Hastings Council Leader’s Report: September 2018

Hastings Pride

The last Sunday of August saw the third Hastings Pride Festival take place, with a colourful procession from Cornwallis Street to The Oval, where there was a pretty good turnout, despite the weather. This year’s theme was ‘alienation’, so lots of suitably bizarre space-themed outfits – including me as Obi Wan Kenobi (best option for an old bloke with a beard) … and I was lucky enough to find a Darth Vader to lock light sabers with. I was pleased to be able to speak at the opening of the event too.

The ‘alienation’ theme has a serious message to it though. LGBT people are still victims of alienation and discrimination, in their day-to-day lives. There are 72 countries where homosexuality is illegal, and a handful where it’s still punishable by death. Only 23 countries recognise same-sex marriages, but that number is growing each year as LGBT rights become more widely recognised. In the UK, male homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967, although it was to be many more years before LGBT people enjoyed anything approaching equal rights, with same-sex marriage not being recognised until 2013. However, LGBT people still suffer discrimination in their day-to-day lives. There are over 7,000 homophobic hate crimes recorded by the police each year, a number that has been growing in recent years, although LGBT people are now more likely to report hate crimes. And there are over 10,000 men still alive who were convicted and often imprisoned for homosexuality offences before decriminalisation in 1967. Alan Turing, the wartime code-breaking mathematician and Hastings resident, was forced to undergo ‘chemical castration’ as a ‘cure’ for being gay, as recently as the 1950s – a cruel and irrational punishment that probably led to his suicide in 1954.

But the Pride Festival was primarily about fun, and about celebrating diversity. It was a pity about the wind and rain, resulting in a lot of rather soggy aliens, but it’s already become an established event in the Hastings festival calendar, and I’m sure we’ll be welcoming its return next year.

Coastal Currents

Last weekend saw the launch of the 20th Coastal Currents Arts Festival. The festival began as a Hastings Council initiative, but has now grown into an independent, Hastings Council Leader’s Report: July 2018 from Peter Chowney 4th September 2018 2 nationally-recognised visual arts festival, funded from many different sources, including the Arts Council and commercial sponsors.

Once again, there’s a whole month of curated events, installations, and artworks in and around Hastings, One of the highlights of the festival is the Open Studios weekends, with dozens of artists’ studios across Hastings, St Leonards, Battle, Pett, Fairlight and beyond participating in the programme. Open Studios began last weekend, and continues this coming weekend, showcasing the amazing variety and quality of artists we have working locally.

There are various artworks around town to enjoy too, from a new mural in Queen’s Road and a decorated shelter on the West Hill, to a car in Rock-aNore car park filled with the tideline of the beach. And there are performances, video and film events, exhibitions and more.

The festival continues throughout September. You can find all the details here: http://coastalcurrents.org.uk

West Marina

This month’s council Cabinet meeting discussed a report on the future of West Marina. This site (outlined in red, roughly) is earmarked for development for mixed housing and leisure use in the council’s Local Plan. We have been looking for a developer to work with the council to develop the site as a destination, something that will bring visitors along the promenade to the western end and visit new attractions there. New housing would fund the leisure aspects of the development, but following a ‘soft marketing’ exercise, most of the proposals involved housing 3 but little in the way of leisure development that would make the site a real ‘destination’.

One developer, County Gate/Sunley, did seem to have some good ideas, which could form something the council could move to public consultation on. Their ideas included holiday cottages, beach chalets, restaurants and cafes, artists’ studios with ‘shop window’ retail spaces, and a slipway with boating facilities. So the Cabinet agreed to work with them to develop their proposals further – in particular, how the housing could be fitted in.

We also want to explore further the possibility of using the old Stamco site (now owned by Aldi, outlined in blue, roughly) and the Ministry of Defence site which may no longer be needed by the MoD (outlined in white, roughly). As the MoD have a programme of disposing of their surplus sites, we are contacting them to find out if this could be included in the development. If the development included the Stamco and MoD sites, it would be much easier to create a viable scheme.

In the end, it may not be possible to come up with a scheme that delivers a high-quality leisure development, because the land values mean that too much housing has to be included to allow a proper leisure destination to be created. In that case, we would not go ahead with permanent development now, but would instead look for ‘meanwhile’ uses of the site until land values increased sufficiently.

Station Plaza Medical Centre

The Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) that provide healthcare in our area have been placed in ‘special financial measures’ – this means they have to find savings of £18m, thanks to government underfunding of the NHS. One of the proposed cuts to save this money is to close the WalkIn Healthcare Centre at Station Plaza. This centre is used by many of the most vulnerable people in our town.

The CCG is proposing to relocate the Walk-In Centre to the Conquest Hospital – but this is much harder to get to and will place unnecessary pressure on a busy A&E department.

Labour councillors on the East Sussex Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee have opposed this proposal, which was put on hold over the summer, but is going to be considered again in September.

The Walk-In Centre was created as part of the new Station Plaza Health Complex, opened eight years ago. For many people, who for various reasons can’t get onto a GP list, for example because of GP shortages, this is their only source of primary health care. But the impact will be wider than that. Foreign language students in 4 Hastings, for example, use the centre, as they can’t go to a GP. Its closure could damage local language schools, an important part of the local economy. Moving it to the Conquest Hospital isn’t a realistic option – that just means telling people to go to the hospital A&E department, which is already overstretched. It’s also much harder to get to.

There’s a petition about it on change.org, which you can find here:

http://bit.ly/SaveStationPlaza

There will be also be paper petitions at various street stalls around town over the next couple of weeks, including stalls at Station Plaza from 17th – 21st September – look out for those, and sign it if you can.

Council Funding Consultation

A new ‘technical consultation’ published by the government shows how the government continues to shift grants and funding away from councils in more deprived areas, and to councils in wealthier areas, in subtle ways that are tied up in technical detail that never gets any media coverage.

There are several proposals, but two particularly significant ones. Firstly, on New Homes Bonus. This has always benefited geographically larger, rural councils, as they have more space to build homes. To make matters worse, the government introduced a threshold, which meant councils get no NHB if less than 0.4% of their total housing stock is built in their area. For a geographically small, densely populated town such as Hastings, it’s difficult to get over that threshold because there isn’t as much space to build a lot of new homes, we have very few suitable sites, and no ‘green field’ sites at all. What would be fairer would be to base the bonus on the targets (approved by the government) in each council’s local plan. But rather than that, they’re proposing to increase NHB per property, but raise the threshold even higher. This would mean Hastings could never get above the threshold, so would get no NHB. But councils in rural, generally wealthier areas would get a lot more.

The second one relates to the way the government phases out Revenue Support Grant. Back in 2010, Hastings got around £10m in RSG (or its equivalent), but that’s now shrunk to less than £2m, and will disappear altogether in a couple of years’ time. It’s not been replaced with anything else. The plan was that as RSG reduced, some councils (the ones in wealthier areas who received less RSG) would be in ‘negative RSG’, so they would have to repay some money they collected in council tax and business rates. But the consultation says that idea was ‘unpopular’ (ie with rich Tory councils), so there will be no negative RSG. That means there will be less (or no) grant to councils in poorer areas, to compensate for the much higher level of 5 business rates and council tax collected in wealthier areas, because of higher house prices and higher business rates.

These consultations form part of the government’s ‘fair funding review’, which, based on this and other evidence, we don’t believe will be remotely fair to Hastings and similar urban areas with significant levels of deprivation and poverty. So for now, we’re assuming that this review will provide nothing at all for Hastings and are basing our future financial plans on that assumption.

Medium Term Financial Strategy

Hastings Council approved its MediumTerm Financial Strategy at its Cabinet meeting this month. But the strategy does not make comfortable reading. Over the next three years, a £3m gap emerges in the council’s finances. This includes an extra million pounds a year that we’ll have to pay to replace the current street cleansing and refuse collection contract when it ends next year – the current contract with Kier was hopelessly under-priced, resulting in poor performance, which is one of the reasons it’s ending early.

Back in 2010, Hastings Council received around £12m in grant support from central government. Taking into account changes in the types of grant and new grants such as New Homes Bonus and local retention of part of business rates, that overall support has dropped to under £2m – a total cumulative loss of funding amounting to over £40m over eight years, from a net budget of just £14m.

Not surprisingly, that has led to service cuts and job losses – the council’s staffing level has halved from 600 to 300 over the last eight years. This has been achieved without huge cuts in frontline services because we’ve invested in new technologies to streamline service administration, built a new website that allows almost all transactions with the council to be undertaken online, and have ‘re-engineered’ services to make sure they’re as efficient as possible. And we’ve undertaken new income generation initiatives (such as the purchase of commercial properties) to offset these huge grant cuts to some extent. So finding another £3m a year in cuts and savings is going to be difficult – there are no more easy savings left to make.

We will need to generate more income – making these savings by service reductions alone would mean a loss of over 100 jobs, which would leave too few staff to carry out even the most basic statutory services. It’s going to be hard to achieve.

But Hastings Council is not alone in its plight. We still have a good level of reserves – we have not had to use them at all to cover day-to-day spending, so far. And our auditor has praised us for the way we’ve used reserves to date, to help generate income through an ‘invest to save’ programme. Other councils are in a much worse 6 financial position. Northamptonshire, Torbay, Surrey, East Sussex, and Rutland have all recently been reported as being close to running out of money.

In practice, local government is no longer financially sustainable. Over the next couple of years, there is a lengthy list of councils that will simply run out of money – for most of them, there is little they can do to avoid that. So far, the government seems to be ignoring this crisis, and doing nothing at all to make sure essential local services, from emptying the bins to care for elderly people, can continue to be provided.

Council Tax Reduction Scheme

This is a scheme that was introduced a few years back to replace Council Tax benefit. CT benefit was paid directly by the government but administered by the council (as Housing Benefit is now). But the government decided to give councils a lump sum broadly equivalent to what they were paying in CT benefit at the time – councils had to come up with their own local schemes to allocate it. Since then, the government lump sum has been cut back year on year and is supposed to be part of our overall grant settlement – but that’s disappearing in a couple of years entirely.

So we’re left with a CT reduction scheme that costs Hastings Council around £1.5m a year, plus administration. One way we could save a lot of money from this is to introduce a minimum payment for everyone – most councils require everyone to pay at least 20% of their CT. But we have a manifesto commitment to maintain our 100% CT reduction for the poorest in the borough – we’re one of only 28 councils that still do that.

One of the complications with the current scheme is that because people’s Universal Credit often changes from one week to the next, this means their CT reduction has to be recalculated every week, and they have to receive a new CT bill every week, which is cumbersome and expensive to do. So we’re proposing to introduce a banded system that would mean that they’d only get a new CT bill and a recalculation when they crossed from one income band into another. There would be winners and losers in this – for some, they could get more income and not see an increase in their CT bill, for others they might lose income, but their CT bill wouldn’t reduce.

Changes in the Council Tax Reduction Scheme have to be subject to a consultation, which is now available at:

https://www.hastings.gov.uk/my_council/consultations/ctaxreduction-2018/

Seafood and Wine Festival

Don’t miss what has become one of the biggest Hastings festivals, the council-run Seafood and Wine Festival, on the weekend of 14th and 15th September.

Enjoy seafood caught off the shores of Hastings with wine from local vineyards and retailers, along with many other tasty treats from local restaurants and producers. There will be non-stop live music, family entertainment, hands-on cooking demonstrations and a beer festival run by a local microbrewery. Wristbands for the whole weekend cost £3 on the gate, £2 in advance from the Tourist Information Centre (children are free).

The next fishy festival will be the Herring Fair in November, a much lower-key affair held under cover, more for the locals than the visitors (although visitors are welcome, of course!). And that one’s still free to enter.

 

That’ll do for now – if you’d like more information on any of this, email me at

cllr.peter.chowney@hastings.gov.uk.

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