Observer column: 20 September 2019
Earlier this week, it was announced that Hastings is to benefit from the Heritage Action Zones fund. Up to £2m has been allocated to Hastings for a bid put in by Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust, supported by Hastings Council, for improvements to historic buildings in the Trinity Triangle area.
This is welcome news, and will help to improve some of the historic buildings in this area, including the Congregational Church in Cambridge Road, now partly used as Opus Theatre.
The Heritage Action Zone fund was set up by Historic England a couple of years ago. Now, a more detailed plan will have to be submitted, with the final announcement of the amount and exact nature of the project next January. The bid was for £2m, and there are good indications that the amount awarded will be at or close to that amount.
Hastings was also named in a list of the 100 towns most in need of further regeneration work, to receive funding as part of a 'new' £3.6bn 'Towns Fund'. However, this appears to be a combination of the Future High Streets Fund (which we didn't get in the first round) and something else that was announced back in March called the 'Stronger Towns Fund'.
At the moment, it's not clear how much money we will, or could, get. Our MP said we'd got £25m under this re-badged 'Towns Fund', but the figure hasn't been confirmed officially and is subject to either Hastings Council or East Sussex County Council (we don't know how the process will work at the moment or who will actually be leading it) now putting in a 'proposal'. It's a reflection of a process Hastings Council had already embarked on with the government (via the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) several months ago, proposing the idea of a Hastings 'prospectus' as a basis for longer term funding, rather than having to depend on short-term, competitive bids. Civil servants had responded favourably to the idea, so it's good news that this approach is being recognised as the right way to fund regeneration, as I was describing in my last column. The unconfirmed £25m is somewhat dwarfed by the £250m+ invested in Hastings by the last Labour government for regeneration projects, but it's a start.
What this money doesn't do, of course, is fund any day-to-day services, neither existing ones nor new ones. Hastings Council still has to save £1.5m this year, mostly by reducing or discontinuing services. In the recent public spending announcement by the Chancellor, an additional £2.7bn was announced for local government, but little or nothing will find its way to Hastings Council - it will all go to county and unitary councils. In the meantime, we and many other district councils are faced with massively escalating costs for dealing with homelessness in particular, with annual costs of emergency housing for homeless households increasing by over £300,000 a year, but no recognition or help for this from the government. As well as coping with this, we're just faced with more cuts to our funding.
So a new approach to regeneration funding is welcome, but it's a small part of the picture. It won't solve the current housing crisis and escalating homelessness, and it won't solve the unsustainable cuts that are still being forced onto local authorities.
Council Leader's column