Tonight our elected councillors in Hastings will begin the debate about how to spend YOUR money next year.
Last week Hastings Borough Council (HBC) published its draft corporate plan and budget proposals for the financial year that starts on April 1st – a little more than nine weeks away.
Over the coming weeks we’ll be taking a closer look at some key elements of the council’s spending plans, for if it is to balance its budget for the coming year it will need to dip in to it’s reserves to the tune of £1.6m – something that may call in to question the prudence of spending well in excess of £1m on a new visitor centre in the Country Park and just short of £1m renovating York Buildings in the town centre .
On Manhattan Island one – of the most expensive property hotspots in the world – constructing a new building will cost you £257 per square foot. When it’s finally complete Hasting Borough Council will have paid £458 per square foot to build the new Visitor Centre in Hastings Country Park.
In presenting the draft budget HBC leader Kim Forward explained: “Last year the council agreed its corporate plan until 2024 and then Covid-19 arrived with its unprecedented impacts so we have updated the key activities in our corporate plan for 2021/22. These reflect our significant new commitments as a result of the pandemic and our continued intention to provide the key services local people need.
“Our vision and priorities in the corporate plan remain the same despite an ever more challenging and uncertain financial position.
“Our priorities are to: tackle homelessness, poverty and do all we can to ensure quality housing; keep Hastings clean and safe; make the best use of our land, buildings, public realm and cultural assets; minimise environment and climate harm in all that we do; progress our major regeneration schemes, particularly the Town Investment Plan; ensure that the council can survive and thrive into the future and now, of course, managing our response to the ongoing impact of the pandemic and help our community and businesses recover from its effects.”
Councillor Peter Chowney was leader of the council this time last year, now he is lead councillor for financial management and estates, last week he said: “The corporate plan sets out what we want to achieve, our budget explains how we pay for it.
“Although the council has received significant additional funding from central government to help with the impact of the virus, we have paid out very large sums too – for example, in emergency food support, staffing the community hub, administering grant schemes for local businesses and providing temporary accommodation for the most vulnerable. Our income has been very much reduced as well – for example, in lower car park income and far fewer cliff railway passengers.”
He goes on to say that now is not the time to consider cuts to services or staff redundancies. he says the council will protect the ‘most vulnerable’.
“We remain ambitious for our town even in these most challenging of financial times. A new hotel in Cornwallis Street, the Harold Place redevelopment, new units at Churchfields Industrial Estate, and the Bexhill Road housing scheme are all worthwhile regeneration schemes,” says Mr Chowney.
There will be other pressures too, buried deep in the fine print of the budget.
There’s a likely 20 per cent reduction in the rental income from all those commercial properties the council has borrowed heavily to fund in recent years and there’s the significant financial support it has given to Freedom Leisure, for example, support that when we have asked councillors to specify in cash terms how much they have provided they have refused, citing legal reasons, while neighbouring councils have been open about how much they have provided.
Ms Forward says that: “Even in these uncertain times we must continue to look forward to what we believe we can achieve together.”
And she explains the council wants the input from local people and asks that they look at the draft corporate plan and budget proposals on the council website, www.hastings.gov.uk.
We suspect, however, that if you ask the people of West St Leonards who have tried to open dialogue with the council over plans for housing on the old bathing pool site they might tell you that HBC has not been overly willing to listen to what they had to say.
The council’s Overview and Scrutiny committee meets at 6pm tonight to kick of the process of detailed examination of the proposed budget. You can watch as discussions unfold by following this link https://www.hastings.gov.uk/my-council/cm/