Help welcome but not enough, says struggling coastal town of UK Budget


The jump in rent has come as a cruel postscript to the coronavirus pandemic in the south coast town of Hastings, tipping low-income earners and the unemployed towards destitution.

There were some welcome palliatives in the UK Budget on Wednesday — a surprise boost to childcare funding aimed at getting parents back to work, and a three-month extension to energy bill support chief among them.

But for many people in the town, one of the poorest in the south of England, household budgets have long ceased to add up. The chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Spring Statement did little to change that.

The dial on universal credit welfare support “is set so low” it never makes up the difference, according to Tracy Dighton, chief officer at the 1066 Citizens Advice bureau in Hastings, offering free advice to people on how to resolve financial and other problems.

“It feels like the whole place is held together with bits of string and love,” she said, stressing how central the voluntary sector has become to basic survival.

Tracy Dighton
Tracy Dighton, chief officer of the Citizens Advice 1066 bureau in Hastings: ‘It feels like the whole place is held together with bits of string and love’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

A surge of interest in once relatively cheap property meant Hastings had the second-highest increase in rental costs in the country between 2021-22, according to estate agents Zoopla.

This has landed on top of soaring food and energy costs to stretch the gap between income and expenditure to breaking point for many households.

The chancellor has been under pressure to alleviate the most acute cost of living crisis in generations, with voting intentions in the balance in bellwether constituencies such as Hastings, which has historically swung between the Conservatives and Labour party on a fine margin.

But with inflation running in recent months at 40-year highs, his Budget underwhelmed many residents.

Dighton welcomed the extension to energy support, which will bring an average of £160 relief to struggling households over the next three months. She also welcomed a £100mn fund to help charities and community groups meet rising costs.

Staff at the Citizens Advice bureau field calls from clients
Staff at the Citizens Advice 1066 bureau in Hastings field calls from clients © Charlie Bibby/FT

But, she said, the measures were insufficient and she worried that people experiencing real hardship for the first time would continue falling through the net.

“It feels like bits and pieces rather than something that will make a structural difference,” she said, adding that she had hoped for something bold and new, such as an “essential” tariff for utility bills, or an uplift above inflation in universal credit.

“If you’ve lost all your savings after having one thing and another in the pandemic, you have no wriggle room left.”

The average income in Hastings at £28,000 is 30 per cent lower than the national average.

Ross Mudie, research analyst at the Centre for Progressive Policy think-tank, said coastal towns such as Hastings have faced particular challenges because residents are typically on low incomes or work seasonally.

Hastings, UK
Hastings had the second-highest increase in rental costs in the country between 2021-22, according to estate agents Zoopla © Charlie Bibby/FT

They might have got by when inflation was at 2 per cent but have struggled since it shot into double digits last year, he said.

“The big news is about keeping the energy price as is. It’s good for the next three months, but it’s not going to do anything to reduce fuel poverty over the long term.”

Nor was there anything to address the housing crisis.

Rent in Hastings, like many places, is on the rise, but at 10 per cent it has shot up dramatically when a surge in people during the pandemic, chiefly from London, began buying properties on the seafront and the old town, many for use as second homes or Airbnb rentals, according to the council.

Tanya Mitchell, a 48-year-old teaching assistant with two children and a partner working as a parcel courier, said typically her rent had previously risen by £20 or less each year.

By cutting back on non-essential expenditure and turning the heating off this winter, they had got by until her landlord raised the rent by £40 to £835 a month for 2023, she said. This had pushed the family to the brink.

“We have been good tenants for 15 years. There should be a cap on what landlords can realistically charge.”

A pensioner in Hastings, UK
Dennis Bond, a pensioner in Hastings: ‘You try and do your best, but you just get knocked in the teeth’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

Prospects for 73-year-old Dennis Bond, a soldier for 20 years before becoming a podiatrist, were also bleak even though he owns a small bungalow outright, has three pensions, an army one, a state one, and a small private one, adding up to £1,600 a month.

He said he had been paying about £600 a month more in general costs than his income. “You try and do your best, but you just get knocked in the teeth.”

The Conservative MP for the town, Sally-Ann Hart, who won the constituency with a margin of just over 4000 votes in 2019, did not respond to requests for an interview.

Paul Barnett, Labour leader of the council, said his biggest worry was housing.

Leader of Hastings council, councillor Paul Barnett
Paul Barnett, leader of the council in Hastings © Charlie Bibby/FT

“People during the pandemic flocked to Hastings attracted by the unspoilt authenticity of the place — it’s like a rough diamond,” he said. But while an influx of investment has given bits of the town a facelift, it has also constrained accommodation supply.

There had been a “three to four times” increase to 1,000 in the number of people needing emergency help from the council with accommodation, Barnett said.

He welcomed the government’s announcements that “levelling up” funds have been allocated towards a new health and leisure centre in the town. But for the most part, he said, the measures to tackle the cost of living were “too little, too late”.