Ask what your Council can do for you
Kent Barker considers what the priorities should be for the new council and offers some praise – and some brickbats – for their current activities
So Labour are back in charge of Hastings Borough Council (HBC) for at least the next two years and almost certainly four. Despite boundary changes and the unusual situation of having the entire council elected at one time, Labour has retained control with 24 seats to the Conservatives 8, giving them a very comfortable majority of 16.
Many HIP readers and writers will, no doubt, welcome the result, believing that a Labour council will be much more responsive to the problems of Hastings than a Conservative administration would ever be. But that will not protect the council from criticism. Opposition to the closure of the Harold Place toilets quite rightly gained considerable support. Everybody has a view of what their council should, or should not be doing. Meanwhile, Leader Peter Chowney has the unenviable task of trying to run services for a complex town like Hastings with decreasing support from central government. Indeed by 2019/2020 there could be no direct funding at all from Westminster – and currently there is no ability to increase Council Tax above 2.99%.
So, we asked a selection of HIP section editors, writers and readers what they thought the priorities for the newly elected council should be. Here is a synthesis of their thoughts.
Core to the council’s budget strategy for 2018/9 is to increase its property lettings business. Essentially central government allows councils to borrow money at extremely favourable interest rates. HBC has already ploughed some of this money into commercial property and has just begun to borrow to invest in domestic housing. It won’t officially be ‘council’ or social housing which carries the right to buy. Instead HBC will be operating as a private landlord. There may be no viable alternative to this, and many would welcome a return to real council housing, but should the HBC be interfering in or skewing the market for rented property without providing affordable rents and real security of tenure? Hastings’ residents will need to monitor this closely and encourage the council to find ways to become an old fashioned social landlord rather than one driven by the – often unsavory – private market.
HIP writers have covered numerous stories about the Planning Committee and its perceived unresponsiveness to local views and opinions. The furore over Combe Valley and the Ecclesbourne Glen ‘bunker’ development in the Country Park, and indeed the entire Rocklands caravan site are examples. And there is a widespread perception that the planners are far too chummy with developers – or at least allow developers to hold sway over the normal procedures. We are not in any way suggesting the type of Poulson corruption that tainted local authorities in the 1960s and 70s, but the perception is that the planning department is not nearly tough enough. They argue that they have to follow national rules and guidelines and that they face expensive appeals or litigation if they behave ‘unreasonably’. The Planning Committee will be appointing a new chair and HIP hopes that he or she will be rather more vigorous than some previous incumbents – especially when it comes to getting section 106 money from developers to build social housing. Let’s have a campaigning council – not one that appears cowed by central government diktats or developers’ hard luck stories.
THE STREETS OF HASTINGS
Like many other coastal towns, Hastings residents suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. To take the pressure off the NHS, Hastings and St Leonards needs a funded ‘drop in centre’ where residents can seek advice, direction and information on community groups and counselling. St Leonards High Street (London Rd) requires a police officer to be on patrol Monday – Friday in order to prevent and deter crime. With many people injecting drugs on the streets, both Hastings and St Leonards should have a council-funded ‘safe zone’ where drug users can inject, get help if required and also dispose of used needles. The council must also continue and extend its help for the homeless and street sleepers.
THE ROADS OF HASTINGS
In 2005 HBC voted to allow a trial of a shared space cycling route in the town centre. That trial never took place. There is no legal cycling route from the station to the sea-front that doesn’t involve crossing major roads. And what happened to the Alexandra Park cycle route? The council really needs to address the needs of cyclists and encourage much greater participation – and that includes vigorously lobbying the County Council to fix the potholes!
Environmental concerns are a tricky area for HBC – not least because financial or policy control is often located elsewhere, hence the recent East Sussex Council cut-backs to the Greenway plans, and current government proposals to take local wildlife
life sites out of the national planning policy framework.
On the plus side, the borough’s parks and gardens, notably St Leonards and Alexandra, deserve credit for their presentation – it can’t all be brickbats, some council staff at grassroots level (sorry) clearly demonstrate a commitment to our environment.
MUSIC ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
Encouraging, facilitating and sometimes funding music events is something the council does well. It adds considerably to the town’s self image and is a powerful magnet to attract visitors. Other arts do not get the same encouragement. HIP remains concerned about the amount of council tax used to subsidise the White Rock Theatre. Pantos and other ‘middle-brow’ productions clearly have a place in the town – but arguably not a heavily subsidised place. There are small experimental and avant-garde theatre groups that need money and indeed access to the sort of space taken up by the old and tired theatre. Given that it can borrow government money at low interest rates, the council should be looking for some really imaginative solutions.
In a braver political world, borough councils might be empowered to raise and spend more money on transformational community projects – in Hastings this could include support of the pier, development of the White Rock area, Combe Valley, the Harbour project (oops, not that). Our new and returned councillors would no doubt love to associate themselves with such initiatives. But they and we do not live in
a socialist Eden. There are instead basic functions to address: collecting and recycling rubbish, street cleaning and toilet provision, maintenance of parks, gardens and beaches etc. They require competence rather than imagination, councillors
get little credit for them, they aren’t (or shouldn’t be) the stuff of political intrigue.
But if they are disregarded, no heap of charismatic ideas will make amends.
We hope you have enjoyed reading this article from Hastings Independent. The future of this volunteer led, non-profit publication would be far more secure with the aid of a small donation. It only takes a minute and we would be very grateful.