Hastings Council Leader’s report (March 2017)

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

Council Budget

The council approved its budget and corporate plan for 2017/18 at the budget council meeting on 22nd February. With a £1.2m cut in government grant (I think last month’s report said £2.2m, which was a typo) it was never going to be easy to produce a balanced budget, especially after continuous year-on-year grant cuts since 2010.
The council had, during the year, undertaken a number of income generation initiatives (including the purchase of the Sedlescombe Road Retail Park, the council’s own premises at Muriel Matters House, and leasing the Town Hall to the registrar) which raised around £300,000 new net income. Investing in new software systems, and making more transactional services available online, saved another £150,000 through the ‘Digital by Design’ programme. Fees and charges were increased by around 10% on average, and Council Tax was raised by the maximum possible without a local referendum, which is £5 a year (which raises about £125,000). More was saved from internal reorganisation and deleting vacant posts, meaning that only one member of staff was made redundant through these reorganisations and efficiency savings.
We also had to include growth in the budget for additional pressures on council services – for example, £27,000 for the government’s apprenticeship levy, and £63,000 to deal with increases in homelessness.
However, all this couldn’t make up for such a huge budget cut. So we’ve had to go ahead with some of the proposed toilet closures. We decided to keep the Ore toilets open, as there are no other disabled accessible toilets in Ore, but to close the Harold Place toilets, saving £64,000 a year, as there are seven other public toilets within a 500m radius, all of them disabled accessible. The proposed seasonal closures of other toilets won’t take place either. No cuts to frontline services are ever popular, but with such huge cuts to council funding, most councils are now finding there’s no other way to balance the books.
An amendment moved by the Conservative opposition proposed not closing the Harold Place toilets, not raising fees for beach huts, and not using any reserves. This was to be funded by cutting 13.5 unspecified jobs, cutting the Street Games programme (which costs £15,000, but attracts external funding of around £80,000) and cutting £80,000 from the transport budget by using ‘self-funding vehicles’ This amendment was rejected, mainly because the 13.5 unspecified job cuts would have a devastating impact on frontline services, and because no-one knew what a ‘self-funding vehicle’ is (this was not explained).
The council will also be using around £500,000 from its reserves to balance the budget. These ‘transitional’ reserves were built up when there was more money around, so we would have money to help us through the period when we need to both reduce services and generate more income. But these reserves won’t last forever. By 2020, the transition reserves will be gone, and with further grant reductions there will be a £2m a year gap in the council’s budget. We hope to be able to fill that gap as far as possible though income generation – primarily commercial property investment, additional kiosks and chalets along the seafront, sustainable energy generation, and though a council-owned housing company which will acquire and build new housing, as well as further savings from the ‘Digital by Design’ programme. However, despite all this, it seems inevitable that further service cuts will be necessary.

Corporate Plan

Although always overshadowed by the budget debate, the budget council meeting also approves the council’s corporate plan for the coming year.
This year, a simplified version had been designed, making it clearer to see what the council’s priorities, values and vision are. It sets out our corporate vision, and our priorities for the next three years. These include economic, physical and cultural regeneration, intervention where it’s needed, creating decent homes, making Hastings an attractive and greener town, and transforming the way we work. To see the full plan, go here.

Devolution Proposals

Hastings was part of a bid across three counties (East Sussex, West Sussex and Surrey) for devolved government in a ‘3SC’ (three southern counties) region. This could have led to significant extra money for the region, primarily for infrastructure and skills development. However, several councils in the region were not keen on the requirement for an elected mayor, without which significant additional funding would not be forthcoming.
And since the new PM took office, little or no progress has been made on any of the proposed devolution deals across the country, and it now seems that only those agreed under the previous PM’s government will go ahead. For some devolution bids, that has been very frustrating, as a lot of money had been spent working up the proposals to a point where all the constituent councils accepted them, and a fully formed bid could be put to government. 3SC wasn’t at that stage, and Hastings Council had not invested anything in the idea beyond officer time. But the three county councils in particular had put a lot of work into, and spent some money on, the 3SC bid so far. The consensus now seems to be, however, that devolution is dead, beyond the deals already agreed (seven of them).
However, there is now a renewed interest in establishing a Sub-National Transport Authority for the South East, which would include Kent, East Sussex, West Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, Portsmouth, Southampton, Isle of Wight, Brighton & Hove, Medway, and the Berkshire unitaries. The purpose of this would be to improve transport infrastructure in the region, particularly links to Heathrow, radial routes from London to the coast, and the Dover – Southampton coastal route. Improvements to those links, especially the Dover – Southampton route and the A21 (although that’s not specifically included at the moment) would benefit Hastings, so we’re in favour of this. Early days yet, and still unclear about what funding it would have access to in order to achieve these priorities, but it could be promising.

Sports Village

A report will be going the council’s Cabinet meeting next week expressing initial qualified support for the Sports Village proposal. At this stage, it authorises further discussions and investigations, but doesn’t commit the council to any land sales or other contractual matters.
The proposal is for a purpose-built ‘sports village’ off Bexhill Road, on land opposite the recycling centre on the road up to Pebsham tip. Hastings Council own this land, which is currently used as football pitches. The village would include a new stadium for Hastings United, a new sports hall, cricket pitches, catering and events facilities, and a range of other sports pitches for a wide variety of sports. It would replace the current Horntye sports pitches and hall, but offer a much wider and more modern range of facilities.
The development would be funded by building housing on the Horntye site, and on the current Pilot Field Hastings United ground. It would also involve housing at Freshfields (next to the proposed sports village), which would need to include substantial flood mitigation measures (although these measures would also protect existing houses on Bexhill Road from flooding). HBC currently owns this land, and would sell it to the developers if a deal were to go ahead.
The whole proposal is complicated, involving in effect developments on four different sites. It’s also further complicated by the fact that the village itself is in Rother, so two different council planning departments would be involved. But it could produce much improved sporting facilities, as well as much-needed housing, including social housing.
The developers have also funded a study, commissioned by HBC, to look at the financial viability of the sports village, as well as the benefits of the proposal for Hastings sports clubs and participants, and whether they’d want to use it.
The entire scheme will involve no public funding – rather, the council would get income from the sale of land at Freshfields, and the Pilot Field (which is owned by HBC but leased to Hastings United).
There’s a long way to go before anything happens, and all specific development proposals will be subject to public consultation, local pre-application planning forums, and will have to go through the usual planning processes. At the moment, it’s uncertain whether this proposal is realisable, but for now we’ll wait for further details, and the results of the commissioned studies.
You can read the full Cabinet report here.

Public Space Protection Orders

After a long and complicated gestation, the proposals for public space
protection orders are finally going to the next Cabinet meeting. These replace a range of former orders and notices under previous, soon to be discontinued, legislation, as well as measures to tackle street drinking and anti-social behaviour. One of the problems with preparing the PSPOs has been establishing the evidence needed – the order can only apply to areas where there is evidence of an existing problem, or nearby spaces where displacement is likely. The PSPOs will cover:

  • Dog restrictions, banning dogs off leads in some areas and on beaches, and seasonal dog bans. These will be unchanged for the current dog control orders;
  • Street drinking ban, banning street drinking altogether in town centre and seafront areas (apart from permitted areas outside licenced premises);
  • An alcohol confiscation zone, covering the whole borough, allowing alcohol to be confiscated if it’s a cause of anti-social behaviour;
  • Anti-social behaviour ban in the town centres and seafront;
  • ‘Aggressive begging’ ban in parts of the town centres and seafront;
  • Psychoactive substances (‘legal highs’, which aren’t now legal anyway) ban in the town centres and seafront;
  • Ban on sleeping in vehicles, in the West of Haven area (ie the council land and beach huts on the seafront to the west of the bathing pool site).

Some of these ‘banned behaviours’ (eg psychoactive substances and anti-social behaviour) are illegal anyway, but the PSPOs give police and wardens further powers to deal with them.
Enforcement will be primarily through the council’s street wardens serving fixed penalty notices, but for persistent offenders this would lead up to civil injunctions, which would require, for example, street drinkers to undertake alcohol addiction treatment. The police would assist our wardens, particularly when dealing with groups of aggressive street drinkers. But this will, hopefully, be the tool we need to deal with of street drinking in Hastings, and tackle other problems too. Read the whole report here.

Enhanced Warden Service

The council will be undertaking an experimental project to bring in a private street warden company to supplement our own warden service. These wardens will focus entirely on litter and dog fouling (and possibly flytipping). There will be four or five of them, who will issue fixed penalty notices (FPNs) for these offences. The company does this free of charge, because they believe they can issue enough notices to cover the cost of the wardens, and make a profit (which they will share with the council).
We will need to specify parameters within our enforcement policy around enforcement (for example, how to deal with children), and how to deal with, for example, bird feeding. Does feeding a chip to a pigeon count as ‘littering’? My own view is that no, it doesn’t, but simply dumping a load of old bread on the ground and walking off does.
The reason why we’re bringing an outside company in to do this, rather than employing more wardens ourselves, is that there are significant financial risks involved. The wardens might not raise enough money from FPNs to cover their cost. It could also be controversial, and is likely to meet with resistance from some ‘offenders’. Also, if it’s successful in deterring littering and dog fouling, there will be less income. However, the trial period will be for a year – if it works well, we could employ additional wardens in-house, and run the service ourselves.
This new scheme ties in with a major new publicity programme the council has launched to encourage people not to drop litter and pick up after their dogs. With this additional more rigorous enforcement, we will hopefully see both littering and dog fouling reduce.

Sea Road campervans

Local residents around Sea Road in West St Leonards were becoming increasingly annoyed by the proliferation of campervans parked there. Mostly, these were campervan owners parking them for free while they weren’t in use, but some were being lived in, too.
A joint initiative between Hastings Council and East Sussex County Council has now dealt with this in both areas where they were parking: on the highway echelon parking, and on an area of the Bathing Pool site at the end of Sea Road. ESCC have introduced parking restrictions specifically for campervans, banning overnight parking. HBC have used Refuse Disposal Amenity Act notices to require removal of the campervans, and will introduce a parking ticket machine, to limit long-term parking.

Pay Parking Machines

This year, a new £1 is coin being introduced. That means all machines that take coins have to be upgraded. For Hastings that would cost £7,000. However, as our machines are old and nearing the end of their life, we’ll be using the opportunity to replace most of them. The new machines will be able to accept a wider range of payments, including card and contactless payments. They will still accept coins, but they could be adapted to be entirely cashless in the future, which would save tens of thousands of pounds in cash collection costs. Alternatively, we could discount charges where cashless payments are made.
Car park signs are also going to be replaced, partly to display new charges, and partly to redesign them to make the ‘Ringo’ car park number larger and clearer, so it can be read from your car, making it easier to pay via the Ringo parking app.
Although the cost of replacing the machines will be around £56,000, this sum was already in the council’s capital programme, for replacement of the old machines.

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Hastings and Rye Labour