Hastings Council Leader’s report (April 2017)

To comment on any of the items below or obtain further information, please contact Cllr Peter Chowney.

Coastal Communities Fund

Last week, another successful Hastings Council grant application was announced – we’ve been awarded £812,700 from the Coastal Communities Fund. This will be for a new project called ‘Destination White Rock, Hastings – Continuing the Economic Revival’, with a total project cost of £1.08m, including match funding from other sources.
Funding will contribute to projects at Rock House (the former Rothermere House next to the Observer Building) to provide affordable business development and commercial space. The adjoining Rock Alley will also get a facelift, in conjunction with businesses along it, and making this a route through to the seafront.
The old fountains on White Rock promenade between the Pier and Source Park will be refurbished, with a new water feature, which will also cure the rainwater leaks into The Source BMX arena. This water feature probably won’t be full-scale fountains, more likely colour-changing mist, or something similar. And there will be more beach huts installed east of the Pier to encourage active use of this area of the beach (there used to be beach huts here, years ago).
The Source Park itself will develop a BMX Olympic-inspired training programme and offer a series of local, regional, and international BMX and skateboarding events. And there will also be a ‘community based business initiative’, to help businesses in the area.
Applying for these grants is time-consuming and expensive, and not the best way to fund local government. But it’s pretty much the only way nowadays that the council can get funding to do capital projects such as this. And this one will enable us to continue the regeneration of the seafront, as well as helping businesses in the area.
As an aside, this has raised some interesting debate on what ‘Rock Alley’ should really be called. Some believe the Rock Alley name to be a recent invention, along with others, such as ‘Gotham Alley’. Others maintain that the alley always had that name, and was named after the White Rock itself, which was dynamited by the Victorians to provide a through road along the seafront. It’s never had an ‘official’ name as it doesn’t have any postal addresses, but HBC could give it a name, as the body with overall responsibility for street naming.


12-13 York Buildings

Better known as Millets, Hastings Council owns the freehold. It’s a Grade 2 listed building, noted for its ‘mathematical tiling’, which was restored a few years ago. The upper floors have been empty and unused for many years, but now Blacks (who own Millets) have surrendered the lease of the upper floors, as they have no use for them.
To bring this building back into use, the last cabinet meeting agreed to convert the upper floors into six one-bedroom flats. However, as the upper floors are completely ‘open plan’, and the building is listed, it will be expensive to create housing units, such that if rented housing units are created, the rents will only just cover the cost of loan repayments on capital costs. The total cost of the scheme is £682,000, which would mean when the properties are let, the Council would achieve a surplus of £4,700 a year. So this isn’t an income generation project – rather, it’s about bringing empty property back into use to provide much-needed rented housing.


Country Park Visitor Centre

After months of delay, we’ve finally heard that Hastings Council has been successful in our bid for funding to the ‘UPSTRAW’ Interreg EU fund, for constructing a sustainable straw bale building for the new Visitor Centre at Hastings County Park. The council and Groundworks (who are partners in the project), were awarded £540,000 from UPSTRAW, along with a further £350,000 from the School of Natural Building. It’s another example of a strand of income generation from special projects by bidding for external funds. Post-Brexit however, these opportunities will be much more limited.
The building received planning consent over two years ago, but construction costs were higher than anticipated. Rather than adopt a scaled-down project, the council decided to apply for EU funding to help finance the scheme. With the funding we’ve now received, there will be plenty to build the visitor centre as originally planned. The council also had set aside money from the sale of Warren Cottage (in the Country Park, formerly used as a rangers’ station) to contribute to the new visitor centre, but this will hopefully now be available for other enhancements in the Country Park.
The new centre will have much better visitor facilities, areas for education and exhibitions, a small café, and a rooftop viewing area (with a lift for disability access). It will be sited almost opposite the existing centre (but a little closer to the sea) on Lower Coastguard Lane.


Refuse and Street Cleaning Contract

The Council’s existing waste contract with Kier will be terminated early, four years before the contract was planned to end. The contract will now end in June 2019. For a contract of this size and complexity, that’s the earliest exit date possible, given the legal procurement processes that must be gone through to re-let the contract.
The contract was originally heralded as a ‘partnership’ between four councils (Hastings, Wealden, Rother and Eastbourne) and Kier, to deliver refuse collection, recycling and street cleaning services. As such, it was one of the biggest waste contracts in the country. But the contract ran into difficulties over the value of recyclates, which were supposed to provide a major funding stream, but their value collapsed. There were also concerns about key areas of performance across the contract.
The intention of the four councils is, at the moment, to re-tender the whole contract. However, Hastings has announced its intention to withdraw from the street cleansing element, and run this in-house. The idea would be to re-establish a Direct Services Organisation, with street cleansing staff employed directly by the council. This would make the service more responsive, and much easier to control. The council’s waste team would have direct supervision of the people responsible for sweeping the streets, rather than depending on an external contractor. We’d still use My Hastings online as the main route for reporting litter and flytips, but these requests would go directly to our own operatives, meaning much quicker response times. We’d also want to develop a workforce that was more connected to, and part of, the local community. The in-house service would include street sweeping, dealing with flytips, and bulky waste collection.
At the moment, Hastings is still participating in the re-tendering exercise for refuse collection. That’s a much more difficult service to bring back in-house because it involves a lot of very expensive specialist equipment and expertise, but it’s easier to specify and manage through an external contractor. However, this still isn’t certain – if we can’t get good value for money from a joint waste collection contract, then we’ll consider re-tendering it ourselves, or indeed bringing it in-house.


Red Birch

Three red birch trees (shown here with members of Jeremy’s family) were planted in the Peace Garden in Alexandra Park, in memory of Jeremy Birch, the former leader of Hastings Council, who died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2015.
A group of councillors, Labour Party activists, friends and family gathered at the Peace Garden to mark their planting, and to celebrate Jeremy’s life and what he achieved for Hastings. In my speech, I pointed out how the town had been transformed by his initiatives – including town centre regeneration, the compulsory purchase of Hastings Pier, the Grotbuster programme and the Coastal Space project to create social housing from abandoned properties in St Leonards (see below).
Red birches are an unusual tree of Chinese origin, not often seen in the UK, but have a distinctive red bark. You can see them just inside the Peace Garden gates, on the left – a plaque will be installed commemorating Jeremey soon. It’s difficult to imagine that it’s been two years since Jeremy died – I still miss him. Hastings lost one of its heroes too soon.


Winchester House

Work has now begun on Winchester House, a long-term empty property just off Pevensey Road. The building will be converted into social housing, with 22 new one and two-bedroom flats.
This is the latest phase of the Coastal Space project, with funding provided jointly by Hastings Council, Amicus Horizon housing association (who will manage the property) and, in this case, the South East Local Enterprise Partnership. Previous phases of this project brought other abandoned buildings in St Leonards back into use as social housing, including 24-25 Stockleigh Road, and a former nursing home in Carisbrooke Road. As well as helping to regenerate St Leonards by getting rid of abandoned property, the project also creates much-needed social housing, with around 70 new homes provided through this route.
Hastings Council acquires the abandoned properties used in the scheme by compulsory purchase, or through the threat of compulsory purchase to ‘encourage’ the owners to sell.
Winchester House was originally built to house a private school. When the school closed, the grounds, orchards and playing fields were mostly sold off for housing development in the 1950s, and the building turned into private rented accommodation. The condition of the building deteriorated and it was poorly managed, developing a reputation for drug dealing and anti-social behaviour. It was finally closed down about 12 years ago, and has been abandoned ever since.