Observer column: 09 February 2018
Does it add up?
On February 21st, Hastings Council will meet to agree a budget for 2018/19. Each year, it gets increasingly difficult to make the books balance. But this year, thanks to efficiency savings and income generation, we've managed to produce a budget with no cuts to front-line services.
I have no involvement in producing the figures that appear in the budget report to the council, nor do I have any influence in selecting which figures appear. The report is put together by finance officers, according to strict local government accountancy rules. This year, the government has cut the grants we receive still further. Revenue Support Grant, the main government grant, has been cut by 24%, to £1.5m. In 2010, this grant was £9m. On top of that, another of our big grants, New Homes Bonus, was cut by 36%. These grants have not been replaced by other sources of government funding.
To cover this gap, the council has run its own services more efficiently, and has developed new income sources. Making the council more efficient has involved a range of actions, from reviewing how staff work, to IT systems that replace manual administrative tasks. We've also made problem reporting and service applications more efficient through the 'My Hastings' website. Income generation has three main strands: commercial property purchases, the council housing company, and energy generation. Commercial property purchases have been especially successful, generating a net income of over £600,000 in a full year. The housing company has started to acquire properties, which will be made available for rent. Energy generation is a potential big earner, but longer term. Hastings Council is intending to establish a local supply network for electricity generated from local sustainable sources, which would both earn the council significant income and make cheap electricity available for local people and businesses. To begin this process, the council will this year be installing solar panels on properties it owns, bringing in around £280,000 net.
Because efficiency savings and rent from new commercial properties were more successful than expected, we have not needed to make any front-line service cuts this year. There will be no staff redundancies, and car park charges will be frozen. We have also had to earmark an additional £163,000 to cope with spiralling homelessness, which means over half a million pounds extra funding will have been spent over two years to cope with what has become a national crisis. We will need to increase Council Tax by £7.48 a year for a band D property, to £257.81 (the maximum allowed, but less than the rate of inflation). But in future years, with even less money from the government, services cuts will be inevitable.
Despite government cuts, the council remains ambitious. We intend to keep up our interventionist approach to improving our town by, for example, continuing to tackle derelict and scruffy buildings, through the Grotbuster scheme, our compulsory purchase programme of empty homes, and our private rented housing licensing scheme. We will continue to seek external grants for new projects and press ahead with our successful programme of cultural regeneration. Hastings is a borough that has transformed its reputation in recent years, from a shabby seaside backwater to the creative capital of the south-east coast. We'll do all we can to build on this, and work in partnership with others to make sure Hastings continues to flourish.
Council Leader's column