sierra Leone for ten days, to mark the tenth anniversary of our twinning link. We decided to send Nigel as he’s a plumbing engineer, so has useful, practical skills he can use to help develop projects, help with plumbing installations and repair anaerobic digesters. This will be linked to projects organised by the British Council, to assist a former British colony that was devastated by a civil war a few years ago. It remains one of the poorest countries in the world, so any help and support they can get from volunteers from their twin town in the UK is gratefully received.
The trip is organised by the Hastings Sierra Leone Friendship Link – you can find out more about their activities here.


Hastings College and University Centre

Following the decision by the University of Brighton to close its campus in Hastings, Sussex Coast College Hastings has been developing their proposals for a ‘university centre’ based at the college. This will be housed, at least initially, on the fifth floor of the college, although plans are eventually to take on around 600 degree-level students. They have produced a prospectus, which you can see here.
They’ve done a good job of marketing Hastings as a destination for students – something that Brighton University could have done more enthusiastically, perhaps.
This does not of course replace Brighton University as an equivalent higher education offering, and that’s not their intention. But it’s a worthwhile project, and will provide some good-quality higher education courses in Hastings, for both local people and for students from outside Hastings.
None of this however means that we should stop looking for another university to set up a campus in Hastings. This would of course need to be complementary to SCCH’s university centre, but we’re already talking to other universities about the possibilities of a Hastings campus. Discussions are in very early stages, however, and there’s a long way to go before any definite proposals could emerge.
Meanwhile, the future of the Brighton University buildings at Priory Square and Havelock Road remain in question. The view of Hastings Council remains that whatever the legalities, those buildings were built using public money intended for regeneration in Hastings, and it would be wrong for Brighton to asset-strip our town. A letter was recently sent to Brighton University, jointly signed by the leaders of Rother, Hastings and East Sussex councils making this point, and if they’re not ultimately used for educational purposes, any proceeds from the sale of the buildings should be retained in Hastings.
There are also issues around covenants on these buildings which, although not clear at the moment, may restrict future uses. And they’d need planning change of use permission before they could be used for non-educational purposes.
So the quest to keep a university in Hastings continues. The University Centre at SCCH is a welcome development, but we need more …


FLAG 2

The second Fisheries Local Action Group project was launched last week, following a successful bid by Hastings Council for £800,000 of EU funding, which will provide nearer £1.5m in total with match funding, to support the Hastings Fishery. FLAG 1 funded many successful projects, including an apprenticeship scheme, the resurfaced Winch Road and lighting, net flakers for the fishing boats, improvements to the fishing sheds on the Stade, improvements to the fishmarket, shingle-moving bulldozers, a telehoist and shed building, a fish smoker, various art and photography projects, the Herring Fair and Mid-Summer Fish Festival, and more.
The FLAG partnership will be responsible for allocating the new money to local projects, but one of the first for consideration is for an ice making machine, which will not only supply the boats and fishmarket with ice, but also allow them to sell ice too. More projects will follow.
The photo shows Paul Joy from Hastings Fishermen’s Protection Society, me, Paul Webbe from Webbe’s restaurant, Andrew Wells from the Marine Management Organisation, and Steve Manwaring from Hastings Voluntary Action. Apologies for the entirely male line-up – it should have included Dawn Poole as the Council’s lead member, but she was unwell, so I stepped in!


Weather Station Kiosk

Construction work has begun on the new upper promenade kiosk, by the weather station. It will open in the spring, hopefully around Easter. The council is working with a local operator, to make sure the kiosk is built and equipped to their needs.
The weather station is an example in itself of how services can in some cases be sustained through more imaginative approaches. The current station dates back to the 1930s, when the promenade and weather station were built, but there has been a weather station there since the 1870s. Readings are taken early each morning, from clockwork equipment, some dating from the 1870s, in White Rock Gardens. These are then transferred manually to the charts and indicators at the weather station, at about 8am every day, with forecasts indicated based on the readings (see picture). This is obviously a labour-intensive process, and was set to be discontinued a few years ago in an earlier round of cuts. However, the station was saved by setting up a team of volunteer meteorologists, who take the readings and set up the weather station every day, co-ordinated by a council officer. Once upon a time, all seaside resorts would have had seafront weather stations like this, but there are now very few left. The new kiosk right by the weather station will help to publicise how a team of volunteers have enabled the Council to keep this tradition alive.


BD Foods

On Monday last week I opened the new BD Foods factory on Castleham Estate. Hastings Council has built this for BD Foods, creating 40 new jobs initially. It also generates a significant net income for the council from the rent, and is part of our newly expanding portfolio of commercial property investments, as we try to cover cuts in government grants through income generation. The new factory means BD Foods now have spare capacity, so can expand their operation. It will mostly house a new, much bigger kitchen, and is already operational. These are the sort of investment opportunities we’ll be favouring, where the council can invest in the local economy, create jobs, and generate income. But we’ll be looking at other commercial property investment too, because money is cheap to borrow at the moment and it’s possible to get good returns on the right investments. These could be outside the borough too, if the return looks good and it generates income to cover the Council’s budget shortfall.


Local Area Alcohol Action Zones.

Hastings has been successful in its bid to be in the second round of Local Area Alcohol Action Zones, to tackle alcohol-related crime and health harms and create a more diverse night-time economy.
It will be funded by government to implement a plan which brings together local agencies including the council, health bodies, police and local businesses coming together with businesses to address problems caused by alcohol in their local area.
The first phase of LAAA saw a variety of interventions to reduce street drinking, vulnerability, and violence. This second round will build on the work carried out in the first round in 2014, which included the local ‘Reduce the Strength Campaign’ aimed at restricting the supply of beer, lager and cider with an alcohol by volume of over 6.5%. More details of exact projects will emerge in due course.