We have just completed the toughest budget-setting anyone in the council can remember. The full council meeting on 25th February approved the final budget for 2015-16 including a 1.9% increase in the council tax. With similar rises from the other organisations that levy council tax on local people – fire, police and the county council – the average increase for Hastings households from April will be 1.95%.
The backdrop to this budget has been really challenging. Hastings Borough Council has received a cut of over 50% in its grant from central government to provide services to local people. It is just not possible to continue doing all the things we have done before or would want to do. Just for this budget year 2015-16 we have suffered the largest reduction in what the government calculates as revenue spending power of any council in the south east – 6.4%. With the extra needs of Hastings I believe this is just not fair.
The council has had to find £1 million of savings to balance its budget for 2015/16 and provisionally it has a two-year balanced budget up to 2017. But significant reductions have had to be made. The Old Town museum will close and its collection moved to the main museum off Cambridge Road, support for the Chess Congress and for twinning will be cut, charges for things like parking, chalets and garden waste collection will be rise and there will be a £20,000 cut in support to voluntary organisations.
As part of the two-year budget plan 20 council posts will disappear in 2015/16 and 20 more in the following year.
These have been very difficult decisions but I was pleased just how understanding the organisations we went to speak were to about our budget proposals. They recognised the very unfavourable positon Hastings had been put in. Some decided themselves to write to the government pointing this out.
Yet even in this difficult environment we have been able to find a bit of extra money for key initiatives. These include continuing our work on bathing water quality and preparing plans for the West Marina and White Rock areas. We have also found £50,000 to partly mitigate the impact on the most vulnerable from the government’s cut of £100,000 in the money they give us for discretionary housing payments.
The council’s four-year capital programme grosses £16m. It will see £400,000 spent on building a new Country Park visitor centre ("an ambition for at least 15 years" according to the Friends of the Country Park), £700,000 building a new council-owned factory, £800,000 renovating the White Rock Baths building, £160,000 on Bottle Alley and £5m on a second phase of the Coastal Space project in St Leonards with money from AmicusHorizon housing association and from the Homes and Communities Agency.
In this budget we have done all we can to protect vital frontline services and those services that local people have told us they value the most. But almost no-one in local government believes that councils as we know them are sustainable if the current reductions in financial support from central government continue.