Labour and Conservative councillors traded insults at a full (and live) meeting of Hastings Borough Council last week as they debated the council’s plans to build 200 new homes on the site of Harrow Lane playing fields.

Leader of the council, Cllr Kim Forward had introduced her “programme of the year”, already approved by cabinet, which sets out seven “priority themes” (for more details, see Green Agenda Within Approved Programme). It was theme number five – “Maximising the supply of affordable housing” – which became the focus of division between the rival parties. 

No one on either side of the political divide denied the need for more residential housing in the borough, nor that there is a priority need for those currently homeless. But several councillors had attended a protest rally at Harrow Lane the previous Saturday – Conservatives opposing the planned development, Labour defending it – and the confrontational rhetoric of that occasion spilled over into the council chamber.

View from Harrow Lane playing field
CREDIT: Dave Young

Tory opposition

Cllr Andy Patmore, leading the Tory opposition, pointed out the extent of hostility amongst local residents. “Delivering new housing and increasing the access to affordable homes always proves to be a highly contentious and emotive subject”, he told the meeting. “The key, surely, is to take the people of the town with you on this difficult journey. Residents have been extremely vocal about losing their green recreational spaces for housing. They aren’t moaners and they aren’t all NIMBYs [‘Not In My Back Yard’], but they are genuinely concerned to lose local amenity space. We must explore all alternative opportunities for development before we give up our ever-shrinking green spaces”.

Other Conservative councillors weighed in. Cllr Mike Edwards claimed that there were already 420 existing or pending planning approvals in the immediate vicinity despite existing road congestion and local health services being already at full capacity. He also argued that social housing was best introduced “as a mixed community and not as an isolated 100% development”. Cllr Paul Foster referred to a petition signed by over a thousand people opposing development. “Yes, you can put desperately needed houses there, we know that we need homes,” he said. “But the people who live there are not going to have anywhere to walk their dogs, no green space to go out there and play football with their kids; there’s going to be no room in the school, no room in the surgery, you’re just creating a nightmare for these people… Building on every bit of green land is not the way to do it.”

Others maintained that the development would breach existing restrictive covenants on the land.

Labour responses

From the Labour side Cllr Mike Turner dismissed these arguments. He said that it was the “Tory government” which had “changed the policy from brownfield to greenfield sites… it’s ‘nimbyism’ and that’s the fact of the matter”. Cllr Peter Chowney, former council leader and now holder of its finance portfolio, challenged the Conservatives to say how else they would plug a three and a half million pound gap in the council’s finances. Investment from the Harrow Lane sale would bring in £250,000 revenue annually. “Whose jobs are you going to cut? What services are you going to cut? How are you going to magic up £250,000 worth of income?”

There were more bitter responses from Labour councillors Claire Carr and Andy Batsford, both of whom had attended the previous Saturday’s protest. 

Cllr Carr told her fellow councillors – “What seems to be being lost in this is that this plan is actually to help the people in Hastings who need it most.” She referred to 300 people housed in temporary accommodation and 3,000 on the council’s waiting list. “They have nowhere to go… we need to build somewhere.” She had heard at the rally “a Tory with a loudspeaker”, whom she did not name, call the development with 100% social housing a ‘ghetto’ – “that rhetoric is disgusting, absolutely disgusting,” she complained.

“Absolute disgrace”

Cllr Batsford, who holds the council portfolio for housing and homelessness, launched a similar attack. “If we don’t bring these houses forward, we are condemning the next generation of our children to yet more inequality, more poverty, less chances of school and education and work chances….I heard ‘200 houses here’, and the word ‘ghetto’ used. My God, I couldn’t be more angry, as a boy brought up on a council estate. It’s just absolute disgrace, and he should be struck off.”

Both sides spoke of the need for central government to introduce mandatory legislation and/or fiscal penalties to force developers sitting on existing development permissions to proceed with them. Cllr Patmore referred to “circa 2,000 unbuilt permissions in our town that equates to a ten-year supply of housing”: he said that he had lobbied the government recently –“and we hope to see legislation on this soon”. 

Cllr Batsford’s response was scathing. “Taxing the landlords is trifling. These are offshore accounts that are just holding this land against the will of the people of Hastings. We need strong CPO [compulsory purchase order] laws which actually give councils the powers, at zero cost, to bring this land back to the people so we can build affordable homes for the people of Hastings and not pander to the offshore accounts, the Panama accounts, that I’m sure some of our ex-MPs are enjoying still.”

A vote was taken in due course to approve the full programme, councillors dividing 19 to 12 on party lines. Green councillor Julia Hilton sided with the approving Labour majority.

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