Criticism is mounting over what is being described as a lack of transparency and willingness to communicate at Hastings Borough Council (HBC).
The criticism is not just coming from politicians but from campaigners, former councillors and members of the public too.
Liberal Democrat Nick Perry says: “I am increasingly aware from various different local sources that HBC is becoming less and less transparent in its decision-making; and less and less consultative of other, local, expert opinion.
“In a post-Covid world, where spending choices are going to get harder and harder, this is extremely concerning.”
Apparently you can connect up large numbers in choirs, plays and businesses but local authorities do not have that ability!
Separately Rob Lee, who leads the opposition Conservative group on HBC, is concerned that the council has cancelled its planned full council meeting that was scheduled for next week: “By not getting full council up and running the leadership is dodging questions and debate.
“As the lockdown eases and the town tries to get back to its normal routine it is the duty of the council and its leadership to ensure that democracy happens and that they are held to account,” he said.
Julia Hilton of Hastings Green party is still waiting to hear back from HBC after she queried its commitment to fighting climate change after the cabinet reshuffle last month saw Councillor Maya Evans’ title changed. The former lead member for climate change, biodiversity and sustainable development became lead member for natural environment and leisure.
Ms Hilton said at the time her party was ‘shocked’ to see the climate change portfolio has been abolished: “This sounds as if the main focus is ensuring we can all enjoy a nice walk in the park,” Ms Hilton said at the time. She wrote to council leader Kim Forward asking her to clarify the council’s position on climate change and to reassure her it was not watering down the commitment it made last year to a zero carbon council by 2030 but has not heard anything in response.
In an open letter to Ms Forward Nick Perry has asked the council leader to respond publicly on a number of key issues and asks specific questions.
Nick Perry’s questions to the council leader are:
Did Hastings Borough Council make a formal response to the ESCC consultation on increased parking charges? If so, please can the document be made public, and can you send me a copy?
If the Cornwallis Street car park gets turned into a hotel, will the deal provide any form of compensation to the Borough for the much-needed housing that will be lost (as the site was identified for housing in the Local Plan)? And will the hotelier be required to offer emergency accommodation in any part of the new building?
Is Hastings Borough Council getting professional advice over its commercial property portfolio? And if so, how much is this costing?
How much is Freedom Leisure asking Hastings Borough Council to invest in Summerfields leisure centre? And are we guaranteed that every penny will be spent on the (very tired) facilities there?
Has Hastings Borough Council had any correspondence with East Sussex County Council on the possibility of an East Sussex unitary authority? If so, please will you publish it, and send me a copy?
Are improvements being made at HBC regarding technology capacity, so that more Council business can be watched online, sooner?
It’s not just local politicians who are complaining about the council’s seeming inability to communicate. Bryan Fisher, one of the campaigners against the proposed development of the old bathing pool site told us: “We heard the full council for July was cancelled because of the ‘difficulty of connecting everyone digitally’. Apparently you can connect up large numbers in choirs, plays and businesses but local authorities do not have that ability!
“The next scheduled full council meeting is now in September, so democracy is certainly not being seen to be done. Meanwhile we must assume that matters that are regarded as important to the local communities in the borough are progressing without formal debate or visibility to the voters.”
And Mr Fisher is dismayed at the council’s lack of willingness to engage with the Save Our Bathing Site and West Marina campaign groups over their petition objecting to high density housing on the site: “The only response has been directed to a Hastings & St Leonards Observer article on the petition, in which the council leader trotted out the same list of contacts made – obscure adverts announcing intent, public consultation – which was on a previous development plan and attendees were equally vociferous in their opposition – and open discussion at HBC meetings, which amounted to one member of the public allowed to speak for only a very short time.”
Solicitor Andrew Gurney a former councillor on HBC says: “If you delve too deeply you will find out that the talent pool is lacking and those running the council are out of their depth.”
Of July’s cancelled full council meeting Rob Lee says: “Many councils around the country are holding all their meetings with many adopting a hybrid model where some councillors are in the room for the meeting and others are attending virtually, we have also seen this system being used effectively in the House of Commons over recent months and it is effective, safe and importantly keeps democracy moving.
“I don’t know why this model isn’t already being used in Hastings when it is proven to work.”
In recent weeks Hastings In Focus has asked a number of questions of HBC to which we are still waiting for an answer… these include
On Parking – …did HBC contribute to the consultation process last year and if so where can I see a copy of any representations it made to that process?
From this week’s cabinet – …on the outcome of the discussions over Freedom Leisure’s request for financial aid… how much have they asked for and what is the council prepared to give them?
Is there any comment on the decision reached over the Cornwallis Street site?
On cancelled meetings – …the full council meeting scheduled for next week has been cancelled. What is the reason for that as many other councils now seem to be back to having their full council meetings?
On cabinet changes (12/06.20) – There is no longer a cabinet member with the specific remit of community engagement. Andy Batsford said somewhere on social media that the intention was that every cabinet member should have community engagement in mind but without it being specifically mentioned does that not just become a good intention that quickly slips from people’s minds?
On climate change (12/06.20) – Maya Evans, was cabinet member with responsibility for CLIMATE CHANGE, biodiversity and sustainable development. Her new role, natural environment and leisure makes no specific mention of climate change! When the post was created the intention was to put a real focus on climate change and what the council could do and in an interview I did with Maya at the end of last year she said her role was to look at how everything the council does impacts climate change and what HBC can do to minimise that. Rather like community engagement without the specific focus on climate change is there not a risk of dilution?
What have been your experiences with Hastings Borough Council – we’d like to hear the good and the bad in the comment section below…