Hastings Council Leader’s report (September 2017)

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

Hastings Harbour Project

Details were released last week about the Hastings Harbour proposal. This project has been around for some time – I first learned about it a couple of years ago, when I became council leader. Back then, it looked like a pipe dream, with no realistic source of funding. However, since then, the developers have talked to pension funds, banks, and the Treasury about potential loans and grants, and it now looks like it could be possible.
It would involve building a new development in what is now the sea, to the east of Rock-a-Nore. It would include around 1,300 homes, up to 500 permanent jobs, and berths for 500-600 visiting boats, along with commercial space, retail, and leisure areas. It would certainly provide a big boost to the local economy, along with much-needed housing, without demolishing or destroying existing buildings or open spaces.
But there are a lot of questions to be answered. Access is a problem – it’s not immediately obvious how you’d get to it. Rock-a-Nore is a narrow, difficult, congested road. And whatever access was proposed, it couldn’t damage the structures or attractions on the Stade. If car parking were to be lost (and it seems that Rock-a-Nore car park would go) it would have to be replaced elsewhere, nearby. One solution could be a bigger underground car park on the seafront. And, of course, if Rock-a-Nore car park wasn’t there, most of the congestion problems along Rock-a-Nore would disappear. Or it could be a car free development, again with car parking off-site. Interestingly, the harbour that was proposed 120 years ago would have had has its access via a tunnel though the cliffs, coming out in Harold Road.
The developers have had some initial discussions with fishery representatives, who seem to be quite keen. The harbour (via a long extension to the harbour arm) would protect the fishing beach from storms, and make it safer to launch the boats. But I couldn’t support anything that damaged the Hastings fishery, nor ended the beach-launched fleet at the Stade, which has been part of Hastings for a thousand years.
Housing in the development is welcome, but I’d want to see at least a quarter of it as social rented housing, and more than that ‘affordable’ housing (shared ownership, for example).
Any development of this size, particularly in a location such as this, would also need to include substantial sustainable energy generation built into it. I’d want it to be carbon-neutral, generating all the energy it needs from the abundant renewable resources it would have available.
But this isn’t a council development of course – it’s on land not owned by the council (Crown Estates I presume, as it’s seabed), and the council might not even be the planning authority. If the government deems this to be a ‘development of regional significance’, all planning applications would be determined by government planners, not the council. But it’s unlikely it could go ahead without the support and co-operation of both Hastings Council and East Sussex County Council.
Hastings Council is not funding this, beyond the time council officers spend on it. And if it progressed beyond the initial stages, the developers would need to pay the costs of additional council staff that would be needed. It would require central government funding too, as well as a lot of private investment. Hastings Council could potentially invest in the housing or commercial units there though, as an income-generating project.
A report will be considered at a council cabinet meeting next week, which will recommend further investigation. Following that, the developers will look to the government and Local Enterprise Partnership to fund various studies, on engineering, ecological impacts, hydrology, cliff stability, and so on. All that would have to be done before we could be sure the development was even technically possible.
So at the moment, the project is highly speculative – the indicative drawing above is just that, indicative – the podium depicted wouldn’t be anywhere near big enough for the development proposed. So at the moment, there are no plans or layouts to consider. It has a long way to go. But it has potential – it would be foolish not to investigate the idea further. It could provide homes for 1,000 people in severe housing need on our housing waiting list. It could provide jobs linked to engineering apprenticeships for local young people. And it could provide a secure future for the fishery at a time when climate change and Brexit negotiations are threatening its survival. Indeed, I wouldn’t support it unless it does do all those things. And if Hastings Council turned it down flat now, it would probably be simply cut out of the discussions, with all decisions made by the government and county council. But there are a lot of questions that need answering before I’d be prepared to give it my wholehearted support.


Income Generation

The Council’s Cabinet meeting on 11th September will be considering a major report on income generation. Although this has been around for a while, this represents the fruition of all the work that’s been done to put together a comprehensive strategy for generating additional income, to offset at least in part the continuing cuts to the council’s government grants.
The strategy has three parts, each of which have their own separate reports. These are:
• Commercial property investment;
• Housing development and acquisition;
• Sustainable energy generation.

The council has already made several commercial property investments – the council’s own offices at Muriel Matters House, the Sedlescombe Road Retail Park, and the Bexhill Road Retail Park (TK Maxx), for example. These investments so far will generate around half a million pounds a year, after loan repayments. The new policy will provide a framework against which to judge new investments, and give priorities for the types and locations of properties.
Housing development and acquisition will involve the council setting up a wholly owned company to acquire and develop housing. As Hastings Council is no longer a housing provider, we have to do this using a company, rather than directly by the council. But the aim will be to acquire and develop properties to raise income, as well as provide good quality housing at sub-market rents.
A report will be going to the October cabinet meeting on energy generation, so I’ll explain more about that in next month’s report. But there’s a real potential in the longer term for the council to invest in sustainable energy generation though photovoltaic cells and wind turbines, and supply electricity locally ‘off grid’ at significantly lower prices than national energy suppliers – and still make a decent income!
These initiatives are unlikely to cover the £2.5m gap emerging in the council’s budget, which is when the government’s Revenue Support Grant will disappear altogether. It will help significantly, but it’s no substitute for proper, sustainable, long-term funding of local government by central government.


Hastings Pride

August Bank Holiday Sunday saw the first Hastings Pride festival. It started with a procession through town – I was on the Hastings Council ‘Summer of Love’ float. Then I did the opening speech. The ‘Summer of Love’ was of course about the summer of 1967, the year when male homosexuality was ‘legalised’ – in the sense that ‘homosexual acts’ between consenting male adults in private were legalised. This was a case though of legislation being ahead of public opinion, with the Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, when he presented the bill to legalise male homosexuality to parliament, saying ‘those who suffer this disability carry a great weight of shame throughout their lives’. And even after the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, gay men could still be prosecuted for behaviour that would have been perfectly acceptable for heterosexual couples, such as holding hands in public.
Over the last fifty years, we’ve gradually moved forward, and reached legal equality with the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2014. We’ve moved from shame to pride.
But prejudice and intolerance have not gone away, even though the law and wider society have accepted diversity, and condemn discrimination. Hate crimes are increasing, particularly against disabled people. We must continue to fight for a world where no-one feels threatened because they’re gay or transgender, nor because of their ethnicity, disability, or lifestyle choices. We all have a right to live the way we want and need to, if that doesn’t threaten or oppress others.
But the festival was all about having fun in the glorious sunshine, enjoying the food, the music, and all the colourful stalls and traders. Thanks to Hastings Youth Council for coming up with the idea and the ‘pre-festival’ event last year, and thanks to the organisers for what has all the potential to become the best and most joyful Pride festival on the south coast. I’ll look forward to next year!


September Festivals

September is a month for festivals. There are two going on now, and one yet to come.
The Annual Coastal Currents Arts Festival is in full swing, and will continue throughout September. This festival was set up and run by Hastings Council for around ten years, but now it’s been ‘floated off’ as an independent festival run by Sweet and Dandy, a company of local cultural events organisers. It’s still funded by Hastings Council, as well as by Arts Council England, East Sussex Arts Partnership and a range of local sponsors. It’s primarily a visual arts festival, with 36 events and exhibitions across the town, and of course the Open Studios days, this weekend and next weekend, showcasing the quality and quantity of work by over 80 local artists in Hastings and St Leonards. Find out more about it here.

And at the same time, there’s the Hastings Fringe. This one’s a relatively new arts festival, it’s only been going for a couple of years, but is already establishing itself as a significant part of our annual calendar. Hastings Fringe focuses on the performing arts, with events throughout September at venues across town, showcasing talent from local actors, writers, filmmakers and directors. Find out about that one here.

And of course, there’s the Hastings Council Seafood and Wine Festival, on the Stade Open Space on 16th & 17th September. As well as food stalls, there’s music, wine, beer, and seafood cookery events. Wristbands for the two days are £2 in advance (from the Tourist Information Centre) of £3 on the gate – under 18s are free. This is one of the most popular festivals of the year and attracts large numbers of people – if the weather’s good! Find out more here.


Bad Landlord Prosecutions

Hastings Council has recently achieved two successful prosecutions of landlords over their failure to maintain a House in Multiple Occupation (HMO) in a safe condition.
The first of these was James De Courcy of Rye Lodge, Hilders Cliff, Rye, who was fined £4,000 for failing to maintain fire alarms and emergency lighting at a property in Cornwallis Terrace, and failing to keep common areas in a decent condition. The second was Tom Glendon Wallace of Boscobel Road, St Leonards for failing to effectively maintain two properties in Carisbrooke Road. He pleaded guilty to 38 charges, and was fined a total of £20,000.
These are the latest prosecutions – there have been others, along with prosecutions under the selective licensing scheme, which applies to all private rented housing in Braybrooke, Castle, Gensing, Ore, Old Hastings, Tressell, and Central St Leonards wards. If you suspect a private rented property in any of those wards is unlicensed (any property, not just HMOs – the definitions of an ‘HMO’ are complicated), let me or your ward councillor know and we can check it out – any landlord who’s failed to get a license will be prosecuted. The licensing inspections also often reveal other Housing Act infringements too, for failing to maintain property safely.
We’re determined to weed out bad landlords who let their properties in an unsafe condition, who don’t provide proper tenancy agreements, and don’t maintain their other responsibilities as landlords. At the moment, fines go to the courts, but in future, they’ll come to the council for some offences, so it’ll help to cover funding cuts, too.


Pirates of Penzance (but too few)

And as an amusing endnote, Penzance recently attempted (again) to break the Hastings record of 14,231 pirates, set in 2012. Since then there have been several attempts across the world to break the record, but all of them have failed. It was initially reported that Penzance had only just failed, because of ‘a few people staying in the pub’. But it later emerged that they missed out by a long way – a couple of thousand at least. So bad luck Penzance, better luck next time – we really would like you to break our record, so we can take it back again …