We could be a unitary council again

Hastings Borough Council is run from Muriel Matters House
Hastings Borough Council is run from Muriel Matters House

There has been news this week of a bit of a tiff between councils in East Sussex, around the financial difficulties of East Sussex County Council. Eastbourne and Lewes are claiming that a combined unitary Eastbourne/Lewes council would be more efficient than East Sussex County Council. Where would that leave Hastings?

Hastings has a long history as a self-governing town. It began in 1155, when Hastings was made the principal ‘Cinque Port’, in return for providing ships for the king. This conferred powers to levy tolls and taxes, punish and execute criminals, and claim goods washed up on local beaches, as well as exemption from national taxes. The town received its Royal Charter, giving it borough status with the right to elect a mayor, in 1588.

Local government in the modern sense was established through the Local Government Act 1888. This created a two-tier system, with county councils and district councils. The most important 60 towns and cities in the country were made ‘county boroughs’ – unitary councils, with the powers of both county councils and district councils. Sussex was divided into East Sussex and West Sussex county councils, with two county boroughs: Brighton and Hastings. Hastings County Borough also had its own police force until 1967.

The Local Government Act 1972 abolished county boroughs and created two-tier local government everywhere. Just 20 years later, another Local Government Act re-created new unitaries in the major population centres (for example, West Midlands, Greater Manchester, and Bristol) and allowed councils to apply for unitary status elsewhere. Since then, many new unitaries have been created, sometimes by combining two district councils, as happened in East Sussex with Brighton and Hove.

Sadly, Hastings has never regained unitary status. Having established itself as one of the biggest towns in the country by end of the nineteenth century, the population declined during the 20th century and didn’t get back to 19th century levels until the 1970s. Other towns grew much faster; Hastings was left behind in terms of its national significance.

The current government has introduced very restrictive rules for new unitary councils. They must be created by combining existing districts along present boundaries resulting in a population of at least 300,000. That’s a problem for any East Sussex model. The population of the whole of East Sussex is only 500,000. Not only would the proposed Eastbourne/Lewes council be too small, it also has the added problem that Eastbourne and Lewes don’t even share a boundary – there’s a bit of Wealden between. So the only model that would work under current rules is a unitary East Sussex, which is not something I’d support.

But the government’s rules are arbitrary and misguided. Creating big unitary councils lumps together very different towns with different local needs, and moves town halls away from local communities. There are smaller unitary councils that were created in 1992 that work perfectly well. Hartlepool, for example, is a unitary council the same size as Hastings, and doesn’t have the scale of financial crisis that’s facing East Sussex County Council. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, or more efficient. At the moment, creating new unitaries of any size won’t solve financial crises – there simply isn’t enough money in the system to run local government services. But with proper council funding, a unitary Hastings would work well. Hastings was a unitary council for 84 years. We could be again.