Parties respond to Hastings Borough Council election results
Voters took to the polls last Thursday (May 6) to have their say on who should sit on Hastings Borough Council.
The results saw a significant changing of hands, with the Conservatives gaining four seats from Labour and the Greens winning their first council seat in a previously Labour-voting ward.
The council does not operate all-out elections, meaning only 16 out of the 32 seats were contested this time round. Of those 16, eight are now held by Conservatives, seven by Labour and one by the Green Party.
With these results in mind, we approached the town’s political leaders to share their thoughts on the results.
‘Sad to have lost hardworking councillors’
Labour council leader Kim Forward said: “I’m really sad we have lost some really hardworking local councillors.
“The people we lost were really committed to their wards and local people. I really value their input and I think local residents did as well, because we have had quite a lot of messages of positive support for those councillors who have lost their seats.
“But we are still in control of the council, we still have a majority so I am pleased that is still the case and that the residents of our town – notwithstanding the losses we’ve suffered – have still elected us on our manifesto to continue working in the best interests of our town.
“It’s great for any organisation to have new people in and I am particularly pleased we have got some new Labour councillors, younger councillors as well, with a variety of experiences and backgrounds and some more diversity, which is really important.”
Cllr Forward said she was particularly pleased that the new councillors are women, saying the Labour group now had an almost 50/50 balance of men and women (nine to 10) as a result. She added that the Labour group was keen to improve its representation further.
The results were bruising for Labour, however. It lost four seats to the Conservatives and failed to win back a seat it had won at the last election in Old Hastings.
Had this been an all-out election and the votes followed the same party lines (by no means a guaranteed result), Labour could have lost control of the council. So what did sway the votes on the day?
“I think it is really difficult to try and speculate why that might be, because there are so many factors that come into play at the moment,” Cllr Forward said.
“We are aware of the national things, there is a bit of a feel good factor at the moment because more and more people have been vaccinated, so I think it’s really, really difficult to say what is actually going on.
“Clearly people are incredibly concerned about climate change and that is why that is one of our top priorities. We’ve got our climate change strategy, we’ve got our action plan and we are really looking to work in partnership with everyone.
“I think the last year has not been the best year in terms of getting their message out clearly and coherently to the electorate.
“The year has been really focused on supporting the town and its residents, keeping everyone as safe as possible and partnership working. That has been the real focus and not necessarily pushing the more political messages.”
One thing Cllr Forward was keen to push back on however were her opponents’ assertions that the council did not listen to its residents.
She said: “We will always be looking at opportunities to engage with people and hear voices, however when you have the responsibility for being the administration running the council you do have a duty to make decisions that you think are in the best interest of all residents, not just some of them.
“I think some of the more difficult issues that have been made will affect some people who think they are negative decisions. But there are a whole raft of other people who will be cheering about the fact, for example, there is going to be more housing built.
“It is always a fine balance and there is a difference I think between listening to people, hearing their voices, and then having to make that difficult decision.”
Tory candidates ‘worked particularly hard’
For Conservative group leader Andy Patmore, however, the results were down to a combination of his party’s campaigning on local issues and voters’ frustrations with the Labour group.
He said: “Locally there were some huge issues at play, especially around building and development. Residents have been very vocal about certain aspects of sites such as the Old Marina site or Old Bathing Pool site and the site at Bulverhythe.
“The Labour group haven’t listened to the residents and the residents haven’t felt listened to. I think they have been taken for granted. I saw on social media that lifelong Labour voters were not going to support them locally.
“I think local issues played a huge part in the campaign, but I think complacency from the Labour group was also a huge issue here too.”
He added: “I’ll just give you the example of the Old Bathing Pool site in West Marina. There is a Facebook group with 3,000 people on it and they have incredible ideas for this site.
“The Labour administration just don’t want to listen to those ideas and I think people have voted with their feet. You can see by the result in West St Leonards, where it was almost a referendum on some of the development projects which are going on there.
“Of course, the council are under huge pressure to build more homes and build affordable homes, but we have a fairly small footprint in Hastings and we can’t do that at the expense of all of our green land, green playing fields and green areas.”
As well as retaining their seats in areas such as West St Leonards, the Conservatives picked up several new wards from Labour, including Baird, Silverhill and Ore. All of which had been Labour seats since 2012.
Cllr Patmore said: “I think the candidates for those areas worked particularly hard. They were good candidates and they had a good story to tell.
“Again I think Labour have taken those voters for granted in the past and we didn’t. We wanted to listen to people and they came out and voted for us.
“It has always been our task to put forward issues that local people have really wanted to bring to the council’s attention. I think that is what we are going to be doing.”
Given last Friday’s results, Cllr Patmore is already looking ahead to next May, when the remaining 16 council seats will be up for election too.
Cllr Patmore said: “The voters get a chance in 12 months to hold Labour to account again. I feel like my job is only half done and I think we will double our efforts to make sure we have genuine change in the borough of Hastings.
“I think there is an incredible chance to do that. If the election results were for an all-out election we would have had half of the seats and probably had enough to control the council.
“If we look at 12 months time and double up on all the seats we’ve won this time round, then there is a very good chance we can control the council and there will be genuine change for people. We will genuinely do things differently.”
The election also saw a significant breakthrough for the Green Party, which picked up its first seat in Old Hastings.
The ward saw the highest turnout of voters across Hastings, with more than 52 per cent of those voters backing the Greens.
Newly-minted councillor Julia Hilton (also the area’s new county councillor) said the result came after years of hard work in the ward.
She said: “We’ve been working since 2017. We are well known and we’ve been seen to be working on some fairly major campaigns over the years. It’s not a flash in the pan, last time – three years ago now because of the delay in the elections – I came within 29 votes of winning.
“You often get as a Green, when you talk to people on the doorstep, people saying ‘oh, I would love to vote for you but you don’t stand a chance’. This time we could tell people that we did stand a chance and that they could vote Green and get Green.
“I think it really shows we are not just a fringe party or just a campaigning organisation. We are a serious political force and we can win.
“This wouldn’t have happened without the most amazing volunteers on the ground. There was a core team of five, but I’ve asked for a list of everybody who campaigned and there were 40 people on that list, who have gone out and delivered newspapers, put up posters and spoke to people on the doorstep.
“That’s what got us over the line. That amazing energy on the ground, which really, really wanted to see a breakthrough for the Greens locally.”
Like Cllr Patmore, Cllr Hilton said voters had expressed frustration with how the council communicates with residents. She said: “One of the things people often told us on the doorstep is that they don’t feel listened to by the council.
“I think there is a real lesson [to learn] from other councils and these aren’t just Green councils these are Labour councils as well. We need to be working much more closely with local communities and the amazing stuff that is already going on in Hastings, because councils are still strapped for cash.
“It still feels a bit them and us. ‘Oh, that’s the community doing their stuff and we do ours and then we do our consultation and it’s all a bit tick box’.
“What I would really like, if I can, is to start changing the narrative about that and asking all the time, especially with the town deal coming up to make sure that can be a different model of working.”
She added: “Surely we can change structures a bit. Like full council, people just get up and say their bit. I know we need to cover all the constitutional stuff, but surely there would be opportunities to make that a more interactive forum for local people.”
Most of the new councillors are set to attend their first meeting next Wednesday (May 19), when the council holds its post-election annual meeting.
Due to lifting of powers under the Coronavirus Act, the council will have to meet in person, although the proceedings will continue to be broadcast online.