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A Poverty of Vision - Deprivation is Worsening in Hastings and St Leonards

October 14, 2019 5:41 PM
By Nick Perry

Graph (Source: Russell Hall)The newly released 2019 Index of Multiple Deprivation shows Hastings Borough becoming more deprived in seven out of the 11 identified domains, which has got to be a major cause for concern for all of us who care about it.

Without doubt, the Conservative Government funding deal for councils since 2015 has been unfair, and has taken its toll, even though, by then, the budget deficit had been halved after the financial crash of 2008-10, allowing a loosening of the reins.

Having said this, as I witnessed on Facebook last week, any suggestion that Hastings' Labour Council should be held accountable for its performance in respect of our poorest neighbourhoods generates howls of rage from hard-line local Labour diehards, unable to deal with the fact that their party is in power here.

Let's be clear. However tough the national funding settlement is, all councils have choices on what they organise, how they prioritise and who gets what slice of the meagre pie they have been given.

And to be honest 'how to do regeneration' is not a new discussion here in Hastings. It has been going on for decades.

The Labour Council is the establishment, having been in office with big majorities since 2010. And it looks like it has been as seduced by a 'flashy building projects' approach to regeneration as was the Tory administration immediately before it.

The Labour leader of the Council sits on the Board of Sea Space, Sea Change (Sea Sick, or whatever it is called now), the totally opaque, unaccountable quango that has managed to spend millions and millions of pounds on unused commercial square footage in the town centre and the failed Enviro 21 industrial park off Queensway.

The very same organisation that successfully arranged for the Queensway Gateway Road to be built at the expense of the Hollington Valley and its bio-diversity. To what regeneration end?

Hundreds of millions of regeneration pounds have been spent here over the past 20 years (mainly in town, not so much the rural parts of the constituency) yet what do we have to show for them apart from some big, newish buildings and a railway station with a facelift that is already looking tired?

Sadly, as the new figures show, whatever we are doing is just not working for our poorest neighbourhoods.

So, what should happen instead?

As someone who started his working life in community development projects, it seems obvious to me that we need to do much more than invest in 'flash building projects'. It is more effective to focus efforts on re-working budgets and co-ordinating services around our most deprived neighbourhoods.

So, for example, the Council could have decided to use its considerable land and property portfolio to set up a network of one-stop hubs powered by solar energy in our local neighbourhoods. These buildings could be used to provide a range of easy-to-access community and outreach services that encourage and engage residents (rather than cost extra bus or taxi fares).

Hastings Borough's deprivation indices are built on inter-generational disadvantage going back 50 years. This is the pattern that must shift if the results are to change for the better. Low local skill levels can put off businesses moving in: there needs be a revolution in education and skills, not just for children and young adults but for their mums and dads too. Excellent primary and secondary schooling with extra tutoring where needed are key to opening up life chances, but we have to go way beyond this.

When Brighton University decided to pull out, after millions of pounds of investment, why was there no real effort to get another university to open a satellite here? Or, using our reputation as a creative town, why did the Council not try to get a leading arts school to take over the campus? Instead, they raised the white flag and shamefully allowed us to become Britain's shortest-lived university town.

'Hand-ups' rather than hand-outs must be the spirit of what we do. And that help must be accompanied by well-designed council housing, decent neighbourhood-based facilities and by apprenticeships and jobs. Art and sport matter too as they do so much to build confidence and self-esteem. Why, for example, were the opportunities to work with Hastings United not taken forward when they were presented?

And why can't we just get the Hastings Greenway done, with all the public health, community access and sustainable transport benefits it would bring?

Hastings Borough Council needs to seriously up its game and be the radical and strategic lead organisation joining up the services that disadvantaged neighbourhoods need, in nicely designed, green, fit for purpose buildings. This is where the regeneration millions should have been going. Not to carpet long-empty office blocks like Priory Quarter.

I have written elsewhere recently that Hastings Pier winning the Stirling Prize for architecture back in 2017 appears to have been a missed opportunity in respect of kick-starting a Borough-wide commitment to good design, especially since we have an incredible architectural heritage here in Hastings and St Leonards. We only need look at this year's Stirling winner - new council housing commissioned in Labour-held Norwich - to see what is possible.

Instead, what do we see here? An Ore Valley Community Land Trust team evicted from long-unused land in order that one of the nation's big estate agents could market the site for mainstream commercial gain.

This is a bizarre case of pulling the lifeline on a community-led project in a poorly served area offered a chance to make its own future on a site that had been empty for decades. Now the likely outcome is another bog-standard housing estate by a mainstream developer. Let's hope the affordable housing requirement is enforced this time.

The Council's overriding aim must be to try to provide excellence in our deprived neighbourhoods, not just moan about central government, and accept sub-standard materials due to sub-standard revenue grants.

Everything the Council does should be about investing in the town, seeking every means available to liberate people from some of the worst deprivation in the country.

We must shout this from our East and West Hilltops. We must get ourselves on (faster) trains to lobby Government ministers. We must get them back down to our Borough, helping to create a programme of change that will turn things around.

Being defensive serves no purpose other than to condemn our most disadvantaged neighbours to more of the same. The challenge for all of us local politicians is to shift the numbers in the right direction and help people reach their potential. The town is getting great press and making strides after decades of being written off but let's make sure we can all share the spoils in a way that, frankly, isn't currently the case.

Nothing less than that is good enough, and the new MP for Hastings and Rye should make this work the priority.