‘They do what they do without our input and even when we do give our input… they do what they want to do regardless.’
The fact that the leader of the Labour group on Hastings Borough Council (HBC) – the woman who makes the key decisions that will shape our town – refused to take part in an interview about her party’s record in power and their plans for the future probably doesn’t mean a great deal to many people.
BUT when you realise that Councillor Kim Forward’s administration is in charge of spending around £15million of YOUR money every year then maybe her refusal to use a platform that reaches up to 30,000 Hastings and St Leonards residents every month smacks a little of conceit.
As one social media user, Lesley Turnbull said: “What’s her problem? Is she afraid she will be asked awkward questions about the performance of the council over the past year and her own lack of attendance at online meetings?”
Why did HBC’s leader turn down the chance to talk directly to you? The council tax payers who fund her £15m a year council.
Replying to Councillor Andy Batsford’s assertion that Ms Forward was: “Out campaigning and door knocking putting the graft in”, Ms Turbull responded saying: “Talking to maybe 20 – 30 people an hour, whereas a 15 minute interview posted online has the potential to reach hundreds of voters. Her reluctance to engage is pathetic.”
Russell Hall says: “Seems contemptuous of the electorate and avoids accountability, but also lets down the Labour candidates.”
Scroll to the bottom for links to the interviews with leaders with the local leaders of the Liberal Democrats, The Greens and The Conservatives.
Ms Forward may not herself be up for election – only half of HBC’s 32 councillors are – but it is her party and her administration that have been making the spending decisions and setting the policies that will set the future course for our town. Increasingly those decisions have been controversial to say the least; like the way over budget straw bale visitor centre in Hastings Country Park, or the decision to go for planning permission for 192 new homes on a site considered to be a flood plain. It has not just been local opposition to that proposal, even the Environment Agency says it shouldn’t go ahead.
Even smaller decisions have not gone down well; the closure and demolition of the Harold Place toilets was not popular with townsfolk, nor was the removal of benches from the town centre in a bid to cack down on unruly behaviour.
Oh and maybe we shouldn’t mention the £60m+ the council has borrowed to buy commercial property that we’ll be paying off for the next 40 or 50 years. Or mention the ill-conceived plans to build a solar farm on Country Park – something even the Green Party objected to!
In all of this HBC’s Labour leadership stands accused of not listening and not explaining and Ms Forward stands accused of being almost invisible since she succeeded Peter Chowney as leader last year.
So there’s a lot at stake when, in less than two weeks, we’ll all be going to the polls.
Or will we? With turnout for local council elections usually running in the mid 30 per cents – 40 pet cent being seen as a huge success – how many of us actually plan to vote on May 6th?
How many of us even know elections for Hastings Borough Council (HBC) and East Sussex County Council (ESCC) are taking place and hands up who knows what a Police and Crime Commissioner even is? Far less that we’re also expected to vote for one of those too on May 6th.
Is it because of the relatively low turn out at elections for those who will represent us on the Borough Council that the leadership of HBC feels it can treat the people of the town with contempt? Does it believe it’s majority is already ‘in the bag’? That it’s a “done deal” as Peter Chowney said of the redevelopment of the bathing pool site at a full council meeting recently.
We hear endlessly from local campaigners that ruling councillors just won’t engage. Those few who do repeat well rehearsed platitudes that no longer cut any ice and whether you speak to people like Peter Clarke and Chris Dadswell at Bulverhythe or Lucie Mason, Graham Wilkins and Bryan Fisher about the old bathing pool site you’ll hear the same thing – the council isn’t listening.
Is it any wonder the that people like Lucie Mason, Liz Bourn and Amanda Allan are questioning how they will vote. For Lucie and Liz, lifelong Labour stalwarts their decision is made; they’ll continue to support Labour nationally but can no longer do so at a local level.
“We elect our councillors to do our bidding, they are our servants not the other way round,” we were told this week by a recent convert to the campaign opposed to the creation of new housing on the bathing pool site.
In the run up to these elections Hastings In Focus wanted to provide a platform for each of the parties contesting the election to explain to you, the electorate, what their vision was for the town. For Labour, as the party that’s been in charge for more than a decade, that would also mean some questions about its record in power. We’ve done these kind of interviews before, most notably in 2018, and they’ve been very popular with our readers and listeners.
It was on March 2nd that Stuart Baillie emailed representatives of the four parties that are contesting the Borough Council elections. We explained we were writing to them all at the same time: “… I’m doing it this way so that I am seen to make the same offer, in the same terms, to all parties… .
“In 2018 I did pre-election video interviews with Peter Chowney (set particularly attractively in Alexandra Park), with Rob Lee and with Nick Perry and interestingly those interviews continue to attract additional local views every week. I’d like to repeat that exercise this time around, this time with Kim Forward, with Rob Lee again and with the most appropriate representative of the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats.
“With the elections happening on May 6th I would like to publish all the interviews during w/c April 19th. They will all be published together so there can be no charge that one party has had greater exposure than another.”
We said we’d like to record the interviews between Thursday April 8thand Thursday April 15th and told the parties we had a pretty clear diary so they could set a time most suitable to them.
“The aim will be to create a 20-25 minute interview which will look briefly at the last four or five years and then turn attention on the coming four years and what each of the parties is proposing for Hastings,” Stuart’s email concluded.
The Conservatives, The Greens and the Liberal Democrats came back to us almost immediately… Labour took a little longer. The party felt Ms Forward, despite being group leader and council leader, WAS NOT the most appropriate person to be interviewed. After we’d recorded the other interviews Labour offered Councillor Judy Rogers for interview, their rationale being that she is the election agent. We will seek to set that interview up but a key line of questioning will be why Ms Forward seems oh so very reluctant to speak, unscripted, in public, herself.
Perhaps Ms Forward believes her weekly video published each Friday as part of HBC’s email newsletter is enough. After all the council’s communication team told us: “Our resident’s e-newsletter MyHastingsMatters has proven to be an efficient and effective way to communicate important information and updates with a large proportion of Hastings’ residents.”
More than 34,294 people have subscribed to receive the newsletter they say but only 34 per cent open it with just 15.5 percent clicking on a link, that is just over 5,000 people. The council says: “We have been informed by our newsletter software provider that this is an excellent interaction rate for a local council newsletter.”
Tellingly though, the council says: “We also use our newsletter as a means of distributing our Council Leader Kim Forward’s weekly video update… . We tend to see an average click through rate to our website of 150.” The leader’s message is clicked on by just 150 people? Put another way by 0.15 per cent of the population of Hastings and St Leonards! No wonder some have dubbed Ms Forward ‘the invisible woman’.
Next week, with just days to go until polling day we’ll take a closer look at how your money is being spent.
In the meantime here are links to the interviews we have recorded and as young people tend not to vote in local elections we asked our own Tom McCann, at just 22 years old, to give us his thoughts on what the politicians have to say.
What Tom has to say
It seems to be a point of pride for local Green leader Julia Hilton that party candidates “don’t have to toe the party line”. While it seems all well and good that every Green’s voice is heard, what wider identity can they create if their members differ on what they want to achieve and in which direction they want to go? And what can they actually get done if they embrace going against each other so ‘their voices can be heard?’
To me that’s a problem for the Greens – who are they really, and what do they want more than to tackle climate change? To do so is admirable and good, but we don’t live in a single issue world.
The Liberal Democrats
What Tom has to say
With Bob Lloyd’s desire to return to the single market, the Lib Dems seem stuck in the past. Love it or loathe it, Brexit is done. Even before the pandemic, people were tired; post-pandemic, they’re doubly so. To dredge up something as volatile as Brexit by flirting with the EU is off-putting, to say the least.
It’s a shame, really. Their people are alright and their policy to halve the amount of Councillors to 16 and reduce spending on consultancy fees is great.
It still feels impossible however to forgive them and vote for their betrayal of students a decade ago. And even then, here’s a question—do you know the name of the national Lib Dem leader?
What Tom has to say
It’s annoying, because pretty much everything Andy Patmore says is true; the council does waste money, it does ignore what constituents want – despite their promises to listen. And for all their talk about reducing carbon emissions, they don’t seem to have done much about it – in fact its plans look to make the problem worse, given their proposal to build housing on a flood plain which will require thousands of tonnes of concrete to be poured into the ground before houses can even be built.
It’s just, well. It’s the Tories. You’re picking between a backhand and a punch. The Council does need change—but from them?
What Tom has to say on the Labour leader’s no-show
For Kim Forward not to bother when everyone else did says it all really. She turns up late to meetings. Sometimes she doesn’t even attend.
I have no argument with her or Labour in general but why should I care if they can’t even pretend to?
Being a former member, I find Labour more frustrating than any other party. I don’t get mad at the Tories anymore. They are what they are. Nothing will change that. Eventually you just accept it and work around it. Labour, though… all that unfulfilled potential. All the time they waste on what doesn’t matter to regular people, only to the loudest voices within the party.
They won’t ask proper working class people like tradesman, who Labour is supposed represent, what issues they face—no, instead they’ll scribble ‘solidarity’ on a placard and get a lift to a protest then when they’re done singing, chanting and dancing, they’ll break out the glasses and sabre-open a bottle of bubbly when they’re home and away.
I wonder what the turnout will look like come election day? It certainly won’t be high. I can’t imagine many young will vote—in fact I can’t imagine many even know there is an election at all. Maybe that says more about my generation than local councils, but when the have the chance – in their own words – to engage with people and get them involved and to be held to account for their record is it not a chance they should be grabbing with both hands?
But then I wonder what even is being held to account. It doesn’t feel like voting for a person, or anything really at all. You’re voting for some monolith with whom you have no real interaction except some letters through your door throughout the year that you’ll more than likely bin than open anyway.
They do what they do without our input and even when we do give our input as seen by the bathing pool petition with over 3,000 signatures, they do what they want to do regardless.
Am I a broken record or is the record player broken, because—really, what’s the point?