There is particular irony in Hastings’ current predicament. The scene of our country’s most fabled military disaster, the Sussex seaside town has been synonymous with European invasion for nearly 1000 years. Now, as one of Britain’s many coastal dwellings struggling to prosper, its greatest source of hope may yet come from the same mainland continent that once successfully conquered it.
For Hastings is, like a large number of its equally deprived British contemporaries, increasingly having to seek financial solace from the European Union. While Britain’s suspicions of Europe have never been higher – suspicions that will only heighten in the wake of David Cameron’s latest high-profile decision – Hastings is at least providing justification to the Union’s oft-spoken mantra that it spends 94% of its budget “on policies and programmes that benefit citizens directly.”
Kevin Stower, the external fund manager at Hastings Borough Council, is one man who appreciates just how important the European Union can be at local level.
He said: “There are European as well as Central Government funding streams that meet different aspirations and different timescales relating to strategy and policy.
“It is true to say that, in the current climate of austerity, European funding is becoming increasingly more important and attractive.
“While there are no official figures, anecdotal evidence suggests that the projects created because of European investment have been well received, and it’s an avenue we’re going to have to exploit even more in the future.”
The European Union has certainly been generous. It contributed £2.14m for the town’s Lacuna Place, a modern business park offering desirable town centre location; there was a £3.9m investment for UK fishermen, of which Hastings was one of six recipients, and there have been countless other contributions to a variety of projects aimed at stimulating the community, culture and economic growth. To date, the EU’s investment stands at around £10m.
Such investment is crucial. Youth unemployment in Hastings ranks among the country’s worst, with 8.4% of the town’s young people claiming job seekers allowance, and only 45% of school leavers achieve five GCSEs including English and Maths. In Cambridge, only 1.3% claim JSA, and 54% gain five GCSEs including those core subjects.
East Sussex, Hastings’ home county with an estimated population of 512,000, is without a single inch of motorway, and direct trains into London can take up to two-and-a-half hours. Restricted by poor access and education, it’s little wonder that around neighbouring Brighton, one of the country’s most cutting-edge metropolises, the town’s residents are labelled as ‘Hastings skanks’.
Recent years have seen tentative signs of a renaissance, though. University Centre Hastings is to build a second set of premises at a cost of £23m, and there has been £75m worth of investment from the South East England Development Agency. But the much-maligned European Union, currently the scourge of Britain’s national conscience, also deserves recognition among the town’s significant financial backers.
The system is far from perfect. Kevin agrees with the wide-held assumption that the process is far too bureaucratic – “The Subsidy and Partner Agreements are long and complex, the making and developing of partnerships across borders are prone to all sorts of stresses and strains, the reporting mechanisms are detailed and multi-layered” – but bigger problems are looming.
One crucial aspect of European funding is that any contribution must be matched by Central Government. Hastings Borough Council, who were recently refused £7m from the Regional Growth Fund, know only too well the full harshness of the country’s cuts.
“The challenge is where does the match-funding come from if not available through Central Government?” said Kevin. “I firmly believe that the process for European funding is – through its complexity – robust, long-lasting and ultimately well worth it. But we are now facing even greater problems accessing these funds because of our problems at national level.
“Plus, the so-called stronger economies, which the UK must count itself among along with Germany and France, will receive increasingly smaller shares of the pot as the enlargement agenda since 2004 gathers greater pace.”
There is no easy solution to the world’s economic problems, let alone those of one of the UK’s most mythical towns. It would be fitting of Hastings’ heritage, though, if Europe once again provided a historic intervention.
Jon Vale – @jonnievale