Hoping austerity will be cut back

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

After the general election campaign, it’s time to settle back to being council leader. It was a close run contest, and I’d like to thank the 25,322 people who voted for me, and the 2,000+ who helped with the campaign, as well as congratulating Amber Rudd on her victory.

It’s too early to judge what the implications are of the general election for local government, and for Hastings in particular. Under the previous government’s proposals, councils were set to lose all their Revenue Support Grant funding by 2021, which would mean Hastings losing a further cumulative £8m, on top of the £30m we’ve already lost since 2010. With cuts on this scale, it would be inevitable that local services would suffer, with more service reductions and closures. Hastings Council is bringing in a significant programme of income generation, through sustainable energy generation schemes and commercial property investment in particular, but it couldn’t make up for grant cuts on this huge scale.

However, there is no longer a parliamentary majority for the government’s austerity programme - even the DUP are opposed to continued austerity cuts, as are all other political parties represented in parliament apart from the Conservatives. So we can perhaps be hopeful that at least some elements of the austerity programme will be relaxed, and cuts restored. Whether that includes proposed cuts to local government funding remains to be seen.

But there are still projects the council is carrying out arising from successful bids to external funds, mostly from the European Union. These include a successful bid to an EU programme for sustainable building projects, which gives around £800,000 to build a new visitor centre in the country park, using straw bale construction techniques. There’s around a million pounds of EU funding for the second round of Fisheries Local Action Group projects too, to support the local fishery. Our bid to the Coastal Communities Fund will pay for a number of interlinked projects, including the restoration of ‘Rock Alley’, which runs alongside the old Observer building, to make this a through route to the seafront. It will also fund support to local businesses, an events and training programme at The Source BMX park, further small business units at Rock House, and a new water feature to replace the former fountains above White Rock Baths. And the seafront ‘minitram’ is still in there, with bids to two different funds potentially helping with that – these funds have been delayed several times, but I’m convinced we’ll see the mini-tram operating along the seafront, eventually.

But while this money is welcome, it’s not an ideal way to pay for local government. We can only fund things that are supported by the criteria for particular grants, rather than using to money to avoid cuts and closures of other services. It’s also wasteful – a lot of time is spent putting the bids together, which are often in several stages, and then there’s a lot of bureaucracy involved in getting approval for spending too. What would be better would be to end the austerity cuts, and allow councils to maintain services as well as fund the projects they think are most locally appropriate. Perhaps we’ll start to see some changes, after the general election result. We can but hope.