Observer column: 16 November 2018
Despite the much-vaunted 'end to austerity', there wasn't much in the chancellor's recent budget for Hastings, nor for local government generally. Massive cuts to council grants continue, with no sign of abatement.
Announcements affecting local government were aimed mainly at additional funding for adult social care, which is provided by county and unitary councils rather than district councils such as Hastings. There were some glimmers of hope. The additional rate relief for high street businesses could help revitalise town centres. And public toilets will now be exempt from rates - saving Hastings Council a massive £7,000 from its 17 public toilets, which doesn't go a long way to cover the council's £3m budget deficit, and nationally, won't stop the continuing closures of council-owned public toilets.
There was also £420m for fixing potholes (so that goes to the county council too). But that scarcely scratches the tarmac surface. After nearly a decade of cuts, it's estimated that the true cost of fixing our roads is around thirty times more than the amount the government has made available.
There's also a lift in the cap on borrowing to build council housing, but that doesn't help in Hastings either. Borrowing can only be made against the value of existing housing stock, and as Hastings Council doesn't have any housing stock, it's of no benefit to us.
The continuing cuts to council budgets have led to a system of local authority funding that has become unsustainable and will mean that councils can no longer provide even the most basic statutory services. Despite the extra money for adult social care and potholes, East Sussex County Council recently announced that it would be reduced to its 'core budget' next year. Proposed service reductions include reduced social services support for families and children, longer times taken to process Educational Special Needs statements, removal of the subsidy for meals on wheels, ending improvement support for maintained schools, reducing the number of recycling sites, and more reductions to library services. But even that doesn't release enough cash to balance their budget in the future.
Here in Hastings, to cover the emerging £3m deficit in our budget, we will have to make significant cuts to local services too. But we'll also be pressing ahead with plans to maximise our income from commercial activities - including energy generation, housing development and acquisition, and commercial property purchases. I'd also like to correct a misleading comment made by Cllr Rob Lee in his recent Observer column. The money paid by the previous owner for the Bexhill Road site for the new Aldi supermarket was for a vacant plot of land. The council will be buying a fully developed site, with all the buildings and secure, long-lease tenants, so it's not surprising we paid significantly more. These commercial property deals are relatively quick and easy to do, and bring in hundreds of thousands of pounds for the council, avoiding even deeper cuts. So we'll definitely be doing more of them.
The government has said that the local government Fair Funding Review and public sector Spending Review next year will address the problems with local government finance, and make council services sustainable. But after eight years of such deep, year-on-year cuts, I remain doubtful. Other reviews the government has carried out have promised similar outcomes, but have delivered pretty much nothing. As far as local public services are concerned, there's still no end to austerity in sight.
Council Leader's column