Observer column: 01 January 2017
So that's 2016 over - and what a strange year it's been. The Brexit vote and the US elections delivered a couple of unexpected results, although I'm not expecting either to lead to a positive outcome.
Here in Hastings, there was bad news too. Early in the year, we lost John Hodges, borough councillor for Old Hastings with a lifetime of experience in local manufacturing businesses. Brighton University announced the closure of the Hastings Campus. And Hastings Council has seen its government grant cut dramatically, reducing to nothing by 2020.
But despite setbacks, a lot has been achieved. We refurbished the abandoned White Rock Baths to become a world-class BMX arena. We introduced selective licensing, which is already helping to improve private rented properties and flush out bad landlords. The Social Lettings Agency, which leases properties from private owners to house homeless families was established successfully. We curated and ran the ROOT1066 international creative arts festival to celebrate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, with 3,000 local people participating in events, and audience figures of 70,000. We refurbished Bottle Alley, and improved the area around the pier with new kiosks, new surfacing, palm trees, and free wi-fi all along the seafront. We achieved Blue Flag status for St Leonards beach, and completed environmental works to the stream and ponds through Alexandra Park, making the water cleaner and helping us to meet EU water quality standards at Pelham beach. We leased the town hall to the registrar, providing a far more attractive registry office, and refurbished Muriel Matters House as the council's new HQ, saving £150,000 a year on the overall deal. We launched a new website, allowing local people to request and pay for more services online (with more to come). The Grotbuster programme to improve eyesore buildings and Compulsory Purchase Programme for empty homes has continued, with over 50 properties grotbusted and 60 compulsory purchase orders served.
And of course, the pier was reopened, thanks to the hard work and commitment of the Pier Trust who made the dream come true, although the council played its part here too, through the compulsory purchase from a company in Panama and grants to the restoration project.
So the town continues to improve, with positive press coverage, new businesses relocating here, and new shops transforming the town centres, especially in St Leonards.
But there's still plenty to sort out. Street drinking and rough sleeping have increased - problems experienced elsewhere, but something we need to tackle and deal with. Unemployment is still relatively high, and some of our social housing estates remain shockingly deprived. There are big challenges ahead, which are going to be all the tougher to face up to with less government funding. So we'll have to raise the money we need in other ways - especially through new commercial activities. And of course, we must ensure good higher education provision. The University Centre based at the college will help, but we'll be working with partners to approach other universities to set up a campus with decent student facilities and student accommodation - without that, it can't work, as Brighton University found out.
So Happy New Year - as ever, it will be a challenge. But together, we can all help to boost our town's growing reputation, and make it an even better place to live, work and visit in 2017.
Council Leader's column