Observer column 7 July 2023
An optimistic future for Hastings
I am writing the column this week from the annual Local Government Conference in Bournemouth. Leaders and Chief Executives from all over England come together to discuss today's challenges and tomorrow's solutions.
And there has been a different atmosphere this week. An atmosphere of hope.
Labour is now the largest party in local government, and so, as we approach a general election in the next year or so, most of the discussions have been about what kind of changes we want to see to make life better for our residents. MPs here are very keen to see a much more positive partnership with local councils than we have had for many years. We need more powers, more freedoms and clarity about funding levels for more than one year at a time. So, I hope the next government will devolve far more so that decisions about services and regeneration are made locally, where residents can feel both influential and involved.
I have been pleased that the two big issues that you raise on the doorstep, access to health and safe, secure, and decent Housing, have been a main focus.
I was able, for instance, to meet the Housing Ombudsman in a session on how badly some landlords, both private and social, treat their tenants. Plenty of national stories that reflect what is happening in Hastings, with tenants unable to get their damp sorted out, their repairs done and their disability needs met. He has asked me to send him details about the worst examples in Hastings, and has promised to investigate.
We heard about the rising numbers of homeless all over the country, as is the case in Hastings, and looked at the options for resolving this. No silver bullet, the panel said, but lots of small changes, many of which we are making locally. The Local Government Association, who organise the conference, have already been to look at how we are managing this, and we will devote our next Cabinet meeting in August to discussing their helpful recommendations.
The busiest session has been about how Leisure Centres need to change, to expand their offer to all those who don't normally use them, as part of a drive to help everyone improve their health, and to redesign how they are powered to save money on heating and lighting by moving to a zero-carbon model (as well as helping to save the planet, of course). It's great that we already have architects working on exactly this, an expanded and refurbished Summerfields, as part of the Levelling Up bid going to Government this autumn.
And I am just off to the launch of a new report from the Kings Fund on how to reorganise health services locally to help people access their GPs and feel better supported. This too is already well underway here, and I expect to announce a new partnership with NHS Sussex very soon.
So after years of cuts, and a sense that councils were seen as dispensable, this conference has cheered me up. Hastings is doing the right things, when you hear what has worked elsewhere, and will now focus on building the partnerships that are essential today. Partnerships with health, with housing, with arts and sports organisations and with our communities.
We are investing £1m in Broomgrove to test this approach. And over the next three years this will deliver better health, better local arts and sports, better support for residents. Let's get this right, and then make sure it happens right across the town.
Council Leader's column