Saturday, 15 January 2011

What's the future for Hastings

On 13th January I attended two events sixty miles apart (not of course at the same time). They were apparently unrelated but both impact directly on our town.

At lunchtime I participated in a delegation from councils in East Sussex to meet with Bob Neil one of the ministers in the Communities and Local Government department. Our brief was to explain first-hand the difficulties the government’s funding deal for councils is causing us.

In the evening I was speaking at the welcome event for Saga. They have taken the whole building at 1 Priory Square and recruited and trained their first 45 employees who had started taking customers' calls that day. The plan is to grow the Hastings workforce to 800.

The spending cuts mean that in 2011/12 the council will receive £2.3m less government grant, and in 2012/13 we’ll be losing a further £1.6m. That’s a 30% reduction over two years one of the worst in the country.

The government has made available a pot of money to support our transition to becoming the smaller council they intend us to become, but this money is only available for two years. By the start of 2013/14 we will need to have reduced our annual expenditure by a £2m.

Over the 3 year period from 2011/12 to 2013/14 we will see our government grant cut in half from £12.7m to £6.6m - a loss of £70 for every person in the borough.

However, I made a pledge to do everything to limit both compulsory redundancies and cuts to the key services local people have said they value the most. I expect compulsory redundancies to be in single figures only but do recognise the pain it can mean for each of those staff members.

As for local residents we held a Big Conversation with them before Xmas to hear what services they value the most and we have taken the results into account when setting the budget.

Residents told us that they the particularly valued those council services that affected their everyday lives – that kept their street clean and safe, that dealt with litter and refuse, tackled derelict and empty buildings and provided free public toilets. They also valued those activities aimed at making Hastings more prosperous and at creating jobs for local people.

And Saga of course does just that. They will become the largest private sector employer in a town with high levels of public sector employment that is clearly vulnerable to the spending cuts.

Despite our serious budget problems there are still positives in Hastings. In addition to Saga, the nationally regarded Jerwood Gallery and the Stade open space will be ready for business by the Autumn. University Centre Hastings phase two will be opening its doors in September taking higher education numbers in the town to 1,000. We have a new further education college and academic results in our schools continue to rise.

I’m terribly disappointed about the cuts to the council, to our staff and to what we can offer the public; but I’m still optimistic for Hastings.