National homeless crisis pushes Hastings Council to the brink

A national homeless crisis is pushing Hastings Borough Council’s (HBC) finances to breaking point, councillors will be told next week.

Increasing demand has seen its homelessness budget rocket by £386,000 more than expected. The cost of keeping homeless households in temporary accommodation is now costing the council £2 million a year.

And families are spending much longer in these ‘temporary’ houses and flats  – more than a year in some cases – because there is nowhere else they can afford to move into.

The national plight of homelessness was highlighted last week in a report by the Local Government Association (LGA).

Two-thirds of councils are in the same situation as HBC. Figures compiled by the LGA show that nearly seven in ten council homelessness services are having to spend more than they planned to on homelessness support.

The rising cost of dealing with the homeless is putting a strain on council finances.

The LGA, which represents councils in England and Wales, is warning that homelessness services are being pushed to ‘breaking point’ as a result of rising demand driven by a severe shortage of affordable social housing.

The LGA also points to ‘huge gaps’ between rents and housing benefits.

In Hastings there are 78 families in temporary accommodation.

Most of these families are offered properties because they lose their homes and depend on housing benefit to pay the rent. But the proportion of Universal Credit the government sets for housing benefit is way below actual rents; 40 per cent lower in the case of Hastings.

Compounding the problem is that with so few new social rented homes being built, there’s little or no chance of most of them being offered a long-term home. Even for those in private rentals, the prospects can be grim, Hastings Labour Party has revealed.

The week the party exposed the plight of Kayleigh, who is not high enough on the council waiting list even though she shares her cramped one-bedroom flat with her three small children. 

Kayleigh was born and brought up in a council house in Hastings. But that was sold, along with many thousands of others, under ‘right to buy’ legislation and now there is simply not enough social housing to go around.

HBC has been able to complete a small number of housing schemes, in partnership with housing associations but the scope for further homes is limited by the availability of suitable publicly owned land.

HBC’s ruling Labour group says it has been successful, however, in ensuring social housing is part of some new developments, such as that of the Archery Ground in St Leonards. 

Also in St Leonards, it is pushing forward with plans, in partnership with a housing association, to build 190 homes on the ‘Lower Tier’ site off Bexhill Road – 60 per cent of which will be for social rent.  It has attracted public funding designed to ensure that effective flood mitigation measures are first put in place.

HBC’s councillors will be told next week that the council faces a further squeeze – brought on by climate change. This has resulted in extra money having to be spent shoring up inland cliffs and on urgent repairs to a reservoir in Alexandra Park.

“Hastings’ plight would be worse if it had not invested in commercial property, the returns of rents from which are helping to pay for essential services,” said a spokesman for the local Labour party.

“Tory austerity measures has seen government funding shrink by £55 million over ten years and now that money – once an essential party of council funding – has finally disappeared.

“The council faces some hard choices ahead and has already earmarked more than 30 council roles which may be axed in order to balance the books.

“The council has proved itself responsible and prudent with its finances and will not let the people of Hastings down,” said the spokesman.

“The fact that Hastings faces budget cuts is not the council’s fault, but that of the Tory governments who have not invested in this town town and have not addressed the issues that are driving homelessness.”

Despite its difficulties, the council’s leaders say it is still working hard to improve the town, pointing out the street waste disposal which is now run by the council itself – already resulting in what they say is a more efficient service. And a new business start-up centre and business skills training project being built in Hollington will create over 70 jobs.

There is also the ambitious plan to provide new leisure facilities off Bohemia Road, including White Rock Gardens that has attracted support from the Arts Council and Sport England. The capital costs will be met by commercial developers, not the council.

Councillors will discuss their budget options – already set out in a consultation document – at a meeting of the Cabinet on Monday. 

To partly help meet the funding shortfall, the council is proposing a rise in council tax of 1.99 per cent. This is a little over £5 a year for many residents and less than the increase proposed by East Sussex County Council, whose element of the council tax bill climbs by 3.99 per cent”″””

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