Hastings Council Leader’s report (November 2016)
Council Tax Reduction Scheme
At the November Cabinet meeting, we’ll consider a report about the Council Tax Reduction scheme. This replaced council tax benefit a few years ago. Under CT benefit, councils were automatically reimbursed for all council tax benefit claims paid, up to 100% payments for those in the greatest need. Under the Council Tax Reduction Scheme, the government replaced these payments to councils with an annual grant, which was less than the total amount paid in council tax benefits, thereby requiring councils to cut benefits, or find the payments from elsewhere in their budgets – which were also being cut.
In Hastings, we have continued to pay CT benefit at the same levels as they have always been, with the poorest still getting their entire council tax paid. We are the only council in East Sussex to do this. All the others now charge all people, no matter how poor they are, a minimum 20% of their council tax bill. Across the country, most councils have now decided to do this.
The report to Cabinet will recommend that we continue to pay full CT benefit to the poorest people. Although the council is receiving massive cuts in its funding from central government, we don’t believe we should try to get money back from the very poorest people who can’t afford to pay it. So that policy will be extended for another year.
We have just learned that we’ve been successful in our application for the second round of Fisheries Local Action Group funding (FLAG 2). This is an EU fund, so although there might be further rounds of funding, we won’t be able to apply post-Brexit, so there will be no more FLAG funding available. The FLAG 2 funding will bring to Hastings a similar amount of money to the original FLAG programme (around £800,000), but this time it will be spent on fewer projects. This is at least in part because the project application process, via the Marine Management Organisation (a UK government body) is extremely complicated and difficult, so a lot of the funding is wasted on bureaucratic processes if a large number of projects are submitted.
The original FLAG funded a wide range of projects, from safety equipment on boats and net ‘flakers’ (folders), to improvements to the fish market, repairs to fishermen’s sheds, apprenticeship schemes, cookery courses and tourism initiatives.
One of the bigger projects to be funded from FLAG 2 will be the purchase of new ice-making equipment, which will allow the fishermen not only to produce ice for their own fish, but also to make enough to sell elsewhere, for the catering and preservation trades.
The report by Biggar Consultancy, commissioned by Hastings, Rother and East Sussex councils, will be published over the next couple of days. It concludes that Hastings is a good town to establish a university campus, and meets all the right conditions for that to be successful, with a minimum campus size of around 2,000 students. However, the report recognises that Brighton University cannot be persuaded to change their minds about closing the Hastings campus, and that two alternatives should be supported: establishing a small University Centre, led by Sussex Coast College Hastings and Brighton University; and setting up an alternative ‘full’ university campus after Brighton leaves. The report suggests University of Sussex as the ideal provider of a Hastings campus – Sussex University have expansion plans, and have already shown initial interest in Hastings.
The Hastings and Rother Task Force (a body comprising local businesses, council and education interests that was set up to establish a university in Hastings in the first place) unanimously approved the report’s recommendations. Following some initial discussions, Hastings Council will be discussing the possibilities with Sussex University in the New Year, after their new vice chancellor has settled in.
As part of its income generation strategy, Hastings Council is investing in commercial property. At the moment, we’re doing that in Hastings, but we may look further afield too.
Hastings Council recently purchase a plot of land on the Churchfields factory estate (next to Marshall Tufflex) which adjoins a plot of land already owned by the council. This will allow the combined site to be developed as new factory units. Currently, all the council-owned factory units in Castleham and Churchfields are fully let, so there is plenty of scope for building more.
Hastings Council has also had its offer accepted on the small retail park on the A21 by The Ridge, which includes Pets at Home and Dunelm – the purchase will be confirmed after surveys and ‘due diligence’ have taken place, but this too would bring the council in a substantial net income, helping to bridge the emerging budget gap caused by cuts in government grants.
The reason for Hastings Council, and many other councils, buying up commercial property now is primarily low interest rates. Councils can borrow money at rates lower than most commercial loans, which means that there’s a good net return on the right property investments, after the loan repayments and other costs are taken into account – money which can be used to replace government funding cuts. Spelthorne Council (in Surrey) recently borrowed £378m to buy the BP campus, which will bring them in £3m a year – enough to cover their budget deficit through one deal.
Borrowing for this type of investment by councils has gone up fivefold over the last year. There are however always risks, of course, in any investment, that need to be considered. Councils can only carry out ‘prudential borrowing’, which means they can only borrow for capital projects where they have a definite income stream to repay the loans. They can’t borrow to cover deficits, or to make the books balance. Controls on the amount councils can borrow were abolished in the 1990s, so there are no absolute controls on borrowing, if they obey these rules. But the government might get nervous if the amount borrowed by councils gets too high, and reintroduce borrowing limits. Which is why we need to look into where Hastings Council can invest effectively as soon as we can, and use this method to replace lost government funding.
Public Space Protection Orders – update
Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) are a relatively new means of ensuring public safety, and are part of a legislative package that replaced public safety measures such as ASBOs, Dog Control Zones, Alcohol Control Zones, and more. Using PSPOs will allow the council, in partnership with the police, to prescribe ‘unauthorised behaviours’ in specified areas of town. This can potentially include street drinking, dogs off leads, drug injecting, rough sleeping, begging, and so on.
Some councils have rushed to get these in place as a knee-jerk response to local problems, and have regretted it. Several councils have withdrawn PSPOs that banned begging and rough sleeping because of strong local opposition. Others have been ridiculed in the press – such as the PSPO banning ‘profane language’ in Salford Quays, a PSPO banning people from sitting on a wall, or the one in Chester banning people from sleeping in a public place. That one was clearly aimed at rough sleepers without saying it, but led to a local group attaching brass plaques to benches saying things like ’In memory of Jim, who was expelled from the town centre after falling asleep on this bench while his wife shopped for shoes’.
So we want to use PSPOs in a more constructive way. The way they’re enforced needs to be agreed with the police, and the resources for enforcement have to be put in place. Enforcement would initially be through fixed penalty notices (FPNs), but there could be an escalating process for persistent offenders, where FPNs would lead to civil injunctions that would ban people from the PSPO area altogether. This process would be particularly useful for dealing with street drinkers. We also need to make sure that if we’re going to ‘get tough’ with street drinkers and drug users through PSPOs, that we use that process to give them access to drug and alcohol support services too. Indeed, civil injunctions could be used to require street drinkers, for example, to get treatment for alcohol addiction.
We would, however, be unlikely to ban rough sleeping or ‘passive’ begging. Rough sleepers are best dealt with by offering them support and help into secure accommodation, and assistance with other issues such as mental health problems, which is what’s already happening. Rough sleeping is almost always associated with homelessness and the availability of affordable housing, especially for young single people, a problem that can’t be fixed through a PSPO – enforcement would only be appropriate where all offers of suitable accommodation and help were refused.
Hastings has now accepted its first family of refugees, as part of the government’s resettlement programme to bring the most vulnerable people from the camps in Turkey and Lebanon. More will be arriving in December. The ‘welcome’ process has been deliberately low-key, as we don’t want to either overwhelm the families, or risk them being victims of abuse. The families will get support from local statutory agencies after they’ve moved in, providing social services and healthcare, as well as helping them find work when that’s appropriate. They will also be given English language lessons, if needed.
We expect though that a large majority of people in Hastings will be welcoming, as they have been during past refugee resettlements to the town. A volunteer network of supporters who can help the refugees settle in and find their way around is being co-ordinated across East Sussex by Ashburnham Place, bringing together different community and faith groups. Hastings Voluntary Action will be co-ordinating individual volunteers who want to help, although there will be a vetting process for volunteers, as you’d expect from anyone with access to vulnerable families with children. There may well also be opportunities to donate unwanted televisions, furniture or other equipment – watch Hastings Council social media posts for details.
Hastings Council is maintaining its commitment to accept 100 refugees in Hastings over the five-year programme. We’re proud to do this, wanting to help people affected by the turmoil and injustices of the Syrian war, and believe that they’ll help with the regeneration of our town by bringing new skills and customs, enhancing the diversity of our town.
The last full council meeting on 26th October agreed four resolutions, on the following topics:
• A motion brought to us by WASPI (Women Against State Pension Inequality) committing the council to supporting their campaign to get the government to reconsider transitional arrangements for women born during the 1950s who have unfairly borne the burden of the increase to the State Pension Age, and have had their pension age changed several times, making it difficult to plan for retirement, without proper notification.
• A motion originating from Christian Aid (and supported by many other councils) to be amend our procurement procedures to require all companies bidding for service contracts worth more than £25,000 and for works contracts worth more than £25,000 to self-certify that they are fully tax-compliant.
• A motion to call on the county council to deploy its parking enforcement officers at school pick-up and drop-off times, to prevent a small minority of parents parking illegally or inconsiderately;
• A motion supporting a local campaign to place a blue plaque for Claude Nunney on his birthplace in Bexhill Road – Claude was the only person from Hastings to be awarded a Victoria Cross in the First World War.
Approving motions that are not about council business, but affect people in Hastings cannot on its own, of course, affect directly the policy of government or other organisations. But it can contribute to a general body of opinion – the WASPI motion for example has been passed by many councils, and will hopefully lead to a change in government policy.
This weekend (5th – 6th November), the Herring Fair has once again been organised by Hastings Council on the Stade Open Space. At the time of writing this, the fair is busier than it has been in previous years – this is the fifth Herring Fair we’ve organised, and it seems to be getting well established in the annual calendar. It’s all under cover, so protected from the November weather, although this year is pleasantly bright and chilly. There’s lots of different kinds of food (including plenty of fish), fish cookery lessons, music, and a nice, chilly, intimate atmosphere.
One thing there wasn’t a lot of though is herring – the warm summer has meant the sea is still too warm for them, so they’re late to arrive this year. Those that have been locally caught have mostly been smoked in the Rock-a-Nore smokery, and are on sale as buckling, bloaters and kippers. Next year, we might move it to a later date in November, when the herring are more likely to have arrived!
But it’s still an excellent event, and something extra out-of-season that helps to promote Hastings as an all year round destination.