After its Christmas recess Hastings Chamber returned with its usual optimistic air looking forward to the New Year, despite remaining mindful of the ongoing lack of certainty the business community still craves.
The winter continues to drag on its mild and damp state, some might argue in parallel with the political climate. As with the seasons we are starting to see the first shoots of clarity; nationally, we have a new government, finally with a majority to get things done and we have officially left the EU. Arguably another damp squib as nothing has changed other than knowing there is now no going back.
Whether for or against BREXIT there still remains so much uncertainty. The government has yet to clearly set out its stool; the impending government reshuffle and budget will hopefully provide some clarity; we’ve left the EU but in truth neither know and will really start to feel the effects until after 2020.
Locally, we say a fond farewell to the leader of the council which in turn raises many unknowns; who will replace him and what can they do differently to address the ongoing budget deficits that continue to challenge Hastings, as they do councils up and down the land.
Addressing the present and future of Hastings Borough and it’s leadership, Cllr Peter Chowney decided to announce before this meeting that he was going to step down as Council Leader after five long years in the role. Whilst this chamber will miss him, and we look forward to meeting his replacement, he did not want to dwell on sentiment when he got stuck in with his rather sobering and all too familiar New Year message.
Reflecting an ever more challenging financial position as warned last year, Cllr Chowney revealed that their projected deficit for 2019/20 is now £2.116m. Listing out the challenges faced include but are not limited to: cuts in government grants, increased pressure on council services for temporary accommodation, and continuing to ‘meet the needs of our town and our deprived communities with fewer resources across the public sector.’
Cllr Chowney went on, highlighting other significant additional demands on council services include increased contract costs and unavoidable situations such as cliff and reservoir works, cliff railways and reduced income streams, including the business rates baseline was down by nearly 10%. This has meant that the Council Tax had to increase by 1.99%, the maximum allowed.
Forecasts of the deficit were worse last year than this year. Still though, there is a shortfall as the government grant has been cut extensively in the previous ten years, with increased volatility in rents, business rates, and pressure on public services and council services. He made it clear that as a council they had to ‘transition to a different council, doing different things, funded in different ways with less certainty,’ taking active steps to restructure and investigate new revenue and commercial ventures.
With over a further 30 full-time positions being either restructured or already deleted, the Council are taking significant steps to reduce on spending, with over £1.9m savings identified and £804k of growth subject to the business case. They have also made a renewed pledge for the climate change commitment.
Due to the recent identification of efficiency savings and service cuts of £1.9m, the following year budget shortfall of £1.25m will also be sourced from reserves, which will leave reserves only just above minimum recommended levels. It is expected the deficit will be reduced to £573,000 by 2023/24.
So it is clear the future remains significantly challenging and perhaps more difficult as reserves may not be available to fall back on in the future, but the Council look on to the outcome of the Government’s 2020 Spending Review and the Fair Funding Review to inform the financial position from 2021/22 onwards.
Similarly, the economic climate for business remains significantly challenging; the lack of clarity continues to dampen investment and the shoots of growth that are ever more needed after the past 3 1/2 years of paralysis.
We remain confident though about the future and call on both national and local governments to take the opportunities that will undoubtedly present themselves as we move through this year and beyond to help rebuild confidence and stimulate growth that has been suppressed for far too long now. With the future in mind our next meeting will be held on Friday 28th February when we welcome the new Hastings and Rye MP, Sally Ann Hart. So whilst the budget will still be a few weeks away, the cabinet reshuffle should have happened and so we should have some indication of the direction of travel and of course, failing all else there’s still BREXIT to discuss!
For more Information on our next meeting https://hastingschamber.co.uk/event/february-breakfast-3/
For more information, the draft Corporate Plan and budget are available: www.hastings.gov.uk
The next Council leader will be elected in March, to be named later this month.
Ready for Brexit?
Steve Piper, Business Navigator for Business East Sussex was also welcomed onto the stage in the finale of January’s chamber to deliver information about the support available in the face of Brexit and what to expect for your business. Please get in touch with Steve if you have any enquires about how to get prepped for Britain’s exit out of the European Union: firstname.lastname@example.org