Hastings council leader confirms he is stepping down: ‘It’s been an enormous privilege’

Peter Chowney said leading Hastings Borough Council was an ‘enormous privilege’ as he confirmed he would be stepping down from the role he has held for five years.

Wednesday, 29th January 2020, 12:52 pm
Updated Wednesday, 29th January 2020, 1:53 pm
Peter Chowney

The Labour councillor, who is expected to formally address party members in March, said he will stay on to give advice to his successor and remain a councillor for Tressell ward until his term ends in 2022.

He said: “I shall remain in office until then – by which time I’ll have been a Hastings councillor for 20 years. This year we’ll be making major changes to the senior management structure, so it’s a good time to let someone else take over.

“I’d like to thank everyone throughout Hastings, in the public, business and community sectors, who has helped and supported me over the last five years, and indeed throughout my 10 years in various roles in the Hastings Council cabinet.”

Councillor Chowney, who moved to Hastings with his wife Jo 22 years ago, took over the leadership of Hastings Borough Council in May 2015 following the sudden death of former leader Jeremy Birch.

As the former deputy leader, councillor Chowney was unanimously elected leader of the council in an annual council and mayor-making ceremony on May 27, 2015.

He will officially stand down as leader on March 18.

He said his successor, who is expected to be named in February, will face a difficult task and outlined some of the challenges they face: “The last few years have been a difficult time, with the huge budget cuts we’ve had to make. Over this last year, we’ve had to cover a £2 million budget deficit, with an additional £1 million to find next year.

“Many councils, particularly district councils, are surviving by spending reserves, which is unsustainable.

“While we can still carry out cost-neutral regeneration and redevelopment schemes (such as the Bohemia area leisure project) the funding to cover day-to-day spending on basic services has been cut dramatically since 2010 and it’s no longer sufficient to provide the level of services that local people rightly expect.

“Unless the government provides more funding for councils, local government will become unviable.

“Hastings is a wonderful town. It’s been an enormous privilege to serve our borough as the council leader and it is still an enormous privilege to live in this beautiful, vibrant, creative and eccentric town.”

Rick Dillon, the communications officer for the Hastings and Rye Labour Party, said councillor Chowney ‘should be remembered as the man who helped keep Hastings afloat at a time of austerity and shrinking council budgets’.

He added: “Faced with government-ordered cuts to council budgets – Hastings lost £55 million over 10 years – Peter embraced what he called ‘entrepreneurial socialism’, buying and building commercial property to rent.

“The ability to borrow from a special central fund at low interest rates, and then rent out to businesses, helped the council to both fund its services and boost local jobs.

“He also championed efforts to tackle the homelessness crisis in the town by buying property and entering into long leases with landlords, in order to avoid putting families into disruptive bed and breakfast accommodation.

“Peter took part in two election campaigns as Labour’s parliamentary candidate and may probably be best remembered as narrowly missing unseating the then Home Secretary Amber Rudd in 2017 by just 346 votes.

“He also recognised the threat to us all from climate change when he led efforts to set a target for the council to become carbon-neutral and generate its own green energy.

“Peter rides an electric bike, and nowadays shuns air travel. But he admits to having a weakness for classic cars.”

Reflecting on councillor Chowney’s decision, councillor Rob Lee, leader of the Conservatives on Hastings Borough Council, said: “Peter’s Legacy will be the huge debts that the council now has and it will take many decades for Hastings to recover from his time in leadership.”

Liberal Democrat Nick Perry added: “I have said elsewhere that Peter has given his best and deserves thanks.

“Labour locally and nationally is at a crossroads. I hope they will choose a route which promotes progressive alliances.

“As we look back over his tenure as leader, what is most striking to me is the disparity between the ardent socialist rhetoric and the speculator tendencies of his Labour Council: in a word – not many council houses built and rather a lot of risky debt incurred.”