In Hastings, this is a story that just runs and runs. Whose fault IS it that we are having all these toilet troubles?
On the 28th April, many local residents received a letter from Amber Rudd, First Class, and produced on House of Commons notepaper.
She said she had been “contacted by concerned local residents about the decision taken by the Labour controlled HBC to close the Ore toilets from next year,” but according to Facebook comments at the time, the letter went to a lot of people who had *not* contacted her about toilets. She said it concerned her as a resident of Hastings Old Town, and she was writing to “local resident(s) of Ore” with a promise “to continue to put pressure on the council to reverse its decision…” you could easily think that’s a message about Ore, but it’s not.
She said “I support local councillors who opposed the closure of the Harold Place toilets and, if I am re-elected after 8 June, I will continue to work closely with them over the coming months to seek to protect the Ore toilets’ future.”
This raised a number of questions in the recipients’ minds, not least whether it’s normal to write to residents from the House of Commons (on paper paid for by the tax payer) on an issue that was a burning one in the on-going county council elections.
Another was that, if she was such a concerned local resident, why was she unaware that, after consultations with residents by local Labour councillors, the results of which they took to HBC, it had already been decided to keep the Ore toilets open.
Yet another question was why Rudd was determined to continue to put pressure on “the Labour controlled HBC”, and yet had nothing to say about the neighbouring, Tory run Rother council, which was at that time considering closing most of the toilets in their jurisdiction.
The whole thing got rather more intense when Labour lost Ore ward in the county elections by a mere 71 votes, and many people wondered whether that little surge in Tory voters had anything to do with a mistaken conclusion that their toilets were in danger and the Tories would save them.
The intensity rose still further when the Hastings and St Leonards Observer accepted a missive for their letters page in the run up to the general election claiming that the Ore toilets, which had been rescued, were in the Labour candidate Peter Chowney’s own ward, strongly suggesting that they were saved cynically to aid his bid to become an MP. That particular claim was laid to rest in an answering letter in another edition, pointing out that Chowney was NOT an Ore councillor – but how many people must have believed the first claim? And Rudd’s full-page advert duly appeared, now focusing on the town centre toilets (she’d worked out by then that that her concern for Ore was misplaced.)
She has not, though, turned her concern towards the toilets in Rother which are likely to be closed by Tory councillors so, now both county and general elections are over and done, let’s have some of the facts behind the whole toilets business somewhere where we can see them, in case the great argument comes up again.
As Peter Chowney has stated elsewhere, many councils have had to close public toilets. There are none in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. None in Tory-controlled Wandsworth. There is only one in the whole of Manchester. There are none in Brighton City Centre. This year, Bournmouth are proposing to close 14 of their public toilets. This situation is not ideal. Most towns now rely to a great extent on facilities provided by commercial organisations – the toilets we have in Priory Meadow are an example. This can be a problem, as indeed we discovered when the Harold Place closure was announced, and we discovered the Priory Meadow ones bearing a “temporary closure” notice. HBC had to remind the shopping centre of their contractual duty to get them re-opened. Amber Rudd did not intervene.
So why are councils closing public toilets? Peter Chowney said: “This year, the council had a £1.2m cut in its government grant, from a £15m net budget. We managed to save/generate income of about £400,000, from commercial property investments, ‘digital by design’ programme (getting more services online), and other internal reorganisation… We will still have to use about half a million from reserves next year to balance the books. Some service cuts are inevitable.
“In rural areas, councils have handed over toilets to town and parish councils, who can raise a precept to cover the cost of toilets (the parish precept isn’t capped). This is why there are public toilets in Cranbrook, Appledore, and Tenterden, for example. We have no parish councils in Hastings.”
So, faced with these difficulties and expenses, the council closed what they considered to be the least necessary and most expensive toilets on their list – “Harold Place toilets cost £64,000 a year to run, and need £100,000+ spending on them for structural repairs.” – at the same time taking steps to ensure other toilets in the vicinity were re-opened, and laying plans for possible replacements at Harold Place – “When closed,” said Chowney, “the toilets will be demolished. They will be replaced with some sort of retail/café facility, depending on what raises the most rent – all new council initiatives will have to maximise income, or we’ll have to make more cuts. That could include toilets available to the public.”
This ‘social entrepreneur’ method of dealing with breath-taking government cuts to council grants is something HBC have become experts at, but the results are often misunderstood by local residents, who see what they think are strangely business-oriented initiatives proceeding around the town. Chowney explains: “Most new initiatives the council undertakes, especially in the form of physical improvements in places like the seafront, or grants for restoration of historic buildings, are funded from external grants, which we bid for in competition with other organisations and councils, and are awarded for a specific purpose (for example, from the EU or Coastal Communities Fund). New kiosks on the seafront are income-generating, and are paid for from the rents from operators.”
It is a skill that’s vital in councillors in places like Hastings in particular because cuts in government grants to Labour Councils have been much deeper than to Tory councils. During the period 2012-2020, so the government has told the councils, the average cut per household in Tory councils is £68. For Labour councils, it’s £340.
Chowney commented: “Any service cuts the council could make would be controversial – the services that could have been cut instead of toilets would be refuse collection, museums, parks, environmental health, housing enforcement…” and, he added, “There are additional pressures on the council’s budget caused by government policy – for example, we’ve had to set aside £63,000 to cope with additional homelessness, and pay a £23,000 apprenticeship levy.”
At the HBC meeting where the toilet closures were mooted, the Tory councillors put forward a budget amendment that involved keeping Harold Place toilets open, not increasing fees for beach huts (they were happy with all other fee increases) and not using any reserves. To pay for this, they proposed to cut 23.5 unspecified jobs across the council. Strangely Amber Rudd, who often congratulates herself for the ‘jobs fair’ she runs in Hastings, did not appear to object to that plan. In fact, she stated in that infamous letter that she supported and would continue to work closely with the Tory councillors – presumably in their efforts to make job cuts to pay for toilets and beach huts.
There have been a large number of job cuts at HBC. To quote Chowney again, “Since the coalition government got elected in 2010, our funding has been cut back year-on-year. Hastings council staffing levels have dropped from around 600 to about 330. We’ve still been able to avoid cuts to frontline services, and have retained the full council tax reduction scheme, which the poorest people have to pay no council tax (in most councils, everyone has to pay at least 20%).”
The council have also put measures in place to mitigate the loss of public toilets, for example, “All cafes, no matter how small, must have a customer toilet in Hastings, under our local planning rules. This isn’t true in many other councils.”
But times are a-changing. Since the drubbing Amber Rudd’s party received in the general election, there have been signals that they have now recognised austerity as a vote-loser, even if they haven’t worked out that it’s downright destructive so perhaps Rudd will now apply some pressure to her own colleagues in Westminster to recognise HBC’s efforts and their problems, and restore some of our lost grant money.