Like everyone else in town Hastings Borough Council’s new leader is missing contact with her family; her children and her grandchildren, who she has only been able to see from a distance.
Kim Forward became leader of the council in the middle of March and has had a huge amount to deal with in her first weeks in the job as the council has wrestled with the issues that the Coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdown have presented.
Born and bred locally, becoming leader of the council was never something on Kim’s ‘to-do’ list – but then neither was becoming a councillor in the first place – but for this former teacher, service to a community that she loves has become important to her. That’s why when she retired from teaching she became a school governor and went on to be Chair of Governors at Filsham Valley.
“It was the council’s then leader Jeremy Birch who first suggested to me that I should stand for a seat on Hastings Borough Council (HBC).
“The idea had never crossed my mind. But Jeremy phoned me up one evening and suggested that I stand – he thought I’d make a good councillor.
“He talked to me about representing the community and I thought that was something I could do because I am so committed to this town,” she says.
Kim has fond memories and the greatest respect for Mr Birch, who died suddenly five years ago. Likewise she says her council colleague and fellow Gensing ward councillor, the late Andrew Cartwright, was hugely supportive of her in her early days on HBC: “He was dedicated to his ward and great role model for me,” she says.
Peter Chowney had been the council’s deputy leader when Mr Birch died and he stepped up to the role of leader with Kim taking on the role of deputy. When, earlier this year, Mr Chowney announced he was to stand down from the leader’s role, for many, it was obvious that Kim should step up to the top job.
“A number of people spoke to me about stepping up to the role of leader and after listening to them I thought about it and concluded that maybe I was the best person for the job. Then the more I thought about it the more excited I became about the prospect,” she says.
Kim sees her role as being very much part of a team; she might be leader of that team but everyone in it plays their part; the lead members who form HBC’s cabinet, her fellow Labour group members and the council officers who take care of the day to day running of the authority.
“They are a strong and dedicated group of people who are all absolutely committed to this town,” she says.
There was one other reason why Kim thought becoming leader of HBC would be a good idea and that was to be a role model for other women: “We are always trying to encourage more women to get involved in local politics and I felt that if you talk the talk you need to walk the walk and hopefully, in some way, I can perhaps be a role model for other women to become involved and become councillors.”
Becoming the councillor for Gensing ward in 2008, Kim served as mayor of Hastings from 2010 until 2012 and had a stint on East Sussex County Council between 2013 and 2017. She has also thrown her hat in the ring twice to be Labour’s parliamentary candidate, first for the 2015 General Election when Sarah Owen ultimately became the candidate and then again in 2017 when Peter Chowney won the nomination.
She recognises the challenges that face the council that she now leads. With parts of Hastings among the most economically deprived in the country she fears that the current crisis will make things worse and she is particularly concerned about how central government will compensate HBC not just for the additional spending that it has incurred during the Covid-19 crisis but for the income it has lost.
“Initially the government pledged to compensate councils not just for the extra spending but for loss of income too. More recently they seem to be pulling back on the promise to compensate for lost income and that is a real concern for us,” Kim says.
So many areas of income generation for HBC have been closed off; just take a look at the empty car parks around the town and realise that every empty space represents lost income to the council and every £1 of lost income makes it all the more difficult for the council to balance its budget and provide the range of services people expect.
Kim says: “HBC has been allocated a total of £985,961 so far by the government but that’s still not enough to meet the additional costs and the loss of income that the council is experiencing.
“Along with many other coastal towns our economy depends on tourism and sadly we are seeing businesses struggling and much higher unemployment with more people claiming benefits.
“We are proud that our Council Tax Reduction Scheme still includes a 100 per cent discount for those in greatest need, but it means our income will be greatly reduced in this area.
“The latest estimates for additional costs, resulting from extra spending and loss of income, range from £2.8m to £6.2m for the current financial year and that’s in addition to the £1.2m deficit the council was already forecasting for the year.
“Deficits of this size are not sustainable. If we don’t get further substantial funding from the government there will be a massive impact on council services,” Kim explains.
Those key services include waste collection, street cleaning, upkeep of parks, housing services and temporary accommodation, planning and environmental health: “There is increasing pressure in all areas. All we can do is continue to press the government for fair funding for our town,” she says.
“Our top priority is supporting our residents and we need to be properly funded in order to do this,” Kim adds.
A firm believer in working in partnership with other organisations Kim sees that partnership model becoming ever more important in the coming years. It’s a model that has served the council well in the current crisis as it has been able to team up with many organisations including Hastings Voluntary Action, HEART and many more to create an effective community hub which has been able to help those most in need and assist people who didn’t know where to go for help or assistance.
“It has been phenomenal the way people have come together, lots of local people have come together to help each other… It says a lot about our town, there is a lot of community spirit in Hastings and I’m enormously proud of that,” she says.
“It was great to see the Hastings spirit alive and well online this past weekend, with a very successful virtual Jack in the Green event.”
On partnership with other organisations Kim says: “…the only way to achieve success is by coming together and looking at what the crucial things are that need to be done and considering who is best placed to lead on that issue. We do not have the capacity to do everything ourselves and we have to be realistic about that.”
So what else is Kim thinking about? What is in hie in-tray for when the pandemic is under control?
“Housing and unemployment are going to be really difficult issues for this council, being able to deliver our services… it was really difficult to balance a budget this year… and that was before all the additional costs we’ve had to bear.”
There are climate change issues, HBC published it’s strategy document just before the country went in to lockdown: “It’s designed to be a dynamic and evolving plan,” says Kim
…what the council is achieving in difficult times is exactly what the people of Hastings should expect from its local authority at a time of crisis.
There’s the council’s corporate plan that sets out its objectives for the coming years including housing and redevelopment of what has become known as ‘the Bohemia quarter’.
What about her legacy? She follows two leaders who have made a big impression, so what does Kim hope to achieve in her time in office as council leader?
She stresses again that she is part of a team but hopes that when she does stand down as leader she will be able to look back and see that she has moved things on in terms of fairness and equality for all.
And coming back to the present day Kim praises again the work of the council officers but equally, she says that what the council is achieving in difficult times is exactly what the people of Hastings should expect from its local authority at a time of crisis.
“Thanks to those who are working so hard to keep the community together during a time when we are all advised to stay at home,” she says.
And going back to the theme of missing family she says: ‘I know we are all missing contact with loved ones. This is a tough time for us all but please continue to stay home and stay safe.”