The additional £1million a year Hastings Borough Council (HBC) needs to find to pay for its new street cleaning service is set to put significant strain on council finances.
HBC’s cabinet approved a ‘medium term financial strategy’ last week, a strategy that council leader Peter Chowney says, “does not make comfortable reading.”
That strategy demonstrates that there will be a £3m shortfall in the council’s finances and Mr Chowney points out this ‘includes an extra million pounds a year that we’ll have to pay to replace the current street cleansing and refuse collection contract when it ends next year.’
He says: “The current contract with Kier was hopelessly under-priced, resulting in poor performance, which is one of the reasons it’s ending early.” And he points out that HBC has lost around £10million a year in direct government funding with the council’s staffing level halfing from 600 to 300 over the last eight years.
“This has been achieved without huge cuts in frontline services because we’ve invested in new technologies to streamline service administration, built a new website that allows almost all transactions with the council to be undertaken online, and have ‘re-engineered’ services to make sure they’re as efficient as possible. And we’ve undertaken new income generation initiatives to offset these huge grant cuts so finding another £3m a year in cuts and savings is going to be difficult – there are no more easy savings left to make.”
He says the council needs to generate more income because making the savings by service reductions alone would mean a loss of over 100 jobs and he says that would leave too few staff to carry out even the most basic statutory services.
“It’s going to be hard to achieve but HBC is not alone in its plight. We still have a good level of reserves – we have not had to use them at all to cover day-to-day spending – so far,” he says.
Rob Lee who heads the opposition group on HBC and who attended last week’s cabinet meeting says the Labour controlled council has been ‘in denial’ about the state of its finances: “From next year the Labour led council is going to be running at a substantial deficit. The leadership of the council has publicly at least been in denial about the dire financial situation, only just before the borough council elections this year Mr Chowney said at a full council meeting that we were ‘having a year off from austerity,’ we now clearly see that this is not the case and council officers have said that services will have to shrink to accommodate the lack of funds in the accounts.”
Mr Lee says the attitude of the controlling group has been a surprise he claims they have had many opportunities to make spending reductions and have refused.
“Over two successive budgets in 2017 and 2018 I made the case for savings which would have included some job reductions. These savings would have made the situation we are in now easier to deal with and the reductions last drastic. They would also have kept the Harold Place toilets open. These helpful amendments I produced were flatly voted against by Labour on what could only have been partisan grounds,” says Mr Lee.
He is also critical of the new street cleaning contract which despite costing the council £1million per year more does not guarantee cleaner streets, he says: “I warned the Labour councillors would mean inevitable job cuts elsewhere in the council, they didn’t believe me and voted for it anyway and here we are now only in September and the slimming down of the authority will have to begin.”
He says HBC has had a financial reality check and needs to act on it and talking about the summer events programme that has ben running on The Stade says: “I enjoy the cultural activities that the council pays for but they shouldn’t be prioritised over other services and schemes.”