Ambitious, optimistic and fighting for the resources it needs

Earlier this month Hastings Borough Council (HBC) held its ‘Annual Full Council’ meeting at which Nigel Sinden was re-elected as Mayor and Peter Chowney was re-elected as Leader of the Council.

Mr Chowney also leads the ruling Labour group on HBC which occupies 23 of the 32 seats. Of the remainder eight are held by Conservative councillors and one by independent councillor Dany Louise who resigned her Labour party membership earlier this year saying she had become increasingly frustrated by the level of antisemitism in Labour under Mr Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

Mr Chowney is also Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for the Hastings and Rye constituency and is the man who was just 346 votes short of unseating Amber Rudd – the Home Secretary at the time – at the 2017 general election.

So what did Mr Chowney say following his re-election? What are his frustrations in running the borough council, where does he see hope and what are his plans for the future? Here is his speech in full and unedited.

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Hastings Borough Council leader Peter Chowney, who is also Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Hastings and Rye.

“Thank you for re-electing me.

“It’s strange to think it’s been four years since I was first elected leader, following the tragic and untimely death of Jeremy Birch. That time has gone by quickly, but a lot has happened.

“Let’s start with the big picture. Last week, the Institute of Fiscal Studies published a report showing that the gap between the rich and poor in the UK had risen to such an extent that it was now greater than any developed country apart from the USA. Nobel Prize winning economist Sir Angus Deaton said this was ‘making a mockery of democracy’. So not surprising that most people living in Hastings are having a tougher time too.

“The median wage in Hastings has stayed pretty much the same since 2010. That means a 20 per cent cut in real terms, during a period when housing costs in particular have increased massively. The burden on council-funded voluntary sector services such as Citizen’s Advice and HARC has increased dramatically too, as their funding from all sources has been cut.

“Hastings Food Bank at the Hastings Centre opened in 2012 – it wasn’t even necessary before that – since when they’ve received 17,000 referrals and have given out over 370,000 meals, that’s nearly 70 tonnes of food. Forty percent of the meals were for children.

“We hear from our MP that unemployment is at a record low but that hides the real picture, where people in households where one person went out to work now find themselves in a position where both are having to work in increasingly low-paid jobs. I was talking to a shop worker recently who was having to work shifts from 8am to 11pm, just to make ends meet.

“That means more and more people are having to turn to the council for help and support. But this is not an easy time for local government.

“Councils in more deprived areas, such as Hastings, have suffered huge cuts to their funding since the government’s austerity programme began in 2010. Many services have been reduced or have disappeared altogether as we’ve needed to focus on paying for our core, statutory services.

“Fortunately, the impact of these cuts has been mitigated to some extent by our success at making genuine efficiency savings and income generation activities. Over the last three years, for example, our programme for purchasing commercial properties has generated over a million pounds a year in additional net income – without that, the cuts would have been even deeper.

“And it means we’re able to protect some of the additional services we provide, over and above what other councils do.

“For example:

  • We continue to support a wide range of community events and festivals, while still putting on our own events, including the Seafood and Wine festivals, the fish festivals and the Stade Saturdays programme. All these events are important, they make Hastings the lively, creative place we all love.​
  • We continued to keep our open spaces well-maintained, again winning green flag status for St Leonards Gardens, Alexandra Park and the Country Park and we’ve just heard that we’ve retained our Blue Flag status for the country park too.
  • We continue to provide an enhanced community safety service, with our own warden team and locally monitored CCTV.
  • The Grotbusting scheme continues, and has led to the improvement of getting on for a thousand properties.
  • Our housing selective licensing scheme now covers 7,380 properties, helping to protect private sector tenants from the rogue landlords.
  • We’ve created one of the best and most comprehensive interactive websites of any council, where people can report problems as well as requesting and paying for almost all council services, while still continuing to provide a well-staffed face-to- face contact centre.
  • We continue to provide an award-winning Tourist Information Centre, to help visitors to our town find out about all the wonderful things going on here.
  • We committed to welcoming 100 Syrian refugees to Hastings, and we’ve now housed 85 in the borough, helped enormously by the Refugee Buddy Project who’ve helped Syrian settle in Hastings, and contribute to the growing cultural diversity of the area, along with others in BAME communities who have played such a vital role in our regeneration story.
  • And we’re one of only a handful of councils to still have a 100 per cent Council Tax reduction scheme, protecting our very poorest citizens.

“But where we’ve been really successful is in bidding for competitive grant funds, from both EU and UK sources. Over the last year that’s brought in a record £9.2m  – more than a quarter of our total spending – to fund projects that support the achievements of our objectives as stated in the corporate plan. That’s an amazing achievement, and I want to pay tribute to all the officers that have been involved in this, and in particular the grants team in regeneration who have become so expert in winning additional resources for Hastings.

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“Some of the projects we have, or will be able to fund as a result include:

  • £3.7m for CHART CLLD project to fund training and community development initiatives in the most deprived communities.
  • Two and a quarter million (so far) for flood mitigation and housing development in Bulverhythe.
  • Over two million to help rough sleepers and homelessness – several projects, most yet to start.
  • Half a million for the Business Incubator Hub in Sidney Little Road.
  • £170k to develop a sustainable transport link for the seafront.
  • £85k for feasibility study into combined Leisure and Cultural Centre in Bohemia Quarter.
  • Around £100,000 for Active Hastings and children’s play – now targeted on the most deprived communities.
  • £88k for promoting a Hastings Fish brand.
  • £50k for Marine Litter project.
  • And more – this doesn’t include the £277k for the Hastings Hidden Heritage project in Country Park, for example.

“And there’s several million more in the pipeline, in grants that have been approved in principle.

“(The) important thing though is that around two thirds of this funding is targeted specifically on helping those suffering the worst deprivation – homeless households, rough sleepers, and those living in our most deprived communities.

“So even if the government has cut our funding, we’re not just giving up and accepting it like some councils do, we’re doing all we can to fight for funding for projects that protect the most vulnerable in our communities, as well as projects that enhance our town to make it more attractive to visitors and new businesses. The arts and cultural sector remains particularly important here, driving Hastings general economic renaissance, as well as engaging local communities. Tourism remains important to the town’s economy. Our specialist manufacturing sector is important too, we’ll keep looking for sources of funding to provide high-quality premises for those on our factory estates.

“So we’ll keep on bidding into competitive funds, to get funding for projects that support our aims and objectives.

“But not everyone seems to recognise our achievements. I hear that the ex-leader of Rother Council criticised HBC at the East Sussex County Council meeting for ‘not doing anything to help rough sleepers’. I doubt if there’s a council anywhere that’s doing more, or has won more funding support for that.

“But there’s a different administration in Rother now and I look forward to a much closer and co-operative relationship with the new administration. I already have a meeting set up with the new cabinet member for regeneration and will be meeting their new leader soon too. I look forward to being able to make efficiencies though shared services in a way that their former leader wasn’t prepared to consider.

“In the longer term, new income generation schemes, including housing development and energy generation, could help significantly to replace lost government funding. But for now, the fact remains that there is far less money to pay for mainstream council services than there used to be. ​

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“Despite these huge financial pressures, we remain ambitious and optimistic, with new initiatives in the pipeline.

“We’re ending the external street cleaning contract to run this service directly, for public benefit rather than private profit. So from the end of June, we’ll be employing more operatives and working differently from the previous contractor, providing a better, more responsive service. And we’ll be looking to bring more of our contracted-out services back in-house.

“In the future, the council’s regeneration activities will be focused more on self-funded projects, using council-owned land to create jobs, new homes, and a better environment.

“The Bohemia Quarter project is perhaps the most ambitious, redeveloping the whole of White Rock Gardens and the council-owned land up to Summerfields Woods, to create a new leisure centre and swimming pool, a performance venue, pleasure gardens, an outdoor events space, and housing. Then there’s the proposal to redevelop West Marina for housing and leisure, as well as other potential redevelopments in Hastings town centre and elsewhere.

“But the biggest challenge facing the council, and indeed all of us, is climate change – which is why I’ve created a new cabinet post to oversee our work on this. It might not seem that Hastings Council can do much on its own to prevent the catastrophic consequences the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned about last autumn. But we all have to play our part, and I’m hoping that Hastings will be taking a lead in demonstrating to other councils what can be achieved.

“Following our unanimous declaration of a ‘climate emergency’ earlier this year, we’ll be refocusing everything we do to play our part in mitigating climate change. We’ll be looking at revised planning policies to enhance energy efficiency standards in new homes, as well as sustainable energy generation on council land and property. But we’ll be looking at everything else we do too, including minimising single-use plastics, managing our land to maximise biodiversity, and reviewing our procurement policy. We really do have to ‘think global, act local’ – limiting climate change is something we can all contribute to, in the policies we adopt for the council, as well as the way we conduct our own lives.

“So, these are challenging times, whether it’s about coping with government cuts, mitigating climate change, improving our town’s appearance and infrastructure, or doing whatever we can to tackle problems of deprivation and protecting our most vulnerable citizens.

“These are not easy tasks, but we’ll explore every avenue to get the funding we need to continue to regenerate Hastings, and make sure all our citizens feel the benefits of that regeneration.

“The government is ignoring the huge problems facing seaside towns. It fails to mend the broken housing market, fails to find any solutions to our appalling regional transport infrastructure and fails to address the increasing gap between the rich and poor. But we will continue to fight for the resources we need for our borough.

“We will not give in to austerity.

“We will not let our citizens down.”

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