Hastings Council Leader’s Report: September 2019

Hastings Council Budget

Last week, the Chancellor announced the public spending review in his Autumn Statement, detailing increased public spending across most departments, including local government. The headline additional funding for local government was a £2.7bn increase, but a lot of this was either schemes already announced or additional funding resulting from increased levels of local taxation.

There was additional funding of £1.5bn for adult social care, an amount that had already been stated as the ‘bare minimum’ to stop the adult social care system collapsing completely. There was also some additional funding for public health. However, the only additional funding to come to district councils such as Hastings was £53m (across the entire country) to address homelessness. In practice, this will hopefully continue the funding we’ve already got for tackling rough sleeping, but would fund nothing new. The cap on Council Tax increases was set at 2% – lower than inflation. There was also no mention of any replacement for New Homes Bonus (a grant to district councils based on the number of new homes built in their area), which ends this year. So in practice, what was hailed as an ‘end of austerity’ budget was in fact the opposite, with even more cuts for most councils.

Hastings Council has lost a cumulative total of £55m in funding since 2010. With a budget of only £15m annually, that’s a huge cut in the resources we have available, and has inevitably led to staff redundancies and reduced services. However, it has been mitigated partly by income generating initiatives, most notably the purchase of commercial properties – this has raised an additional net £1m a year since we began the programme three years ago – without that, the budgetary position would be even worse.

As it is, the council has a £1.5m gap in its budget for next year, which we will have to fill by cuts in services and by generating additional income. Income generation could come from more commercial property purchases, but also from ‘commercialisation’ of council services (in particular the new in-house street cleaning service). Sustainable energy generation is another way to generate income that we’re looking into (see next article), but the returns on that will likely be longer-term, and won’t help much with our immediate budget crisis.

So more cuts to council services are inevitable, and job losses. As in previous years, we will try to make sure that compulsory redundancies are kept to a minimum by freezing vacancies, and offering early retirement and voluntary redundancies to staff. For service cuts, we’ll focus on things we can discontinue for a year or two, then recommence when a future government starts funding local government at a sustainable level again.

Beyond next year, we really have no clue about how much money we’ll have. The council has to produce a ‘Medium Term Financial Strategy’ (considered at the cabinet meeting in September) which lays out how we will meet our spending commitments in future years. But future years’ figures are pretty much a work of fiction, as we simply don’t know – the government has given us no clue about how much money councils will have, nor how it will be calculated, in future years.

For now, all we can do is focus on getting next year’s figures to balance. Beyond that, we really have no idea what’s going to happen, whatever government we have!

Solar Panels

Amber Rudd MP recently wrote me a letter about solar arrays on council land and buildings, which she published on her website.

Here is my reply:

“Thank you for your letter about solar arrays in the country park and elsewhere.

Earlier this year, Hastings Council unanimously resolved to work towards making the borough carbon neutral by 2030. In order to achieve that, part of the resolution said that we should:

‘Press ahead with a programme of sustainable energy generation on council-owned and other land and buildings, investigating every viable council-owned site, as well as other sites, aiming towards supplying 30% of the town’s electricity by 2030’.

In order to fulfil that commitment, we already have solar arrays on several council-owned buildings, and are working in partnership with Energise Sussex Coast to install solar arrays on other council buildings. We are also investigating several different sites across the borough and at Upper Wilting Farm in Crowhurst to find out if they’re viable for ground-mounted solar arrays, and to make sure solar arrays in these locations would not cause unacceptable environmental damage. We have engaged Natural England’s Discretionary Advice Service to advise on the environmental consequences of these arrays, and will act on the advice they provide.

The Pebsham landfill site is I’m afraid still not suitable, as the land hasn’t yet settled, so won’t be suitable for several years, we’re advised. As soon as it’s stopped moving, we will look at that site too, but for now there appear to be no solar panels available that could be installed safely on it. I agree with you about solar panels on car parks, and we’re looking at that too. We’re investigating that for our car parks on our industrial estates, but are also looking at the possibility of installing solar arrays above the seafront car parks too. Whether we proceed with these will depend on financial viability.

I’m afraid though that I don’t see these as alternative options. If we’re to get anywhere near our target to make Hastings carbon neutral by 2030, and indeed the Government’s target to make the UK carbon neutral by 2050, we will need a lot more sustainable energy generation, both solar and onshore wind. Many of the solar arrays elsewhere have been highly controversial – there are solar arrays agreed or already installed in AONBs including Pembrokeshire Coast, North Wessex, Cotswolds, and indeed in the High Weald AONB, near East Grinstead. I believe that all of us who recognise that it is imperative that we get to grips with climate change have a responsibility to persuade people that such measures, although controversial and not attractive to some, are essential if we’re to avoid catastrophic consequences. I think all of us in positions of authority need to work together to achieve this. This goes beyond party politics in my view – it’s the biggest crisis that has ever faced our species, and we have to work together to tackle it.”

A report will be going to the council’s cabinet meeting later in the year (possibly next month) about the viability and sustainability of the sites we’ve looked at for potential ground-mounted solar arrays. We’ll then consider which of them we’ll be going ahead with. We all have very serious responsibilities to tackle climate change in any way we can – sustainable energy generation has to be a significant part of that.

Street Drinking

Street drinking has long been a problem in Hastings, and one I’ve mentioned in this report many times. Earlier this year, large groups of street drinkers were congregating on the seafront and in other parts of town, although enforcement activities, coupled with an extension of Public Space Protection Orders, have dispersed them. The problem hasn’t gone away though, but has dispersed into smaller groups at different locations.

Street drinkers are a different problem from rough sleeping. Rough sleepers tend to be transient, moving on quickly, with the more persistent rough sleepers helped into accommodation. Over 90% of rough sleepers in Hastings have no previous local connection. Street drinkers tend to be local, and not homeless. They have often lived here all their lives, or at least for some time. The life expectancy of street drinkers is not long, however, if they don’t receive treatment – average life expectancy of a persistent street drinker is under fifty.

So enforcement is only part of the problem. Simply moving them around isn’t much use, so there’s an escalating process of enforcement that introduces increasingly severe sanctions, with concomitant ‘encouragement’ to take up alcohol recovery treatment.

However, one of the big problems is that there are no residential alcohol recovery facilities in this area – the nearest one is in London. There used to be two in East Sussex, but both closed because their funding was cut. We also have no street drinking outreach service (ie a trained professional who engages with the street drinking community and encourages them to go into treatment). East Sussex County Council commissions local alcohol and drug recovery services – Hastings Council pointed out the need for an outreach worker in Hastings, but ESCC didn’t include that in the contract.

Increased numbers of Police Community Support Officers and a full complement of Hastings Council street wardens will mean that more rigorous enforcement of street drinking restrictions (which mean that in the prescribed areas anyone has to stop drinking if told to do so by a police officer or street warden) will help. But without the services needed to get people into recovery programmes, it’s unlikely to be successful in the long term, and will mean condemning too many of our citizens to an early death. We need these services, and will keep making the arguments to get them established locally.

Town Fund

A new £3.6bn fund to help regenerate 100 of the most deprived towns in the country was recently announced by the government, with Hastings in the 100. No specific amounts were announced for each town, but we understand from our MP that Hastings will be getting £25m. The money will primarily be for infrastructure and other capital works, rather than spending on services.

Any recognition from the current government of the problems facing Hastings is welcome. It doesn’t compare to the £250m+ invested in Hastings regeneration by the Labour government up till 2010, and hardly makes up for the nine years of neglect since then. But we’ve been arguing for a long time about the need for regeneration investment in Hastings. Some months ago, Hastings Council held detailed discussions with civil servants at The Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) about a prospectus for Hastings, seeking long-term planned regeneration funding rather than depending on short-term, one-off competitive funding bids. That proposal was well received by BEIS. So I’m pleased that the case we made seems to have been recognised, and look forward to Hastings Council working with partners to plan how the money Hastings will receive through this scheme should best be spent. In particular, we need to tackle the deep-seated social and economic deprivation in some of our communities, so we must make sure that this funding is targeted to help those communities.

The Battle of Hastings

Last weekend, I attended the annual ‘Battle of Hastings’ event held at The Source skate park, in the former White Rock Baths on the seafront.

For a bit of history, there was an underground swimming pool and treatment baths built here in 1879, by Hastings Corporation. There aren’t many pictures of it, but it was a pretty spectacular place, lined entirely with decorated glazed tiles. Only a tiny part of this version remains, concealed behind the inner walls of the skate park. In the 1930s, Sidney Little (Hastings County Borough’s famous radical borough engineer, also known as the ‘Concrete King’), ‘refurbished’ the baths, ripping out all the old Victorian tiles and replacing them with modern materials (mostly concrete). Much of the Sidney Little structure remains today, with two further levels of the old baths beneath the skatepark, mostly unused.

In 1978, the baths closed and were converted into a skating rink, which subsequently closed in 1997. The building then remained empty and abandoned for almost 20 years, until Rich and Marc Moore, local former BMXers and owners of a BMX and skateboard equipment company, approached Hastings Council with their idea to turn it into the world’s largest underground skatepark (allegedly after an evening drinking session with a council officer somewhere in the Old Town).

The council then found the money, partly from its own reserves and partly from external grants, to refurbish the building structure and get it into a condition where Rich and Marc could fit it out, and open it as The Source in 2016 – since when it’s been an extremely valuable attraction on the seafront.

The ‘Battle of Hastings’ is now in its third year. It has become a significant international event, with some of the best riders in the world competing – including our local star Stuart Chisholm, from Hollington. It’s difficult to find the superlatives to describe this event – gravity-defying, awe-inspiring fabulousness. There were some seasoned BMX pros there who must have seen it all, but were still gasping with amazement at what they were witnessing. Incredible atmosphere – and very noisy!

This summer, The Source also took free BMX events out into our more deprived communities, with sessions at Hollington, Farley Bank, and other locations.

So thanks to Rich and Marc Moore for staging this event, bringing performers and visitors from all over the world to see it, and to see Hastings. It’s live streamed to audiences across the world, too, with lots of plugs for Hastings from the commentator – he seemed to get the word ‘Hastings’ into pretty much every sentence. And thanks too for bringing this long-abandoned structure back to life so effectively.

Coastal Currents

The thirteenth Coastal Currents Visual Arts Festival is also taking place during September. This festival was begun by Hastings Council, spending over £100,000 getting it established in the first few years, before handing the festival over to local arts company ‘Sweet n Dandy’ with some ‘seed corn’ funding to allow the festival to become selfsustaining.

This year, the Open Studios over the first two weekends stretched from Eastbourne to Rye, but mostly concentrated in Hastings and St Leonards (photo shows Claire and Bob Humm at their studio). I spent the first weekend visiting as much of it as I could, and there really was some extraordinary work on display, indicative of the wealth of top-quality artists we now have working in and around Hastings.

Other aspects of the festival include street art (watch out for new works appearing around town), events and participatory workshops – for full details see:

http://coastalcurrents.org.uk/

But thanks again to Tina Morris of ‘Sweet n Dandy’ for organising such a spectacular festival, again. There is less public money around for this sort of thing than there used to be, but it’s an excellent festival nonetheless, which has become a well-established part of the regional and national programme of arts festivals.

Upcoming Festivals

This coming weekend sees two festivals in Hastings – one well established, one new.

On the weekend of 14th – 15th September, the Hastings Council Seafood and Wine festival will take place on the Stade Open Space, with stalls selling local street food, fish, wine, beer, and cider, as well as music and other events.

Back again for another year is the popular ‘Jazz Breakfast’ with Liane Carroll and friends on the Sunday morning (10am – 12pm, doors 9am). Tickets for the Jazz Breakfast are available from Hastings Tourist Information Centre: Adults £19 / £10 children (17 and under). Ticket price includes continental breakfast from award winning 1066 Bakery – and Seafood and Wine Festival weekend wristbands.

For the rest of the festival, adult wristbands for the whole weekend are £2.50 in advance from the Hastings Tourist Information Centre or £4 on the gate; children under 18 go free – gates open at 11am on Saturday. No dogs are allowed on site other than assist dogs.

So get a wristband and come along – weather forecast for the weekend is (at the moment) looking good!

The following weekend, there’s the West Hill Festival, a new community festival that’s starting for the first time this year. The festival includes guided walks, performances and concerts, a heritage exhibition, and rides on ‘Happy Harold’ (the restored 1928 Hastings open-top trolleybus, owned by Hastings Council and maintained by the Hastings Trolleybus Society).

For full details of the festival and its events, see:

http://hastingsandstleonardssociety.org.uk/west-hill-hastings-local-heritageand-community-festival-project/

Hastings Heroes

To celebrate 30 years supporting voluntary sector organisations in Hastings, Hastings Voluntary Action (HVA) is fundraising to produce a giant photomosaic, made up of pictures of ‘heroes of Hastings’. This will include some of our historic heroes, such as Alan Turing, Sophie Jex-Blake, John Logie Baird, Muriel Matters, and others, but will also include pictures of local people who are contributing to their local community today, and have done over the last 30 years.

You can submit photos online at:

https://thepeoplespicture.com/hva/

HVA will be looking for grants to fund the project, and will probably crowdfund it too. They’ve identified a photomosaic artist to do the work (Helen Marshall) who has done similar works in other towns. The finished work would be printed on a large aluminium sheet and displayed somewhere prominent, probably on the seafront. The image that will be made up from all the photos in the mosaic has yet to be decided, but probably whoever is judged to be Hastings’ greatest hero by a popular vote (my money’s on Alan Turing).

The picture shows a photomosaic by Helen Marshall of suffragette Hilda Burkitt at Birmingham New Street station.

That’ll do for now – if you’d like more information on any of this, leave a message on 01424 451066, or e-mail at cllr.peter.chowney@hastings.gov.uk

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