Cllr Rob Lee is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Hastings Borough Council.
Nestled on the south-east coast, Hastings makes up about four-fifths of the marginal Hastings and Rye constituency. Hastings Borough Council (HBC) has been under Labour control since 2010 when they narrowly won control. Hoping to win back control in 2012, the Conservatives slipped further behind in what was a disappointing set of local election results for many people around the country, in the wake of the ‘omnishambles‘ budget.
There the Conservatives have stayed. Currently, the makeup of the council is eight Conservative seats to Labour’s 23. There are no Lib Dems or Greens but there is a single independent – who I will get to later. The council is split into 16 two-member wards and, slightly unusually, we go up for election in halves. Only a handful of councils still go up in halves and it is an example of Labour not wishing to save money by going for four-yearly elections.
There have been some good signs in recent years that electorally things might be changing. We held on to the parliamentary constituency with an increased majority in 2015 and narrowly held on in 2017 when similar seats were lost elsewhere. In the county elections, just before that General Election, we made big gains in the borough divisions, gaining three seats off Labour, leaving the split at county level for the Hastings seats being four all. Last year we held our own at Borough and swapped a seat with Labour, only losing in St Helens Ward by nine votes, but winning convincingly in the traditionally marginal West St Leonards Ward by 56.
The Council’s performance is less than impressive however and the last few years have been marred by poor leadership and bad decisions. The Harold Place toilets in the town centre were earmarked for destruction and plans (but no secured funding) were in place to turn the site into a restaurant. With public outcry locally, and a campaign led by the Conservatives to save them, the Labour administration panicked and accelerated the time table for demolition. The grant they had applied for to build a restaurant was not given and the high street chain they had lined up to install into the site didn’t return their calls. Over a year later and there is just a big ugly hole in the middle of the town centre surrounded by hoarding. The public loses again. They have lost the use of a central public amenity and have paid over £100,000 to have it taken away from them.
After many years and several false starts, work has begun on the new visitors centre in Hastings country park. A modest size building that will be partly constructed using straw. An EU grant was available for the project. Despite that, spiralling costs and delays have meant that the council has put £367,000 of money into the project that it first approved in 2014. With the EU grant this brings the total build costs to over £770,000. This equates to over £3,400 per square metre (£318 per square foot) to construct (out of straw) making it one of (if not the) most expensive buildings in the Borough.
Despite the faltering performance of the retail sector nationally, the Labour administration has decided to borrow heavily so that they can buy up retail units within the town. The units are, at best, second rate cast-offs from larger portfolio holders who are quite wisely discarding the riskier end of their property collections to naïve local councils – and Hastings, it appears, is one of those naïve councils. Quite a large collection of units has now been bought with borrowed money, tiny margins are forecast, and no preparations have been made for contingencies such as void periods. The tens of millions borrowed are on terms of up to fifty years, long after the nature of retail shopping may have changed and the future of the units have become unsure, leaving us with a debt time bomb for further generations.
One of the most troubling things about the modern Labour Party is the racism – and Hastings Labour is complicit in it. The independent Councillor I mentioned at the beginning of this article was elected as Labour in 2018 and is Jewish. She has left the party due to the racism she has encountered within the local party. The situation is heightened by the joint chair of the JVL (Jewish Voice for Labour) being a Labour councillor in Hastings.
Despite the gloom over its failing council, Hastings is an exciting and beautiful town with much to offer young families (including my own) and it remains a popular tourist destination for day-trippers and weekend visitors. There has been some good economic improvement since 2010 but it still has some distance left to travel. There is great potential in Hastings which needs to be unlocked and it needs a business-friendly Conservative Council to do that. This is part of the offer that we will put forward next year to residents, along with more focus on homelessness and rough sleeping, and ensuring that Hastings becomes a cleaner and greener town.