Hastings council leader Peter Chowney has welcomed a ‘year off from cuts’ as the council passed its annual budget this week.
At a meeting last night (Wednesday, February 21), Hastings Borough councillors agreed to pass the Labour group's proposed budget, rejecting an amendment by the Conservative group to make cuts of £729,400.
As a result council tax will rise by 2.99 per cent, the maximum amount the council can raise without holding a referendum. This will amount paid to the council by the average band D household this year rise from £250.33 to £257.81. When combined with increases agreed or proposed by other authorities the 2018/19 band D council tax bill for Hastings residents could come to £1,907.83
In introducing the 2018/19 budget, Cllr Chowney said: “I would like to reflect a bit first of all about how much money we’ve actually lost over the last few years. Since 2010/11, in the budget then the equivalent money, through area-based grants and points-based grants, we got was £12.7 million. In 2018/19, the coming year, through money from the Revenue Support Grant, business rates and the New Homes Bonus, we’ll get just £3.9m.
"That gives you an idea of the scale of the cuts we’ve had to cope with and still keep the council running.”
The council leader said that despite the cuts to government funding the council had, through ‘good management and income generation’, ensured it finished the year with £1m more than it had originally predicted.
Cllr Chowney said: “Because we’ve done much better than expected this year we decided – for the sake of the stability of the council, for staff morale and for the stability for service users as well – that it was a good year to have a year off from the cuts. We have put together a budget this year where there are no cuts to front line services, no redundancies to staff and also we’ve even managed to freeze car parking charges.
"We're very pleased with what we've been able to achieve."
However the decision not to make significant cutbacks was criticised by Conservative group leader Rob Lee, who put forward an amendment calling for the council to make £729,400 of cuts – £673,000 of which would be made by cutting the equivalent of 17.3 full time jobs.
Cllr Lee said: “Unfortunately I think that denial sometimes creeps in when we are talking about the money. For example, being able ‘to take a year off’ from austerity. My gosh, what a privileged position the council is in to be able to do that.
"However it is not a ‘year off’ Cllr Chowney. What it is, is a postponement. When you postpone making difficult decisions this year, what you are doing in fact is storing it up for next year."
The Conservative amendment also included plans to refurbish and reopen the toilets in Harold Place. They estimated the refurbishment would cost the council around £150,000 from its capital reserves and around £60,400 each year after turnstile charges were deducted from the operating costs.
Cllr Lee said: “The Harold Place toilets remain abandoned, boarded up, neglected. An important facility gone from our town. How can we be an inclusive council if we’re going to shut off the centre of town to people who are not as able as I am to use it.”
However this plan came in for criticism from Labour councillors, including Mike Turner of Baird Ward who said that the Conservative leader had previously voted in favour of closing the Harold Place toilets .
Cllr Turner said: “Cllr Lee voted for the closure of these toilets in the [2017/18] cabinet committe only to vote against the closure of the toilet in the budget part of the meeting. Again, it’s political opportunism. Why don't you have the courage to stand up in the first instance and say 'I supported this'. Come clean."
The meeting also saw heated debate over the council's income generation plans, which has seen large investments in buy-to-lease commercial properties. The investments, several of which have been approved in the last year, have been criticised as 'risky' by the Conservative group.
Cllr Lee said that the Conservative group agreed with many of the income generation projects but had fears over taking out long-term loans to purchase commercial property.
He said: "The long-term risks around retail are well-documented especially as we are borrowing the money. It is a well-known bubble in the sector and it terrifies civil servants in Whitehall, it terrifies industry experts in commercial property and it should terrify the general public as well."
Meanwhile, Conservative deputy leader Andy Patmore said: "We get criticised here and on cabinet about voting against certain income generation schemes. It's just an impassioned point of view that I would say we have for the general public and the risks we take with public money. We all take risk upon ourselves but we do not take risks publicly."
Quoting Labour MP (and former chairman of the parliamentary public accounts committee) Meg Hillier, Cllr Patmore added: "I would just like to remind the party opposite of a particular paragraph, 'the danger is a repeat of the Icelandic banking crash, when councils were overexposed to one market. A crash in the value of offices or shopping centres could have a very big impact, with councils suddenly owning a lot of white elephants.'
"I can only wholly agree with the sentiment of that statement."
Responding to the criticism and the proposed amendment, councillor Tania Charman said: "You're too late, you bring all this to full council? You're far too late. You play this typical game every year and it's rather boring. You just pick at things, you take low blows it's really, really not good.
"We've fared well in this council. Why? Because we work hard, the proof is in the pudding. Already a million pound income in two years. Okay, it's a start. It will get bigger trust us."
Later in the debate, Cllr Chowney also spoke about the income generation scheme. He said: "The risks of not doing income generation, not taking this forward to our town for its prosperity and the people who live here, are far greater than the risks we are anticipating through commerical property, energy generation and the other council investments we intend to make."