Nick Perry applauds the efforts of the voluntary sector for the work it has done throughout the Covid crisis but after attending Friday’s Hastings Question Time he’s concerned that those efforts have signposted what he sees as the ‘hollowing out’ of the role of local councils and highlights their diminishing financial capability to help the communities they are supposed to serve.
‘I’m not asking for a ‘he said/she said report’, said our local online newshound-in-chief Stuart Baillie, ‘but a piece from you about what you felt it achieved and if anything meaningful came out of it.’
I don’t know how well-attended the Hastings Question Time was on Friday night, we weren’t given actual numbers by the co-founders of Hastings Emergency Action Resilience Team (HEART) and co-presenters Alastair Fairley and Kim Batty – to whom (and whose team) many thanks for all the effort that went in to putting this event online. But one thing is for sure, there was a healthy amount of activity in the chat room and some good, probing questions being asked.
There were seven on the panel – in alphabetical order
- Dawn Dublin (Hastings Urban Enterprises)
- Councillor Colin Fitzgerald (Deputy Leader, Hastings Borough Council)
- Councillor Keith Glazier (Leader, East Sussex County Council)
- Sally-Ann Hart (MP for Hastings & Rye)
- Steve Manwaring (Hastings Voluntary Action)
- Graham Peters (East Sussex local enterprise partnership) and
- Dr Greg Wilcox (retired GP and current volunteer vaccinator).
The technology didn’t lend itself to such a large panel Q&A. Personally, I think the Changing Hastings online event a couple of weeks ago had a better format, with speakers giving a little presentation first of all and then questions being collated to fire at them after they had spoken.
However what is undeniable, is that both events have demonstrated a hunger and determination from local people for interaction with their elected decision-makers that is not supported by any of the local government structures that are currently in place either at County or Borough level.
The thing that has left me cold about this event is that local decision-makers seem more than ever to be totally unaccountable – except of course at election time – there are a few coming along soon. But even then, the rise of identity politics and the way that it interacts with our first past the post system has resulted in the breaking of a link between competence, accountability, popularity, and re-election.
Whether our local politicians are any good, or achieve identifiable things, doesn’t seem much to matter any more.
What was in equal measure interesting and depressing to see, on a range of questions, was the ease with which the politicians folded their arms and shook their heads like the rest of us do, giving the impression that they are not really responsible for the political decisions that they or their parties have made locally – or nationally – the directions of travel that they have chosen or authorised; or for finding the solutions to the various, sometimes unintended, outcomes that have ensued.
Whether it be on the unbelievable slowness of the Resilience Forum’s application to Central Government on lateral flow test availability in East Sussex; the slowness of getting replacement funding to local businesses; social housing provision and planning decisions for the future; or the inadequate resources for families trying to support children with Special Educational Needs during the pandemic… All these issues were met with a solemn wringing of hands and nodding and thanking of people, without any real ownership of the problems at hand.
It was useful to find out that the head guy of Public Health in East Sussex hopes that mass asymptomatic testing is intended to be launched in March, across a range of sites and appointments in pharmacies.
It was instructive that on a snap poll conducted during the event, 60 per cent of people felt that social care workers have not been supported to an acceptable level, given the trauma and exhaustion they have faced during the pandemic.
It was sobering to be told that Hastings Borough Council spends approximately £900k on temporary accommodation each year and that there are agreed planning applications for 2,000 homes that have yet to be built.
But it was also very sad to hear the same old stock phrases about the levels of deprivation in Hastings – worsened significantly, HVA reports, by Covid – being spoken without anyone having any obvious strategy, urgency or capacity to address it. This is where long-standing splits in local, regional and national government responsibilities, as well as the party politics of it all, become most obvious and most frustrating.
Kim Batty, in rounding up the discussions, acknowledged that despite the time having been extended, it had not been possible to ask all the questions from local people to the panel and it seems that HEART may put on further online discussion events, to tackle some of the issues raised in more depth, which will be worthwhile.
In his closing remarks, Steve Manwaring gave a glimpse of the work that has gone on behind the scenes in Hastings by local volunteers, helping the most vulnerable in the community to access vaccines, food and other necessities.
But all this work seems even more clearly to highlight the hollowing out of the role of District and County Councils, and the dwindling of their financial capability to help the communities under their care.
If there is an increasing desire for participation in local decision-making from local people – and I am not sure this is the case across the board – then it is occurring exactly at a time when the power and finance to create meaningful solutions has been ever more centralised and local government processes are sclerotic in their ability to respond. This does not augur well for the challenges to come, with the effects and implications of Brexit not yet fully clear to us.
The question is, are there enough people that care enough to change it?
For anyone needing assistance to attend a vaccination site, HEART in partnership with Hastings Community Transport are the people to contact.