Hastings’ Conservatives and Labour clash over council financial pressures

Hastings councillor have clashed over the town’s finances, in light of concerns that reserves could fall below minimum levels.

Friday, 7th January 2022, 4:12 pm

At a full council meeting on Thursday (January 6), Hastings borough councillors discussed the authority’s latest medium term financial plan (published in November), which identified that £1.83 million of additional expenditure is likely to be incurred in the current financial year.

According to meeting papers,  the additional spending would mean the council’s unallocated reserves could dip below £6m, the minimum recommended level, unless around £465,000 of in-year savings were made.

The figures (which were first discussed at a cabinet meeting in November) saw criticism levelled by Conservative councillors, who argued the fault lay with the Labour administration.

Muriel Matters House, Hastings Borough Council offices. SUS-210823-125051001

Among those to voice criticism was St Helens ward councillor Peter Pragnell (Con), who said: “There is a cliché (and clichés exist because they tell the truth) that the problem with socialism is eventually you run out of other people’s money.

“Medium term financial plans for the last 11 and a half years have told the council that we are going to run out of money unless you do something and the ‘doing something’ was minuscule.

“In the early days they used to talk about a cliff edge that was coming and on our side of the chamber we were urging the council to take the necessary actions to turn the cliff edge, [then] five or six years down the road, into a gentler slope over the next few years.

“But, because the Labour group believes that Hastings Borough Council’s existence is to employ people rather than provide services to the people of Hastings and St Leonards, they did nothing. 

“Indeed in one year, when Cllr Chowney was leader, I believe he proudly announced they weren’t going to have any cuts. It was, I believe, an election year. 

“Lo and behold, as they were warned time after time after time, they are running out of money.”

Labour councillors hit back at these criticisms, arguing that the pressures were a direct result of government spending cuts rather than local decisions. 

Peter Chowney, now the council’s lead member for finance, took particular issue with Cllr Pragnell’s comments.

He said: “Cllr Pragnell I usually quite respect, but that was the most ludicrous statement you made there. Utterly ridiculous.

“Socialism is about spending other people’s money? Public services are about spending other people’s money. The NHS is about spending other people’s money. The county council and all government services are about spending other people’s money, in the sense that it comes from taxation. 

“It is just such an utterly ludicrous thing to say. Is he suggesting that the entire country could just run by privatised capitalism? We all just pay for everything. We pay for our health services, we pay for refuse to be collected. Is that how it is supposed to run?”

He added: “The reason our reserves have gone down, the reason we are in the problem we are now, has got nothing to do with overspending. 

“Our spending has been cut and cut and cut. Many services that we used to offer that benefited people in Hastings have gone. All the community development services, all the things that were aimed at the most deprived communities here, all those non-statutory services have pretty much gone now. 

“The money has gone and the reason it has gone is that the government has — since 2010, the last time we had a Labour government — cut the money that Hastings gets year on year on year.”

Cllr Chowny went on to say that the report was now out of date and that further measures to address the additional expenditure would be laid out in the upcoming budget.

According to council papers the additional spending included several one-off costs, such as repairs to the West Hill Cliff Railway and works needed at the Buckshole Reservoir. 

The council described these costs as unexpected, although this was disputed by Conservatives. 

The additional costs also included growing pressures as a result of an increased demand on homelessness services. 

The additional spending means the council’s in-year deficit would rise from the £1.483 million initially projected to £2.292 million.