On a frosty winter morning, the chamber and its members fought the snow and ice to battle the first chamber meeting of the year, greeted by the warmth of ever-welcoming Hastings Centre.
And just to warm us up a little more, the leader of Hastings Borough Council, Councillor Peter Chowney joined us to discuss the chill wind that continues to blow through Council coffers, explaining that they are facing yet another gap in the budget for the coming year of over £3 million – 20 percent of the total net budget.
Presenting to a packed-out room, Chowney explained how HBC have had to cover that gap due to the cuts to the Revenue Support Grant, the primary grant received from central government, by a mixture of service cuts, efficiency savings, and income generation.
‘We’ve had to replace reductions in funding wherever we can by raising money locally. We’ve done this by increasing fees and charges, raising Council Tax by approximately 15p per week, and other income generation, notably commercial property purchases, which have generated over £700,000 a year in additional net annual income. ‘Overall this will cover about half the gap, and we’ll have to take around £1.8m from reserves over the coming year to find further savings or generate additional income to cover that gap next year.’
Although local councils have no control over the level of business rates, HBC is participating in an East Sussex pilot scheme this year whereby 75 per cent of the business rates collected in Hastings is retained locally, rather than the current 50 per cent. However, describing this as “75 per cent local business rate retention” is misleading. Hastings Council will retain 44 per cent of the business rates, with 27 per cent going to the county council and four per cent to the East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service.
“That means Hastings Council would theoretically get to keep £9.5m in business rates – except that many local authorities are subject to a business rate ‘tariff’ which means Hastings gives £5.5m of this to the government so they can redistribute it to other councils, with some of it possibly coming back as a ‘top-up’. The overall result will potentially allow Hastings to gain £50,000, but all the while losing many times that in government grants.”
However, it’s not all bad news, ‘We will continue to bid for external grants to fund projects that help us meet our priorities, he said. “We’ve been very successful at this, raising millions over the last couple of years for additional targeted support for rough sleepers, a series of employment and community development projects in the most deprived parts of town, improvements to the seafront, funding to help our local fishery, and more.’
‘We’re also bringing our street cleaning service back in-house, running it directly rather than through an external contractor. This will give us more control over the service, making it more responsive and helping us to improve standards of cleanliness across the town. We’ll also continue to look at new ways to tackle the challenges we’re facing, including homelessness, deprivation, and climate change, as well as continuing existing cultural regeneration initiatives which have helped the local economy.’
‘We will continue to generate new income where possible, for example through our own housing company that will both buy existing housing and start developing council-owned sites, energy generation, and other projects. We’ll also be investigating marketing our ‘My Hastings’ online reporting and payments framework to other councils.
As well as this, the council are seeking to gain external funding from SELEP (South East Local Enterprise Partnership) to create new start-up business units, and that they are planning short term revenue generation with the redevelopment of in-house waste services Direct Service Organisation and development of housing.
This year will be HBC’s toughest budget ever, but Chowney remained relatively optimistic and hopeful over, regarding the Governments Fair Funding Review is taking place this year he suggested that ‘we are not holding out for any further funding, hoping we don’t recieve less.’ The review will set new baseline funding allocations for local authorities based on an assessment of their relative needs and resources, using the best available evidence, “We will do all we can to be more efficient, improve our performance and customer care, and get the very best for local people and businesses while also focussing on the longer-term vision of redeveloping our leisure and cultural assets with flagship projects such as the Bohemia Quarter into something that will attract visitors and users of the area.”
We also heard from Carole Dixon from Education Futures Trust on the plans for The Firs, also known as Health & Wellbeing Hub in North East Hastings. Its goal is to enable the local community to access services and information and to improve the health & wellbeing of those living locally with multiple outdoor facilities and sustainable green space. CCG funding has been allocated to set up the systems to enable this to happen and they’re looking for your views. Please take a look at their website and their concept master plan for more information.
Moreover, for those looking for adventure, Carole has kindly offered free meals at EFT’s newest venture, the Aspiring Chefs Programme at Stade Hall. You can find out more from this link on the flyer, but if you email Carole or call 01424 722241, you can book your cover at the restaurant for a reduced fee, helping to make a positive impact for secondary school pupils have a chance to experience first-hand kitchen experience with professional chefs, and catch yourself a top grade sustainable seafood meal.
See you later this month as we take a trip to North Bexhill to chamber members’ Park Holidays offices, in conjunction with Institute of Directors, to hear from Agent, Andrew Holder, for our February breakfast briefing with the Bank of England.