Observer column: 27 January 2017
Once again, the council is consulting on its budget for the coming year. Gone are the days when we could present a programme of new things we were proposing to do. Now, because of shrinking council budgets, it's much more about what we're going to have to cut to make ends meet.
This year, Hastings Council has received £1.1m less in overall government grant funding than it received last year. Somehow, we have to cover that gap. New income generation initiatives have helped - we've generated around £300,000 from commercial property investments, including purchasing the freehold of the council's own offices, leasing the Town Hall to the registrar, buying the Sedlescombe Road Retail Park, installing new seafront kiosks, and building a new factory for BD Foods. We've saved over £100,000 by making the council more efficient, mostly by investing in new software systems to automate administrative processes and make more services available online. We're proposing to put up Council Tax by £5 a year too, although this will only raise an additional £130,000.
But there are new things we have to pay for too. Stabilising the cliffs will cost £200,000, the new apprenticeship levy costs the council £35,000, and rapidly increasing levels of homelessness will cost an extra £60,000 to deal with. Rate tribunal appeals continue to cost the council money in refunded business rates, which have amounted to hundreds of thousands of pounds over the last few years.
Despite that, we will be maintaining almost all our services at their current levels. For example, the Grotbuster and empty property compulsory purchase programme, which have improved 110 properties over the last year, will continue as before. And there are no reductions in our budgets to maintain our parks and open spaces, or the seafront.
However, considering the scale of grant reductions we're facing, there will have to be some service cuts to balance the books. Which is why we're proposing toilet closures, in Ore and Harold Place. We've put this forward reluctantly, but something has to go. Almost all councils are reducing the number of public toilets they provide, and some no longer provide them at all, or rely on automated fee-paying ones that don't cost anything to run. The Harold Place toilets in particular are expensive to maintain, costing £64,000 a year to run, and the building itself is in poor condition. It will cost around £100,000 to repair and refurbish.
But even with all those savings and additional income, we'll still have to use £500,000 from our reserves to balance the books. These reserves were deliberately built up when there was more money around to help us cope the grant cuts we knew were coming, but they won't last many years. By 2020/21, there will be a gap of more than £2m in the budget, and all the 'gap bridging' reserves will have gone.
So will that mean even more cuts to services? Inevitably there will be some. But the focus for covering that gap will be income generation - more commercial property investments, acquiring and buildings homes for rent, more facilities such as kiosks and chalets on the seafront, as well as more innovative ideas such as energy generation and the council setting up its own energy supply company, which we're considering. It's not going to be easy finding an extra £2m, but we have to do it somehow.
Council Leader's column