Welcome to The Sunday Supplement a new column that will appear on the last Sunday of each month and consider some of the big issues confronting our town.
This month we’re asking what will happen when local council elections take place in May and whether an apparent dissatisfaction with the running of Hastings Borough Council will be reflected in how people cast their vote on the day.
Stuart Baillie takes a look at some of the issues that are dominating social media and asks whether they will ultimately have any affect on who runs the council?
In the last week social media has been full of fresh faced local politicians announcing their selection as candidates for May’s local elections.
But do people really care? If voter turnout in the last borough council elections in 2018 is anything to go by the answer is no. And should we take notice of social media? If you’d believed what you see on Twitter and Facebook then in 2016 we’d have voted to stay in the EU and Labour would have won the last two general elections.
If they actually go-ahead – because there is still a real possibility they could be postponed until later in the year as a result of the pandemic – there’s a bit of a smorgasbord of elections due to take place on May 6th. Sixteen of the 32 seats on Hastings Borough Council (HBC), all the seats on East Sussex County Council and the Police and Crime Commissioner – what’s that I hear you ask – will be up for election.
What intrigues me about these forthcoming elections is what’s going on at Muriel Matters House, home to HBC, where the ruling Labour group appears to be doing everything in its power to alienate the public.
From criticism over its management of the construction of the £1m plus straw bale visitor centre in Hastings Country Park to Friday’s furore over its plans to build houses at Bulverhythe to its management of money and the £65m of borrowing in the last six years to buy commercial property, HBC does not have to look far to find its critics.
Worryingly, I would have thought for Hastings Labour Party, is how the council has alienated Labour voters. Lucie Mason who has been campaigning hard against HBC plans to put high density housing on the old bathing pool site said this week that while she is a Labour Party member and continues to support the party at national level she cannot countenance voting Labour at a local government level and she’s not the only Labour supporter to have expressed those views on social media.
But turnout at local elections tends to be low and the electorate can sometimes be confused about the issues; which council deals with what? Who should we blame for increased parking charges and who do we vote for of we want to see the bowling greens reopened?
Poor coverage of local government in the local media can be partially blamed but as far as HBC is concerned a reluctance to engage with local newspapers and local news websites, like this one, is becoming ever more significant.
Last year when Councillor Kim Forward took over from Peter Chowney as council leader there was a marked change, a very obvious battening down the hatches when it came to talking to the press.
At the same time the council started to publish its own weekly newsletter, including a video message from the council leader and it seems fairly clear they now consider this the preferred route to communicate with the public. It allows HBC to promote its message the way it wants to, in the best light and without pesky reporters asking awkward questions in an attempt to put council policies and decisions into some kind of context. I hesitate to use the word ‘propaganda’.
But back to what’s upsetting people and there’s more than just criticism. Friday’s announcement that HBC was making a formal planning application to build on the site just off Bexhill Road that is both a flood plain and neighbours the tip has opened HBC up to ridicule.
“We are delighted to confirm that we have now submitted our planning application to build 192 much needed new homes for the town. The application sets out our plans to deliver a high quality scheme which will provide a range of housing including a significant number of affordable homes for local families,” HBC announced in its press release.
“On a greenbelt, flood zone and next to a local tip! I do hope this gets rejected. I know there’s a need for housing but surely more suitable areas,” says Ryan Welby.
Referring to the flood issues Russell Riom chipped in: “They could just float a few houseboats on it, at least your feet will stay dry and it can be marketed as a yuppy marina development!”
Steve Wincheter added: “That quaint aroma of household waste on your doorstep must be very appealing!”
While Victoria Murtagh said: “Considering the history of flooding and smells at the site, anyone would be mad to buy a house there!”
Others commented on traffic volumes on Bexhill Road and whether the infrastructure around the site would be able to cope with the people and traffic that would be generated by 192 new houses.
If HBC’s behaviour towards those protesting against plans to put five, five storey blocks of flats on the site of the old bathing pool is anything to go by those who are set to protest against the Bulverhythe development can expect little in the way of a hearing from HBC. It has been an on-going complaint from the bathing pool site campaigners that HBC just won’t engage in a dialogue with them, or listen to their concerns.
As Bryan Fisher, a bathing pool site campaigner says: “When you hear HBC’s Labour-led council stating matters are dealt with in an open and transparent manner, with opportunities for interested parties to engage in meaningful communication… many local community action groups beg to differ!”
Over in the Country Park where the council has again agreed to increase what it is spending on a new visitor centre – this time pledging ANOTHER £340,000 – there appears to have been an attempt to rewrite history.
Mike Hepworth, HBC’s Assistant Director Environment and Place told councillors earlier this month that: “The people of Hastings will have a brilliant new environmentally sustainable community facility,” and he went on to say it would become a major attraction for people from, “Kent, Sussex and beyond”.
Chris Hurrell says, however: “Mr Hepworth’s prediction that it will be a major attraction for people from Kent, Sussex and beyond conflicts with the Case Officer’s report to the Planning Committee in March 2015, when the visitor centre was approved. At this time it was not predicted to be a destination in itself.
“Mr Hepworth seems to have added this claim since the Visitor Centre was approved.”
That 2015 report Mr Hurrell refers to said that officials did not expect the visitor centre to be a destination in its own right saying: “Although the visitor centre may attract more footfall than the existing centre, it is not envisaged to be a destination in itself which would attract a significant increase in traffic”
Hastings and Rye MP Sally-Ann Hart is usually reluctant to comment on the council’s activities but when we asked her for her thoughts on what was going on over in the country park she told us: “I am concerned at the rising levels of public money needed to complete this project that is now running years behind schedule.
“I am disappointed too at the comments from Councillor Andrew Batsford who attempts to defend this project. He suggests that the largely privately funded project at Rye Harbour can be compared to the wholly publicly funded one at Hastings, this is misleading and a poor comparison. It also belittles the hard work of many local people who spent years with fundraising efforts to get the money needed for the Rye Harbour project. The only public money received for the Rye project was a £50,000 contribution from Rother District Council, far less than the amounts spent in Hastings.
“Councillor Batsford would be wise to focus his time less on sowing seeds of division and instead on managing the public’s money in a more efficient way.”
There was also anger this month at the increasing cost of renovating York Building in the town centre where once again the council has got its numbers wrong. An additional £166,000 was approved by the council’s ruling cabinet to cover ‘unforeseen costs’. It’s the second time councillors have upped the budget for the project having increased it from £757,000 to £846,000 in September 2019. The latest approval brings the total spend on the project to £1,011,000.
A local resident with experience in construction Geof Gage said of the HBC cabinet decision: “Of course costs should not increase by this much, it is unacceptable and can only be due to poor management and forecasting and poor contractor management.”
For HBC’s Deputy Leader Colin Fitzgerald however the redevelopment of York Buildings is: “an amazing piece of foresight”.
Of course there are other examples of HBC not listening to the complaints of local people, there’s the so-called Bunker in Rocklands caravan park that was back before the planning committee this month and if you turn the clock back to the development of the the Marina Pavilion into what is now known as Azur there was a report in the February 2006 edition of The Hastings Trawler magazine which reports on an angry meeting: “…the meeting was somewhat taken over by local residents and business operators.”
It goes on to say: “Many attendees, out of the 70 or so at the meeting, were clearly very upset and angry that the scheme had been granted planning permission and was going ahead despite their objections.”
Of course these are just a couple of examples, there are many more! The kiosk on the seafront near the weather station was massively expensive to build; when did anyone see it last open for business?
But back to those coming elections, what impact will the council’s apparent lack of support in the community have on the result? Does the ruling Labour group take it for granted that it will hold on to power?
In 2018 when all 32 seats on the council were contested turnout rarely struggled above 40 per cent. St Helens ward saw the highest turnout at 48 per cent while the likes of Hollington managed just 28 per cent turnout with many others in the low 30s.
Nick Perry, who was a Liberal Democrat candidate in Castle ward in 2018 says: “‘One of the things that strikes me most about politics at the moment is the apparent parallel between the styles of national and district government.
“In Downing Street we have the Tories, who don’t seem to regard success and the national interest as necessary in respect of political popularity. And at HBC, we have a Labour Party that appears to relish controversial and unpopular decisions – particularly around Planning – without any real sense that there will be electoral come-uppance.”
Of course there might be some tougher electoral this time round as the local Green Party has pledged to field candidates in every ward? How will that split the vote? Will the Greens take votes from Labour or the Lib Dems, or will they encourage people to come out to vote who have not felt engaged in local political debate before? Will the involvement of The Greens to such an extent fragment the anti-Tory vote and allow Rob Lee’s Conservatives to snatch some unexpected wins?
Nick Perry again: “Some armchair pundits might say, oh well if the Lib Dems or the Greens were a bit more relevant and credible then at least there would be an option. However even when the Lib Dems were at their most Liberal and Democratic, relevant and credible, the party’s electoral success was always disproportionately poor.
“There are obviously myriad variables that have contributed to the polarised political landscape we now have in the UK. For sure, identity politics has become part of this: defining the self by what one is not, rather than what one is for. Perhaps when the only viable political options are increasingly homogenised, people start to disconnect from the political process altogether.
“But surely this is when we should be having a proper talk about our democracy – just like the discussion former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has attempted to start in the national press over the past few days? Surely one of the solutions must be to change to our electoral system – to make it more reflective of people’s actual votes?
“The ancient process we currently have was expressly designed to exacerbate division in a way that is now becoming increasingly dangerous for our society and with elections as likely to be cancelled as they are to be held in these strange times, isn’t it overdue that electoral reform became an issue we all should have an interest in, not just the political anoraks?”
I’ll give the last word to Bryan Fisher who has experienced at first hand the frustrations of trying to deal with HBC: “The local council election will hopefully involve some deep thinking on the behalf of voters.
“If you care about the local area you will want to select a councillor who will match your aspirations – whether that be in regard to the environment, regeneration, employment, better accounting on projects, etc.
“It’s not just about which representative – and perhaps political party – has done well in the past, it is also about what they promise to deliver for us in the future.
“Our borough deserves the best councillors, but only we, the electorate, can ensure that we get them!”
So it’s over to you, tell us what you think and tell us what you want from your council in the comment section below…