Observer column: 6 March 2020
I'm standing down as Hastings council leader on March 18th, so this will be my last Observer column. It's a good opportunity to reflect on my five-year term as leader.
The biggest challenge has been the huge cuts to our funding. Many services we used to provide have gone, and those that remain have been reduced. I have worked in and around local government for almost forty years. But these last five have been the worst. I have spent so much time trying to balance the budget, deciding what services we can cut and what staff we will have to make redundant. That can be dispiriting, and it isn't what I ever wanted to do.
But there are things over the last five years that I'm proud of. We've reduced the effect of the cuts through purchases of commercial properties, generating over a million pounds in net additional income. We're one of only a couple of councils in the country where the poorest in our communities still don't have to pay any Council Tax. We've kept services that many councils have discontinued altogether - for example, we still maintain 17 public toilets, we still support many festivals and events, our public parks and museum have continued to thrive, and we still have a Tourist Information Centre.
Our regeneration initiatives have been successful and nationally famous - for example, transforming the derelict former swimming baths on the seafront into the world's largest underground skate park, with the help of The Source who now run it. We've done well with our bids to external grant funds, resulting in funding to help our fishing fleet, to create projects that support community development and employment training in the most deprived areas of town, to create a hundred new social rented homes with Optivo Housing Association by converting abandoned buildings in St Leonards, to put on the ROOT1066 arts festival to commemorate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hasting, and much more. I'm also proud that we were one of the first councils in the country to declare a climate emergency.
And this week, we've been named by the government as one of the top ten most successful councils in reducing the number of rough sleepers, supporting them into permanent accommodation.
There are new initiatives in the pipeline, including a new business start-up facility in Hollington incorporating a business training skills centre, a new restaurant building in Harold Place, the ambitious redevelopment of White Rock and Bohemia Quarter to create a new leisure centre, swimming pool and entertainment venue, all at no net cost. And there will be an action plan to make Hastings carbon neutral by 2030.
These projects, and more, will now be the responsibility of Kim Forward, who will be the new council leader, to be formally elected on March 18th. I have every confidence in Kim, who has been my deputy for the last five years, and know she will be able to deal with the financial crisis we still face, as well as these new initiatives, and more.
So it's over to Kim. Thank you for reading this column over the last five years, and thank you for all the support and encouragement so many of you have given me. I shall remain as a councillor, and will continue to work for, and enjoy, our wonderful, vibrant, beautiful, exciting and eccentric borough!
Council Leader's column