Worthing Council’s Conservative majority voted to increase your council tax and rejected a series of Labour proposals ranging from improving home insulation and better rubbish collections to tackling the climate emergency.
Labour group leader Beccy Cooper said: “This administration has stopped listening to residents. The Conservatives voted against every single one of these proposals, sticking to the same old approach that they do every year. No change or reflection post-Covid, just more concrete in our declining town centre.”
Labour’s fully costed proposals included:
- Investing to insulate people’s homes and in our local high streets instead of spending £800,000 on cladding Buckingham Street Car Park
- Investment across all local green spaces, rather than £2 million solely on Brooklands Park for a design that doesn’t tally with what people said they actually wanted
- Feasibility work to bring the Lido back to a swimming pool and create an outstanding seafront attraction
- Upgrading toilets on the seafront
- Making our council an active participant in building homes that are genuinely affordable and providing social housing
- Investment to allow the council to collect and dispose of household food waste, and to review the success or otherwise of fortnightly collections for houses of multiple occupancy and flats
- Appointing two officers to improve the way the council engages with the community – so that it might listen to local people.
At last night’s council budget setting meeting Beccy Cooper said:
Coronavirus has stopped us all in our tracks. We have all had to take stock of where we are, what resources we have, and what our futures might look like. There is still a way to go until we are on the other side of the pandemic. This council should use the time to refocus and to reset the way we work. We can’t go back to business as usual. Too much has changed.
Over the past three years, the Labour group in opposition has listened to the decisions taken by this Conservative administration as a consequence of the budgets it has set and then we’ve listened to what our residents are saying they want from their council …. and there’s a big gap between the two.
This administration has stopped listening to residents and has fixed its programme for the town in the increasingly unwieldy Platforms for our Places document. But it’s just not working – the town is changing and will change even more as a consequence of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, we’ve seen what’s happening in our wards and across the Borough. We’ve watched the gap grow between the haves and the have-nots, and that has inevitably led on to increasing levels of ill health, both physical and mental. All this has been set against a backdrop of a climate emergency that, if treated as anything other than immediate priority, will render all our other efforts meaningless.
So our approach to this budget is different. We’re asking different questions about how this council approaches its responsibilities to provide services for its residents and inevitably we’re coming to very different conclusions. In particular when considering the budget, we’ve asked four key questions that are clear indicators of the way the Labour Group think the Council should now consider its future development:
- Is the budget and the work of the council reflecting and responding to the voice of the community? Are we listening to what people want?
- Is the budget contributing to community health and wellbeing?
- Is it addressing and helping to reduce inequality?
- Is it responding to the need to address the climate emergency?
As the incoming administration following the elections this May, we would apply all those questions to every aspect of the council’s work and the services it provides, and we would set about the process of redesigning what the council offers its residents and how it works with them. The budget amendments are an indication of how we would start this process of change. They are indicative of our direction of travel and will signal a move towards a wellbeing economy which will put the health and wellbeing of our residents and our communities at the heart of what we do, rather than narrow economic goals.
Listening to the community
We’ll drive out the view taken by the current administration that they should decide what residents need. In its place we’ll put partnership and empowerment of the community. The pandemic has shown us that communities are often much better at identifying needs and designing solutions than institutions are. Many of us have been part of those community-led initiatives and seen the energy and enthusiasm that they have generated. To ensure that the benefits of this change reach all parts of our communities we need the community engagement skills of the new officer we are proposing in the first of our budget amendments. We would expect that a team would be built around that person as a result of the growing interactions with our communities.
A wellbeing economy is at the heart of what drives these budget amendments, because the health of our people is indicative of the success or otherwise, of the work this Council does. Inequality, prejudice, and exclusion breed poor mental and physical health. For many in our communities who face financial pressures, poor quality housing and the challenges of having to deal with the benefits system, the housing register, and the job centre leave them experiencing poor physical and mental health.
Improving public spaces
Access to safe, inclusive and welcoming shared, public spaces is key to a thriving wellbeing economy. In Worthing, we have many of these spaces across our borough, ranging from local parks and high streets to our town centre and seafront. In our budget amendments, we signal a clear commitment to developing these shared spaces in partnership with our communities.
The pandemic has shown us how much people value open spaces as places where they can socialise and exercise. The use of our promenade, our parks and other open spaces has grown significantly this year. In our view, this budget allocates funding disproportionately to Brooklands Park and we propose reallocating funding more equally across our green spaces that may not count as “jewels in the crown” but are still incredibly important spaces for us to socialise and exercise. We also consider that the substantial funding allocated to Brooklands, is intended to provide features that do not reflect the opinions and ideas very clearly expressed in the public consultation. This is a good example of how this administration, even when it does engage in public consultation, ignores what people say. In line with our commitment to putting the Community Voice front and centre, we would revisit this consultation and look again at what users of the park want in terms of a design that would really maximise the use, enjoyment, and sustainability of this great space for our all our residents.
The pandemic has also demonstrated just how much we value our local high streets and shopping parades. Very little investment has gone into these important community hubs and by increasing the funding for improvements to these areas, we aim to help them to survive and to thrive.
Town centre and seafront
The town centre and the seafront are key areas for Worthing. To date they have been the focus of much of our retail and entertainment offer. Now they are waiting to be re-imagined in a way that meets the changed needs of a post-Covid world. The Labour group took a step in this direction during the pandemic, when we did a survey of residents, and got their views on how they would like to see their town centre develop. Alongside the anticipated responses that hoped for fewer empty shops, people also had an enthusiasm for greenery, seating and better communal meeting areas. They were clearly anticipating a changing use for the town centre.
This survey could be the springboard for a wider project involving the community, and key stakeholders such as the TCI, local businesses from both the retail and hospitality sectors, and voluntary groups to map out what we want for our town centre. In particular, we need to get a clearer understanding of how we can use public realm improvements, to provide a better town centre for locals, but also an attractive destination for visitors who could underpin a new phase of economic growth for Worthing. Schemes like pedestrianising Portland Road, should never be looked at in isolation and must be considered in the broader context of what our town centre could and should become.
As we look to improve our town centre we must also focus on our seafront offer and it is important that we improve our public amenities to meet the needs of the planned increased footfall. We propose that the public convenience budget is earmarked for upgrading these amenities. In line with ensuring equality, diversity and inclusion, we propose that a changing place and gender-neutral facilities are included.
Our focus on the seafront is not just on the purely functional. We can’t ignore the beautiful and iconic building, the Lido, that in our view has been sadly neglected for far too long. In 2019, the local Labour Party asked residents to sign a petition to show support for the regeneration of the Lido. The petition attracted over 2000 signatures and demonstrated just how keen residents are to see it returned to its former glory.
This is a building that can potentially be restored as a pool for the community, and could be a venue for live events post Covid. As a unique facility on this stretch of the Sussex coast, we’re sure it would be a strong driver of tourism to the town. As a regeneration project, it would be a strong catalyst for drawing the community together with the common objective of providing a community space for locals. It would be a joy and a privilege to be part of a council that joined up with the community to get this done.
Action on housing
A thriving wellbeing economy requires people to be able to access good standards of housing, whatever their income. 20 years ago, the council transferred its housing stock to Worthing Homes, a partnership that has yielded disappointingly little in terms of new social and truly affordable housing for our residents. This in turn has led to widening inequalities in our borough, with more and more people having to wait for years on our housing register in the hope of getting a home they can afford.
It is time for the council to become an active partner again in this key area of our residents’ lives. Rather than looking to Worthing Homes for our solutions, we propose that the council should look to establish and have ownership of a Registered Social Landlord. We appreciate that Worthing has a limited amount of land left that can be built on now, so it’s even more important that we maximise our options and find innovative solutions that can deliver high quality social and truly affordable housing, and that meets the highest environmental standards.
Widening inequalities are accentuated by continuing increases in council tax for our residents. Raising council tax won’t make up for the funding gap left by the Conservative government’s slash and burn of local government budgets. As we know from our monthly governance risk register, we are taking a calculated chance by investing the money we have in a commercial portfolio that is only as reliable as the increasingly unreliable free market.
Added to that, we know that council tax is a highly unfair tax. Those who have the lowest incomes are proportionately paying the most to keep services going that benefit those who are financially the most secure, as well as those on the breadline. This is at the heart of the debate about how we build a fairer economic system.
In this council, we can play our part in recognising the problem of those with the lowest incomes by consulting on an intent to remove the £5 council tax minimum cap which is effectively an additional charge as it reduces the amount of Council Tax Support that would have been allowed if we kept to the national scheme. This restriction has the greatest impact on the poorest members of the borough who cannot afford an extra £261 per annum. This was also highlighted further in the council’s recently commissioned insightful report on Covid Measures Benefit impact on vulnerable residents where it was documented that 16% of Worthing residents are now in council tax arrears compared to 5% in Adur. The report states (and I quote) that “this difference can in part be attributed to the council tax support schemes.”
A wellbeing economy is a sustainable one, and that means immediate prioritisation of policies to address the climate emergency. The Labour group notes and applauds the climate assembly the council ran in 2020 and, in line with our intention to put the voice of the community front and centre, we would want the initiative to have a continuing role in helping us to combat climate change. But we need to start tackling some of the most difficult issues that challenge our commitment to being carbon neutral by 2030. The biggest of those is reducing heat loss from poorly insulated homes. So we are proposing that, rather than cladding car parks, we should put together a fund to help those families in fuel poverty with grants, loans and technical help to retrofit their homes with much-needed insulation. We would also unlock access to underused national schemes like the Green Homes Fund.
Bins, waste, recycling
Our environmental pledges are intrinsically linked with our ability to reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfill. To this end, we put together joint budget proposals with our Labour colleagues in Adur to address the issues that many people in HMOs (houses of multiple occupancy) and small flats continue to face with waste disposal recycling. We are also proposing we make progress this year on the issue of food waste disposal. As (Conservatives on) Adur council voted these proposals down, we ask that they are now considered by this council as independent requests for Worthing, and hope that Adur Council would wish to consider them again in the near future. These proposed amendments are key to our commitment to a wellbeing economy in addressing inequalities and responding to the climate emergency.
We put these proposals to the council for consideration as a series of individual amendments to the 2021/22 budget. But it is important that they are seen together as indicators of the clear and cohesive direction of intent that a Labour-led council would take.
Build back fairer
We have heard the phrase “Build Back Better” a lot of late, but I would like to end this speech with a phrase that Professor Sir Michael Marmot coined in his Covid-19 Review. He has produced a number of reports over the past 10 years evidencing the widening inequalities in our society’s health and wellbeing that Coronavirus has both highlighted and exacerbated. In a post-Covid world he advocates that we should “Build Back Fairer.” For Worthing Borough Council, I think that this is an excellent starting point.