Don’t confuse councils when voting

The Borough Leader with Cllr Peter Chowney
The Borough Leader with Cllr Peter Chowney

In a ‘two-tier’ council area such as Hastings, people are often confused about what the borough council does, and what is the responsibility of other agencies. So as we approach the council elections on May 3rd, here’s an overview of who does what, and how that might change in the future.

In most parts of the country, one council is responsible for all local government services. However, here in Hastings, we have two ‘tiers’: East Sussex County Council, and Hastings Borough Council. The elections on May 3rd are for Hastings Council – elections to the county council took place last year. The borough and county councils are two quite separate organisations, with different management structures, different decision-making processes, and different councillors. While they do work together on many issues, they are independent of each other, and cannot formally influence each other’s decisions and policies.

As a general rule, county councils provide fewer, more expensive services. District councils provide more (and generally more prominent) but cheaper services. East Sussex County Council services include adult social care, children’s services, libraries, public health, highway maintenance, street lighting, on-street parking, trading standards and waste disposal. Hastings Council services include parks and gardens, culture and museums, waste collection, street cleaning, sport and leisure, environmental health, housing standards, homelessness, off-street parking, licensing, council tax collection, housing benefits, street wardens and community safety, cemetery and crematorium, and seafront services. Some non-statutory services, such as economic development and community grants, are provided by both councils. As all schools in Hastings apart from one are now academies, neither council has much involvement in schools here.

Public services that are the responsibility of neither council include benefits (apart from housing benefit), drains and sewers, trade waste collections, and further education. For a few services, for example building control and health & safety, there’s a mixture of council, government, and private companies involved. Hastings Council does not provide any social rented housing – all its council housing was transferred to a housing association 20 years ago.

To simplify this confusing picture, there has been a gradual move away from two-tier government, with the establishment of single-tier ‘unitary’ councils. All councils in Wales and Scotland are unitary, as they are in London and other metropolitan areas. Several English county areas have moved to unitary administration too. One of the considerations in deciding the boundary of a new unitary council is size. Generally, although not entirely, bigger councils are cheaper to run (relative to several smaller councils). But they’re also less responsive to, and less aware of, local views and problems.

It seems likely that over the next 20 years, two-tier government will disappear. Could that result in a unitary Hastings Council? Under current government policy, that’s unlikely. But a unitary Hastings could work. Hastings is bigger (in population) than the three smallest unitary councils in England, the four smallest in Wales, and the eight smallest in Scotland. Indeed, it’s bigger than five European nation states. Hastings is quite different from rural East Sussex in many ways, in its demographics, economics, and politics. Whatever political party runs Hastings, the council is going to be more responsive to local needs than an administration based thirty miles away.

But for now, the election on May 3rd is for the borough council, not the county council. So please bear that in mind when casting your vote.