Observer column: 24 December 2018
This New Year, councils have a lot to cope with. As well as increased demands on their services, with homelessness in particular rocketing, there have been huge cuts to central government grants. And after this coming year, we're looking into an unknown future.
In Hastings, the borough council has had its government grants cut from £10m in 2010 to less than £2m, meaning we've lost over £40m in total from an annual budget of around £14m. This has been mitigated by income generation from commercial property purchases and other initiatives, but there have still been service cuts and job losses - eight years ago, Hastings Council had 600 employees. Now it has about 350.
Over the past four years, we've had an 'agreed settlement' for the money we get from government, so we knew what cuts were coming. For the 2019-20 budget, there are some very big cuts we'll have to make. We need to reduce spending by around £1.5m to make the books balance, although we might have to use reserves to achieve that. To plan the budget for the following year, we're assuming that government grants will disappear, and we'll be given no additional funding. That means we have a £3m budget gap emerging. But we're guessing. The government is carrying out several public sector spending reviews next year - they might mean we get more, or we might get even less, because we might not be allowed to keep as much of our business rates as we do now.
Despite these huge cuts, Hastings Council has managed to protect the poorest people in our community. We are one of only nine (out of 419) councils that still provide 100% Council Tax reduction for people on out-of-work benefits. I will be proposing to the January Cabinet meeting that we maintain this for 2019-20. We will probably be the only council in the country to do this.
Fortunately, Hastings Council has been very good at bidding for, and winning, money from external funding sources, which allow us to complete 'one-off' projects. During 2017, we secured £6.7m in competitive external funding, with around £3.2m coming from the EU. These grants have paid for improvements to the seafront for example, including new kiosks and the award-winning Bottle Alley lighting scheme. During the coming year, we'll be building a new visitor centre at the country park, and a new decorative and play feature in the old White Rock fountains. We can also embark on projects that pay for themselves, such as the selective licensing scheme that's brought about big improvements in the private rented sector, or the proposed redevelopment of White Rock Gardens and Bohemia Quarter, to include a new leisure centre and performance venue. We'll also be doing as much as we can to help combat climate change, including a programme of sustainable energy generation and a review of our local plan to introduce more rigorous standards for building energy efficient homes. And in June, our new in-house street cleaning service will get started, bringing better standards of cleanliness and responsiveness throughout the borough.
These are tough times for local government. And we face a future that is not just uncertain, but unknown. Nevertheless, we'll continue to do all we can to provide quality services, as well as looking for ways to make improvements to the borough, and keep it special for those who live, work and visit here.
Council Leader's column