Unless central government gives councils more cash then local government will not be viable.
That’s the view of Peter Chowney, who will step down as leader of Hastings Borough Council (HBC) in March after five years in the job.
One local Labour Party member told Hastings In Focus this week: “Peter should be remembered as the man who helped keep Hastings afloat at a time of austerity and shrinking council budgets.”
Despite it all Mr Chowney remains optimistic: “Hastings is a wonderful town. It’s been an enormous privilege to serve our borough as the council leader and it is still an enormous privilege to live in this beautiful, vibrant, creative and eccentric town.”
Cumulatively HBC has lost £55 million over ten years and under Mr Chowney’s leadership HBC embraced what he called ‘entrepreneurial socialism’, buying and building commercial property to rent.
The ability to borrow from the Public Works Loan Board at low interest rates, and then rent out to businesses, helped the council to both fund its services and boost local jobs, Mr Chowney says. But the policy has had its critics who are concerned that in the last five years HBC has taken on more than £60m in debt and has plans to borrow up to £40m more.
Mr Chowney has also championed efforts to tackle the homelessness crisis in the town by buying property and entering into long leases with landlords to avoid putting families into disruptive bed and breakfast accommodation.
Mr Chowney was also Labour’s parliamentary candidate twice, most recently at last December’s General Election. He narrowly missed out on unseating the then Home Secretary Amber Rudd in 2017 – he was just 346 votes short of victory.
He also recognised the threat from climate change when he led efforts to set a target for the council to become carbon-neutral and generate its own green energy. He rides an electric bike and nowadays shuns air travel. But he admits to having a weakness for classic cars.
Mr Chowney moved to Hastings with his wife Jo 22 years ago and took over as council leader after the sudden death of the charismatic Jeremy Birch in 2015. He says being council leader was never a job he expected to do and says that being a parliamentary candidate was never, ‘in the career plan’.
He says he will be on hand to give advice to his successor and will carry on as a councillor for Tressell ward until his term comes to an end in 2022.
He said: “I shall remain in office until then – by which time I’ll have been a Hastings councillor for 20 years. This year we’ll be making major changes to the senior management structure, so it’s a good time to let someone else take over.
“I’d like to thank everyone throughout Hastings, in the public, business and community sectors, who has helped and supported me over the last five years, and indeed throughout my ten years in various roles in the HBC cabinet.”
Life is unlikely to be an easy ride for the new council leader and Mr Chowney is frank about the challenges they will face: “The last few years have been a difficult time, with the huge budget cuts we’ve had to make. Over this last year, we’ve had to cover a £2 million budget deficit, with an additional £1 million to find next year.
“Many councils, particularly district councils, are surviving by spending reserves, which is unsustainable.
“While we can still carry out cost-neutral regeneration and redevelopment schemes – such as the Bohemia area leisure project – the funding to cover day-to-day spending on basic services has been cut dramatically since 2010 and it’s no longer sufficient to provide the level of services that local people rightly expect.”
Can Hastings Council survive these continual cuts to its budgets? Peter offers a frank warning: “Unless the government provides more funding for councils, local government will become unviable.”
Main photograph: Peter Chowney with Hastings Mayor and Deputy Mayor Nigel Sinden and James Bacon and Labour councillors Leah Levane and Maya Evans taking part in The Big Sleep to raise money for Seaview a local charity that supports the homeless.
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