Hastings Council Leader’s report (August 2017)

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

St Leonards Post Office update

The proposed closure of the Crown Post Office in Central St Leonards has created a lot of local concern. More details about the proposal emerged at a consultation meeting at Royal Victoria Hotel, attended by many local residents and businesses.

The Post Office are proposing to sell the freehold of the building to a franchisee, who will provide the same range of services as is on offer now. However, this is likely to lead to the loss of skilled and knowledgeable workers. The number of counters is also going to be reduced significantly, which could lead to more queues.

The franchisee will be required to maintain post office services in the building for only five years. After this, the building could be converted or sold on. It’s highly improbable that the proposed business model, whereby a retail operation will accompany the post office counters selling stationery, confectionery and newspapers (we’re told they won’t be applying for an alcohol licence) could be profitable. There are many shops in St Leonards already selling those.
With an unsustainable business model, it’s likely that the post office franchise and its supporting retail operation would end after the minimum five years. Then the building could be sold and converted (potentially as housing) at a significant profit. That would lead to the entire loss of post office services from Central St Leonards.

But the building is seriously under-used. The whole upper floor is empty. This could be used as office or business accommodation (which is in demand in St Leonards) or indeed converted into housing either for rent or sale. Proper use of the building could make it sustainable, and indeed profitable. Failing that, a consortium of local businesses and residents has expressed an interest in taking on the franchise. This could be a significantly better option than the doubtful model being proposed, as they would have an interest in keeping a fully-functioned post office operating, rather than maximising the value of the property.
I have responded to the consultation on behalf of the council making these points, and have written to the Post Office regional manager, too.


Council Budget 2018-19 and Beyond

Work has now begun on preparing next year’s budget. The position this year was very encouraging, in that we managed to turn a £800,000 deficit into a £60,000 surplus. And that was achieved largely through income from commercial property investments.
The prediction for the 2017/18 outturn is currently a £389,000 deficit, which includes £221,000 savings already identified. We’re also investigating other potential commercial property purchases in the borough.
There’s now a £2.5m shortfall by 2020/21, even if we include £576,000 a year additional commercial property rents, £200,000 income from proposed housing investments, and £40,000 from energy generation. It is possible that we could raise more from income generation, particularly energy generation and supply, and there will be other unexpected savings that emerge (as there always are). But there’s still a big gap to fill.
None of this allows for any income from local retention of business rates, or additional income from New Homes Bonus or Council Tax from new developments. But it seems clear that some councils simply won’t be able to pay for even their basic statutory services if all their Revenue Support Grant goes, and they gain nothing from business rate retention, and are assuming additional income from this source in their budget predictions. That seems unwise, as the government cancelled the Local Government Finance Bill that was due to go before parliament, and would have determined the regime for local retention of business rates.
So the future is now far from clear. Local government finance is unsustainable, at all levels, not just adult social care. If some kind of grant funding, additional tax retention, or other scheme isn’t introduced, many councils will simply run out of money.


Priory Meadow Shopping Centre

Hastings Council owns the freehold of Priory Meadow, and receives 10% of the rental income. However, the council doesn’t manage the centre nor influence individual lettings. That’s done by the owners of the head lease, New River Group (NRG), although I meet representatives from NRG with council officers from time to time.
Lettings at Priory Meadow are very good. NRG report that there are two or three businesses interested whenever a vacancy occurs, and there are generally no empty units looking for tenants – if a unit is empty, this means a new lease is being negotiated. An announcement is imminent on the new tenant for the former BHS store. This will be a major national retailer, which will create a ‘destination’ store, and bring new visitors to Hastings. Some other businesses are changing too, and there are a couple of new catering outlets coming. Details will be announced by Priory Meadow soon …


Ore Valley Land

A large area of land in the Ore Valley has been derelict and abandoned for a long time. It was originally assembled by the now defunct South East England Development Agency, for the construction of a Millennium Communities housing development. However, low property values and the financial crisis meant that scheme was eventually abandoned, and only a small part by Ore Station (Ore Valley Road) and the Hastings College Parker Road campus was ever developed.
Following the demise of SEEDA, the land was held by SeaSpace, a local publicly-owned regeneration company, but low land values continued to inhibit development. However, over the last couple of years, the general improvements in Hastings and its overall regeneration have meant that development of the land is now commercially viable. SeaSpace sold the Stills site and Frederick Road site to Gemselect, a local housing developer. No building has yet taken place, although we’re told that a planning application is imminent. See the map for details of these sites.
SeaSpace have now agreed to transfer the remaining land to Hastings Council. They will also transfer a ‘dowry’ of £700,000 with the land which, with a £250,000 reserve the council has set aside for work in the Ore Valley, will provide almost a million pounds towards development of the site, and securing a sustainable future for the green space.
Much of this land (around six hectares) is protected green space. The remaining development site, where the old power station was that burned down in 2000, is currently occupied under licence by Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust, who are hoping to take forward a community self-build project on the site, linking the creation of fair rented housing with the development of building trades skills in the local community.
When Hastings Council eventually takes ownership of the land, the aim for the green space will be to work with existing community groups to establish a land management trust to look after the land in perpetuity, and manage them for the benefit of local people and the wildlife that inhabit them. Local volunteers have already been looking after some of the land. The land could be linked to the future of Speckled Wood, another protected green space with public access, although that land is in multiple private ownerships. There’s also a potential to create a greenway route through the area. This is part of the council’s planning policies, so developers will be required to create this as part of their development where the route goes through their land. The sections between could be funded from the dowry money and the council’s reserve.
So finally, it looks like this long abandoned land will be sorted out, with a mix of housing and maintained green spaces.


White Rock Theatre

In 2019, the current contract to run the White Rock Theatre will come to an end. It will not be renewed, as the cost of running the theatre amounts to £600,000 a year. That’s almost five percent of the council’s entire net budget, and represents a £15 subsidy for every ticket sold. In difficult financial times, the council cannot go on subsidising the theatre to this extent.
The main problem with the White Rock Theatre is that it’s not a theatre. It was designed as a hall for seaside orchestral performances in the 1930s. It’s not suitable as a theatre, and not much good as a performance venue, as it has no wings, no fly tower, and no back stage facilities. It’s also not an ideal size – too big to be a local music venue, too small to attract the bigger circuit bands and live acts.
However, without the White Rock, the biggest indoor performance venue in Hastings is St Mary in the Castle, or the new Opus venue in the Cambridge Road Congregational Church, each with a capacity of around 500 (capacity of White Rock is double that). Hastings needs a 1000+ seat venue, ideally, and there are several community and music events that are currently held at the White Rock that couldn’t fit in anywhere else – most notably the International Piano Concerto competition, which attracts audiences and performers from all over the world.
So the council is looking at other possibilities. This could involve refurbishing and extending the White Rock Theatre, or even building an entirely new venue, as part of the proposed potential redevelopment of White Rock Gardens. But this is some way off, well after the current theatre contract ends in 2019. So we’ll be looking for alternative ways to keep the place open, perhaps with a much reduced subsidy, until a plan for an expanded or replacement venue can be put in place.


Hiroshima Day

At this time of year, there are many events taking place in Hastings, which attract crowds of people and form part of our packed schedule of community, professional and council events throughout the summer. This week we had Hastings Carnival, culminating in the carnival procession last Saturday, where I accompanied Mayor Judy Rogers along the seafront and around the Old Town.
However, one of the more moving events I always go to is the annual ceremony on August 6 th, to commemorate the dropping of an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945, killing 70,000 civilians instantly, with around 50,000 dying later from radiation effects. These commemorations take place all over the world, and mirror the annual commemoration in Hiroshima itself. In Hastings, after music and speeches, we launch paper lantern boats on Alexandra Park Lake. As the mayor said in her speech, it’s important that we do this every year, so we never forget.