Council Leader’s report (April 2016)
The news that University of Brighton was closing its campus in Hastings was met with universal outrage across the town – it’s clear that UoB didn’t expect the strength of support for its Hastings campus, nor the strength of the campaign that quickly emerged to save it. Hastings Council fully supports the campaign to save the UoB campus, and we still think the best solution would be if UoB changed their mind and worked with partners in Hastings to make it work.
What has been particularly irksome is the implication that there was something wrong with Hastings that made it unattractive to students. While it simply isn’t true, it is in any case a red herring – there are some especially unattractive towns that have very successful universities, because their universities offer the right courses and the right facilities. The problem with UoB in Hastings has been a lack of decent student accommodation, poor student facilities and arguably the wrong range of courses on offer.
So while supporting the campaign to save the university, Hastings Council is also working with partners (including Sussex Coast College Hastings (SCCH), the County Council, local businesses, the voluntary sector, and others) and UoB to look at how an alternative University of Hastings could be created. This is being done primarily through the Hastings and Bexhill Task Force, the local regeneration board whose five-point plan led to the setting up of the original University Centre Hastings.
HBC is committed to a university in Hastings, as is ESCC. That means a university separate from SCCH, although they would need to be involved. It would also seem to make sense for any university to occupy the buildings in Havelock Road and Priory Square which were built using £12m of public money given for the regeneration of Hastings. Discussions about this are still in their early stages, but it’s clear that we need advice from external higher education consultants, which HBC and ESCC will be buying in. We shall also be approaching other universities to see if they would be willing to work with us to maintain a university in Hastings. Providing decent student accommodation would be a part of that, as would offering courses that had a national or indeed international appeal, but which could still be offered to local people from deprived communities, via tailored access courses.
The university have committed to allowing all students, including those starting their courses in 2016, to complete their studies in Hastings. I have been told this means in the university buildings rather than at SCCH, which does mean there’s over three years to establish an alternative arrangement for a university in Hastings. Hastings has become a university town. It must remain a university town.
At its last cabinet meeting, Hastings Council agreed to buy the freehold of Aquila House (the council offices on the seafront). Taking into account the
money we were paying in rent compared to the cost of the loan to raise the capital, and future maintenance liabilities, this will mean savings in the region of £25,000 a year. These savings will be greater in future years, as we’ll no longer be subject to rent reviews, while the rents from the shops at street level will be reviewed annually (with the rents now coming to us).
Aquila House has been extensively refurbished over the last few months, with the work now almost complete. All the windows have been replaced, all the office accommodation has been extensively remodelled, and a new suite of committee rooms and council chamber, with high quality audio visual equipment, has been created on the first floor. As well as being used by the council, this floor will also be available for hire as conference facilities. Access to this floor is through the Tourist Information Centre, which is currently having a new frontage fitted. The first floor is also fully accessible to wheelchairs.
These refurbishment works have all been funded from the rent paid by ESCC for the new register office in the Town Hall, which is also now fully operational, although they’ve been somewhat overwhelmed by enquiries from people wanting to get married there, which has led to some delays in registration.
When the TIC re-opens in a week or so, that will be the end of all the refurbishment work to both Aquila and the Town Hall. All in all, it’s worked out rather well.
Sunny spring Sundays have brought lots of visitors to the town, leading to congestion on the seafront, in Rock-a-Nore in particular, reported as ‘gridlock’, which it wasn’t, just very slow moving traffic. In summer, we have seasonal staff directing cars to spaces in Rock-a-Nore car park, and putting ‘full’ signs at the top of the road (although everyone ignores them anyway) but these aren’t employed yet. Needless to say, there are plenty of spaces in other car parks, and the electronic information signs as you come into town tell people that the Old Town car parks are full. But people seem to prefer sitting in a queue for an hour, rather than walking a few metres from the town centre.
Some have suggested that Hastings should set up a park and ride scheme. But there are a lot of good reasons for not doing that. Firstly, there are no suitable sites in Hastings, it would have to go in Rother. And secondly, it would be empty and unused for 300+ days a year – so not good use of land. The seasonal nature of car parking demand in seaside towns, along with logistical problems of buses not being able to cross the town to serve park and ride car parks, is the reason why hardly any seaside resorts have park and ride schemes. There are only two on the south coast: Weymouth and Brighton – and in Brighton, it isn’t really a park and ride, it’s a sports stadium car park served by scheduled bus services. The only other one in the south east is Whitstable, and that’s really one of Canterbury’s P&R car parks, with a bus going to Whitstable. Added to the fact that there are hardly any days when there are no parking spaces in Priory Meadow and Priory Street, park and ride is not really an option, because it isn’t necessary.
Traffic management and highway issues are of course the responsibility of ESCC, so there isn’t anything HBC can do about that directly. However, we are talking to ESCC about how traffic could be prevented from entering Rock-a-Nore when the car park is full, and redirected instead to town centre car parks where there are plenty of spaces.
Coastal Space is a joint project between HBC and Amicus Horizon housing association to create new social housing units from abandoned and empty properties. The first phase focused on Central St Leonards. With investment from HBC and AH, this created a total investment of £6.3m to provide 38 units of accommodation in Central St Leonards, bringing several abandoned properties back into use, including the prominent St Mary’s Nursing Home in Carisbrooke Road.
After this, the programme moved out of Central St Leonards, with more funding from the council, Amicus Horizon and the Homes and Communities Agency, to provide another 20 homes, in a large, abandoned property elsewhere in St Leonards. Amicus Horizon is about to compete the purchase of the property, following which its identity and location will be revealed.
And now we’re about to embark on Coastal Space 3, with a similar funding formula (although this time will hopefully include a grant from the Local Enterprise Partnership). Again, a large, abandoned eyesore property will be acquired, probably via compulsory purchase. Again, details of what and where it is will be revealed after the Compulsory Purchase Order has been served.
So the programme has been successful in two ways: firstly, it will have provided over 80 units of social housing, and secondly, it will have brought several prominent abandoned buildings back into use, thanks to the council’s intervention.
A New Kiosk
The last cabinet meeting also agreed to go ahead with the building of a kiosk on the upper promenade, by the weather station. This already has planning permission and was the subject of a public consultation last year. The kiosk will be made of modern materials, but is circular and designed to look like the Sidney Little concrete structures along the promenade. The council will now advertise a lease on the building, so the building and fit-out can be done in partnership with a new operator. The kiosk will be exactly half way along the upper promenade, so will help to attract visitors along the prom towards St Leonards.
Queensway Gateway Road
Last week, a second judge threw out the protestors’ application for judicial review of the Queensway Gateway road planning permission. This was done in even more robust terms than the first one, completely vindicating our planners and the way the council dealt with the application. The protestors do now have seven days in which they could lodge an appeal to the High Court, but that would cost them a lot of money, and they’d be very likely to lose, and have to pay the council’s costs too. They have put out a press release expressing their disappointment, but mentioned nothing about an appeal, so this is probably the end of the road – or rather, the beginning of the road. Work to build the road is likely to begin very soon, which should help to ease traffic problems on the western Ridge that have worsened since the Hastings-Bexhill Link Road was opened. The road will connect Queensway with the A21 just above Sainsbury’s. It could also open up potential employment land for development, but this would be subject to further planning applications.
Labour Manifesto 2016
The Labour manifesto for the 2016 Hastings Council elections has now been published. It gives a comprehensive list of our proposed policies for the council and the town, as well as showing how well we achieved our commitment from the 2014 manifesto. You can download it here.
I also write a fortnightly column for the Hastings Observer, on a variety of topics. You can see all these columns that I’ve written on the Hastings Council website.
I won’t be writing more columns during the election campaign, but they’ll be back in May.