Hastings Borough Council Leader’s report March 2018

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

Hastings Council Budget 2018-19

The details of the budget were included in last month’s report, so I won’t write it all again. However, the budget and corporate plan were agreed at the full council meeting on February 21st, with all Labour councillors supporting it, all Conservative group members opposing both the corporate plan and the budget, and the one independent member abstaining on both.

The headlines though are as follows:

  • No cuts to frontline services, no increase to parking charges, no staff redundancies;
  • Council tax increase of 2.99% (the maximum possible without a
  • Future focus on income generation, through purchases of commercial property, residential properties, and sustainable energy generation;
  • There is some limited growth in the budget, to take forward our proposals to develop plans for the renewed White Rock Gardens and ‘Bohemia Quarter’, but also to cope with the national homelessness crisis.

The Conservative group put forward an amendment to the budget, which included £150,000 to restore Harold Place toilets, and £80,000 a year to re-open them. But it also included £700,000 a year in largely unspecified other service cuts, and a cancellation of the commercial property purchase programme, making further deep cuts necessary in future years. This amendment was defeated.

Back in 2010, the council received £12.7m in Formula Grant and Area Based Grant from the government. Those grants have now been replaced by Revenue Support Grant, local retention of business rates, and New Homes Bonus, all of which provide just £3.9m for 2018/19. So the council has lost a total of £45m in funding over that period.

Many services have been cut, and there are far fewer people working for the council now than there were in 2010 (about 370, compared with over 600 in 2010). Valuable services have been lost, such as the community support team which used to consult local residents on council proposals, and helped organise residents’ associations and other representative structures. All that has now gone, because the grants for it have been cut. We used to have 32 street wardens, working in every ward in the borough. Now we have just nine.

However, over the last couple of years, we’ve been focussing much more on income generation. Since 2016/17, we’ve generated an additional £2.2m a year in additional income. Most of that is from commercial property purchases, which have gained around £1.5m in net income. Energy generation could realise a significant income, although that will be longer term. So for the future, we will be focussing on making efficiency savings wherever we can, but also on generating more commercial property purchases, housing acquisitions and development.

Nevertheless, further service cuts could well be necessary, unless the government comes to its senses and restores funding to local government. Local government is becoming financially unsustainable, with one council (Northamptonshire) already running out of money. More will follow, unless either government policy changes, or we get a new government.

You can see the detailed agreed budget here.

Bayeux Tapestry

Since the plan to bring the Bayeux Tapestry to the UK in five years’ time was announced, a campaign has been growing to bring the tapestry to Hastings, which seems the logical place to display it. Hastings Council is supporting this campaign, as is our MP.

That raises the question about where it could be displayed. There are some existing venues in town that could be possible, but my preferred option would be to display it in a new, purpose-built venue.

The council has had a plan for some time to build a new two-storey visitor centre for Hastings Castle on the West Hill. This would incorporate a level-access walkway from the upper floor to ‘Ladies’ Parlour’ (the field immediately east of the castle), with access to the castle over a new bridge to the original main gateway of the castle.

So far, there has been no funding to build the visitor centre, but the upper floor would seem to be an ideal place to display the tapestry, so people could walk directly to Hastings Castle, William’s first castle in England, along the walkway after viewing the tapestry. This could help to get the funding needed to build the visitor centre, which could be fitted out as a museum/visitor centre after the tapestry departed.

It’s just an idea at the moment, but one we’re working on.

Discretionary Business Rates Relief Scheme

The government has given all councils a grant to help some businesses in their transition to higher business rates. This grant was for a fixed sum (£270,000 for this year in Hastings), but councils had to come up with a scheme that distributed the grant – if they give out more than the grant total, they have to pay the extra themselves. If they pay out less, they have to give the unpaid grant back to the government. The scheme meant that council could decide which types of businesses got the relief (the ‘discretionary’ bit), which is how the spending of the total was to be controlled.

Hastings Council was criticised for being slow off the mark, getting forms out to businesses later than other councils in East Sussex. But we said that we wanted to ensure we had a scheme that worked and guaranteed that we spent the full grant amount. Our eventual scheme excluded some specific types of business from the scheme, including betting shops, payday loan companies and pawnbrokers, as well as public sector bodies.

But now, we are the only council in East Sussex that has managed to distribute all our grant money to local businesses. All the others have underspends of between £50,000-100,000, money that will have to be returned to the government and will be lost to local businesses.

Ashdown Forest Planning Pickle

For internal political reasons in Wealden, surrounding opposition to plans to build many new homes in the district, Wealden Council has issued a blanket objection to all development that involves any additional car movements, however small, across all councils in the region. This is because they have evidence (which is genuine) that pollution from cars is affecting Ashdown Forest and Pevensey Levels SACs (Special Areas of Conservation). However, they have extrapolated this to claim that any development anywhere in a dozen or so other councils in the region will damage Ashdown Forest. So that means they are objecting to all planning applications that involve even one additional car (so one house, for example), even though Hastings is over 30km from the Ashdown Forest at its nearest boundary.

This move in effect freezes all housing development in much of South East England. But Wealden has said that they will apply for judicial review of any development that’s approved by any of the councils. Along with other affected councils, we’re going ahead with smaller developments that Wealden haven’t put in a specific objection to, but we’re putting bigger applications on hold, pending further legal and environmental advice.

This one will run for a while yet though and could hit the national headlines when government and the press twig what the implications are. But for now, Wealden Council’s actions are blocking development in Hastings, and costing local tax payers money in having to deal with it and get (often expensive) external advice.

St Leonards Post Office

I seem to be putting out an update on this every month. We have had confirmation from Sajid Javid (Secretary of State for Communities) following an enquiry by our MP that if Hastings Council wants to take on running the post office, it would have to do so through a council-owned company that followed the rules applied to other private companies.

However, the Crown Post Office in St Leonards has now gone, with a temporary franchise being run by a company called Potent Solutions. I met with local campaigners recently to discuss potential next steps, and what appetite there would be for the council to buy the freehold of the building and run the post office franchise through a separate company. The company could draw its directors from local businesses and the local community and would employ the ‘postmaster/mistress’ and other council staff.

I did look around the post office building recently, after the council put in an expression of interest. But it’s not an easy building to work with, being a sort of thin L-shape – not really possible to convert the upper floor to housing as we’d hoped, and a lot of the ground floor is taken up by huge walk-in safes that can’t be removed.

The franchised post office would take up less space than the current arrangements, when fitted out, and would free up a significant area for potential retail use. The upstairs spaces could be let out in some way, too. But whether that would generate enough income (along with the fee Post Office Ltd pays for running a post office) to employ staff, pay rates, utilities, and the repayment costs for the council’s loan to buy the building, is a moot point. Nevertheless, we are going to look at it further (ie both the council and the local campaign group), and the council has asked Post Office Ltd how long we’ve got to put together a business plan, as well as whether the arrangement where the post office is run through a council owned company, rather than by the council itself, is acceptable to them.

Coastal Communities Fund

This is a competitive fund that has a new bidding round every year, and has just opened for the fifth year. Hastings Council will be putting in a bid for CCF5 – we’ve been successful in every CCF bid we’ve put in, so far.

CCF4 had a number of projects in it, which are getting to the stage now of being implemented (the money has to be spent by the end of this year). These are:

  • White Rock Fountain – this is a scheme to create a play and garden space in the abandoned fountains above White Rock Baths (now The Source skatepark). The original designs were made available for consultation on the council’s website, and 277 responses were received – almost all positive, although some design modifications are being done resulting from the consultation. Work on the revised feature will be completed in the Autumn.
  • The Source – the bid included funding a coaching programme, which is underway now, and going well.
  • Seafront Wi-Fi – this was to extend the seafront wi-fi network originally funded through CCF3. That’s now in place.
  • Improvements to Claremont Alley (the area behind the gates beside The Printworks) – negotiations with local businesses about this have been taking place, the work will take place later in the year to open this area to the public and use if for markets, events, etc.
  • Rock House – funding was made available for work to create more small business start-up spaces, which is now complete.

Round 5 of the Coastal Communities Fund is a two-stage bidding programme, with an estimated £40m bidding pot. The available funds can’t be spent until 1st April 2019 and the programme will run for two years.

EU Funding

Despite Brexit, we’re still submitting bids to EU funds, as UK organisations and authorities will be able to bid at least until 2020. Hastings Council currently has bids in for around £3m, but there will be more before the shutters come down. There are three bids in the pipeline at the moment, all of which we believe we have a strong chance of winning, covering funding for projects including a sustainable transport link along the seafront.

That’s on top of the £1m for the Fisheries Local Action Group and £4m (over £7m with match funding) for the Community Led Local Development project I reported on last month. There’s no guarantee any of this funding will be replaced by the UK government post-Brexit.

A New Season

Last month, Hastings Fat Tuesday Music Festival took place. From its beginnings nine years ago, Fat Tuesday has gone from strength to strength, and is now the biggest Mardi Gras festival in the UK. Around a hundred artists and bands played at different venues across town, culminating with Fat (Shrove) Tuesday itself. It’s a brilliant showcase for the creative musical talent we have in the area, with a few big names from elsewhere. And there was the Umbrella Parade too – beautiful weather, and again the biggest one so far, by some way, including a wonderful mechanical elephant! Congratulations to the organisers on a best-ever Fat Tuesday, now firmly established as one of the year’s major events.

Then last Sunday, there was the Chinese New Year celebration, in Priory Meadow shopping centre, a colourful reminder of the increasing cultural diversity in Hastings, and how immigrant communities have helped with the town’s regeneration.

So far this year, we’ve already had the International Chess Congress, Fat Tuesday, and Chinese New Year, with the International Piano Concerto competition and the International Musical Festival taking place now. And of course, that’s just the start of a season of festivals throughout the rest of the year, including Jack-in-the-Green, Hastings Folk Festival, Pirate Day, Stade Saturdays, St Leonards Festival, Hastings Beer and Music Festival, Pirate Day, Hastings Carnival, Hastings Pride, International Composers’ Festival, Seafood and Wine Festival, Coastal Currents Visual Arts Festival, Hastings Fringe Performing Arts Festival, Hastings Week and Bonfire, Herring Fair, Hastings Storytelling Festival, Hastings Illustration Festival … and more! Enjoy the year in Hastings.

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Hastings and Rye Labour