Hastings Council Leader’s Report: August 2019

Regeneration in Hastings: A Short History

As August is a quiet month (no Cabinet meeting, not much to report), I thought it would be useful to look at the history, and future, of regeneration in Hastings: what happened, what worked, what didn’t, what the prospects are for the future. So here’s a ‘summer special regeneration edition’ of my report.

Historical Background

Hastings suffered during the early part of the 20th century because the then Hastings County Borough Council was too conservative. It was reluctant to make the changes necessary to keep up with the changing patterns of holidays and leisure during the 20th century. Alf Cobb, a well-known Hastings socialist commentator, said in 1907:

“ Hastings is a non-industrial town, which depends entirely upon visitors for its prosperity. Forsaken by our wealthy classes, we must rely upon the tripper, or short holiday class.”

By that time, Hastings and St Leonards were already declining rapidly as fashionable playgrounds for the super-rich, as they had been in the 19th Century. ‘Trippers’ (ie visitors who came on the railways for the day, mostly working-class Londoners) were sneered at by many of town’s powerful, upper class residents, and by the Council, who still clung to the notion of Hastings as an exclusive resort for the wealthy, long after that had ceased to be a reality. Instead of embracing and catering for ‘trippers’, they rejected them and did nothing to encourage the new breed of working-class visitors. As a result, Hastings declined significantly in prosperity and size. The population of Hastings increased from 3,000 in 1801 to 60,000 in 1891, but shrank during the first half of the 20th century – by the end of the Second World War, it was less than it had been at the beginning of the century.

Other factors were at play too – the Council was notoriously corrupt, with its councillors and aldermen (in effect co-opted councillors, who frequently bought their place on the Council by bribing elected councillors to vote for them) involved in a variety of scams, including the notorious ‘Hastings Coal Ring’, which fixed Hastings coal prices to higher levels than they were in London (which is why the gas works was built outside the Hastings borough boundary). Poor quality buildings were also a problem, with many Victorian houses badly built and in some cases dangerous. Burton’s St Leonards, built as a luxury resort for the super-rich, suffered from this especially – five of Burton’s buildings fell down within a year of being built, and there was no sewerage system included in the plans – that had to be sorted out after the buildings were constructed, and not very effectively.

During the 1920s, the population of Hastings fell, leaving many houses in town abandoned and in disrepair. But still the rich and powerful in town were resisting change – in 1923, the Hastings Observer ran a campaign to ‘Stop the Trippers’. Yet there was no work, tourism had collapsed and had not been replaced by any other industry (the traditional fishing industry had been in decline for decades). So in 1926, the Corporation advertised for an engineer to ‘rebuild Hastings’ – and appointed Sidney Little.

Little came in with big plans, some of which were realised, and helped to revitalise the town. His two-tier concrete promenade, with its underground car parks (the world’s first underground public car parks) worked well and were genuinely visionary, recognising the growth in personal car ownership. His lido at West Marina, while getting a lot of news coverage as the largest in Europe, was not successful, making a profit in its first year, but a huge loss in every subsequent year, making it financially unsustainable. It was closed in 1959.

Little also drew up plans for a new two-tier town centre in Hastings, with modern shops and cafes on an upper tier, cars and buses on the lower tier. But this was rejected, along with his plans for a new housing estate on what is now the Country Park, and a conference centre at White Rock.

After the Second World War, the population of Hastings had dropped to around 30,000 – less than it had been a century earlier. Development of new housing estates to rehouse people who had lost their homes in London boosted the population significantly, but there were still few employment opportunities. The Council did build new factory estates, to attract new employers, which were successful, and have been pretty much fully occupied ever since. But Hastings has continued to suffer from a lack of decent jobs, as well as a lack of skills in the working-age population.

During the 1990s, there were some major changes to the town centre – for example, building Priory Meadow shopping centre on the former cricket ground. But it was not until the Labour government came into office in 1997 that there was any attempt to regenerate the Hastings economy through major public investment.

1997-2010

The new Labour government made Hastings and Bexhill (later Hastings and Rother) a focus for regeneration and growth in 2001. This investment was initially led by the then Regional Development Agency (SEEDA). A Task Force was set up involving government, national agencies, the MPs, the three local authorities and others, drawing up a ten-year programme for the regeneration of Hastings and Bexhill. The Task Force had oversight of this programme but also a wider range of education, community safety and cultural regeneration. This was distilled in the Task Force five-point plan which focused on:

  • Urban renaissance;
  • Business innovation;
  • Excellence in higher and further education;
  • Broadband and fibreoptic infrastructure;
  • Transportation improvements.

The initial programme was intended to last ten years, and involved more than a quarter of a billion pounds of public investment into Hastings and Bexhill. This included:

Capital Interventions

  • Combe Valley Way, the Hastings – Bexhill Link Road;
  • Employment space (Hastings Town Centre and Rother Sites);
  • New Hastings Secondary Academies;
  • Hastings Station improvements and transport hub;
  • Marina Pavilion;
  • Redevelopment of the former coach and lorry park to create the Stade Open Space, Stade Hall, Stade café, facilitating the development of the Jerwood Gallery (now Hastings Contemporary);
  • Crime reduction initiatives by Safer Hastings Partnership – including purchase of CCTV system;
  • New further education colleges (Hastings Town Centre and the Ore Valley);
  • Station Plaza Health Centre;
  • New Hastings Railway Station;
  • Central St Leonards Urban Renaissance Programme;
  • Central St Leonards Renewal Area;
  • Hastings Innovation Centre;
  • Creative Media Centre;
  • Town Centre Renewal (Priory Quarter);
  • Brighton University campus.

Social and Economic Interventions

  • Neighbourhood Renewal Programmes, making grants for housing improvement available;
  • Area Based Grants Programme to fund social and employment initiatives;
  • Area Committees and local regeneration partnerships, including Greater Hollington Partnership, Ore Valley Forum, St Leonards & Gensing Forum, and Castle Ward Forum.

2010 – Present

When the coalition government was elected in 2010 however, all this planned local investment ceased. On top of that, the revenue grant funding available to both Hastings Council and East Sussex County Council was slashed during the following years of austerity, meaning both organisations had fewer staff and less money to engage in their own local regeneration initiatives.

Planned regeneration programmes were replaced with competitive funding schemes and short-term, one off initiatives, from the government and from the EU. Nevertheless, Hastings Council and other local groups have been very successful at bidding into the competitive grant funds, both individually and in partnership. Some of these initiatives include:

  • Various seafront improvements, including restoring White Rock Baths as The Source Skate Park, new kiosks, new signage, and the White Rock water feature (currently being constructed);
  • Cultural initiatives, including fish fairs, Stade Saturdays, and the ROOT1066 festival to mark the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings;
  • Bottle Alley refurbishment and lighting scheme;
  • Hastings Pier restoration;
  • Rock House housing and workspace;
  • Health Inequalities Programmes by the local Clinical Commissioning Group;
  • North East Hastings Big Local Programme;
  • Connecting Hastings and Rother Together (CHART), an EU-funded programme to fund social and employment projects in the most deprived areas;
  • Funding to help rough sleepers and address escalating levels of homelessness;
  • The Coastal Space project, a joint initiative between Hastings Council and Optivo Housing Association to create around 100 units of social rented housing in St Leonards by restoring abandoned properties;
  • Hastings Opportunity Area education improvement programme;
  • SUCCESS, an EU-funded grants programme for arts and cultural businesses;
  • Two rounds of EU Fisheries Local Action Group funding to help the local fishery;
  • Hastings Town Centre Business Improvement District;
  • The Observer Building, now being restored by Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust.

While this funding has been significant, it’s nowhere near the levels of funding the town was receiving pre-2010. And it’s random, based on what programmes are out there that the Council and local partners can bid into, rather than a planned investment to address the problems that Hastings still faces.

There have been two significant setbacks in the overall regeneration programme. Firstly, Brighton University has now closed its campus in Hastings (see later article on this). And secondly, the independent trust that was set up to run the restored Hastings Pier collapsed within two years, resulting in the sale of the pier to a controversial private owner. There have been some other issues too, of a ‘could do better’ kind. For example, some of the new office accommodation in the town centre was slow to let, and was eventually occupied by public sector organisations rather than new businesses. And some projects have run significantly over-budget and over-time. There have been criticisms too of the organisations established to carry out regeneration, through publicly owned regeneration companies whose structures were complicated and lacked transparency.

Nonetheless, the impact of this investment, along with Council programmes such as the ‘Grotbuster’ scheme to improve the look of the town’s buildings, has been significant and positive. Hastings has changed substantially since the 1990s, having become a much more desirable place to live in, work in, and visit. The Council’s Cultural Regeneration Strategy has been particularly successful, promoting Hastings as a cultural destination, attracting new visitors, and encouraging those working in the cultural sectors to settle here.

This funded regeneration programme up to 2010 could have led to much greater long-term improvements if the funding had continued. However, it didn’t, and we still have significant problems. These include:

  • Poor local and regional transport infrastructure;
  • Low skills levels and educational attainment in the local population;
  • Insufficient affordable housing, leading to increasing levels of homelessness;
  • A lack of well-paid jobs;
  • Poor health and short life expectancies in some parts of town;
  • A risk of gentrification if new employers recruit workers from outside Hastings, and others relocate to Hastings, resulting in further losses of affordable housing for local people;
  • And, of course, Brexit, which could have a significant negative impact on local employers, jobs, and tourism.

Most importantly, Hastings still has some of the most deprived communities in the country, where levels of unemployment, child poverty, poor health and low skills levels have persisted, despite regeneration initiatives.

The Future

At the moment, the future looks fairly bleak. What’s needed is a continuation of pre-2010 funding levels, through a long-term programme of planned economic interventions and public investment – but there’s no sign that anything like that will be forthcoming from the current government. In the absence of that, Hastings will continue to apply for external funding through competitive grants as and when that’s available. But we’ll also be moving towards a more ‘project based’ way of working, planning a series of our own physical regeneration projects that can be ‘selffunded’, for example through the sale of housing, as well as seeking grant funding towards this. Some of these projects include:

  • Redevelopment of White Rock Gardens and land in Bohemia as the ‘Bohemia Quarter’, to provide housing, visitor accommodation, a new arts and leisure centre, and new gardens;
  • Housing development incorporating 40% housing association rented homes on land behind Bexhill Road (the ‘lower tier’ site);
  • A housing and leisure development at West Marina;
  • A new business start-up unit creating 78 jobs at Sidney Little Way;
  • New housing on the former Harrow Lane playing fields;
  • Potential redevelopment of Priory Street car park and the post office sorting office.

We’re also drawing up a new regeneration plan with local partners to replace the original Task Force plan, and will be looking at whether we need a new regeneration company to take these plans forward. It’s likely that we’ll continue to take these plans forward jointly with Rother Council, particularly as the new administration there is much more interested in joint working than the previous one was.

But without planned government funding and capital investment, this will be far more limited than the original plan, which was based around the £250 million pounds or so of local investment from central government to deliver the plan. Hastings still needs proper, planned public investment. Without that, our long-term problems, and the plight of our most deprived communities, will continue.

Farewell Brighton University Campus

Bringing a university to Hastings was part of the Task Force’s ambition back in the early days of the new millennium – it was added as a sixth point to the ‘five-point plan’.

Public money was invested in creating a university building in a former telephone exchange on Havelock Road. The new university campus opened there in 2005. Initially, this university project was sponsored by several different universities: Brighton, Sussex, Kent, and Greenwich. But as the project gathered momentum, Brighton University offered to take it forward on their own, with an ambitious programme of expansion put together by the then Vice-Chancellor, Julian Crampton. This plan involved a brand-new building at Priory Square, purpose-built student accommodation at Station Plaza (which was never built), and an increase in student numbers to over 2,000. The Priory Square building offered new, top-class facilities, including a category 2 microbiology laboratory, and was built using around £10m of Hastings regeneration money. The then Council leader, Jeremy Birch, signed a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with Julian Crampton to take this project forward to fruition.

However, in 2015, Julian Crampton retired, and a new Vice-Chancellor was appointed with a very different agenda. Within a couple of weeks of taking up her appointment, she announced the intended closure of the Hastings campus, and their intention to sell off the buildings, but not return the £10m Hastings regeneration money that had been used in the project – all proceeds from the sale were to be taken back to Brighton.

Despite massive protests from staff and students, as well as Hastings Council, local businesses, local people and many others, the university held firm, and the closure went ahead, with the campus finally shutting down this summer, holding its final graduation celebration in July, an event I attended and made a speech at.

At the July Council meeting, we invited all the university staff to a reception to thank them for their work in Hastings, and made a presentation to them at the Council meeting. They made the point that Brighton University had done nothing to thank them at all.

During those 14 years when the university was running, several hundred young (and not so young) students received degrees, most of whom would never have thought such a thing possible, and would never have considered going to university anywhere else. Indeed, their graduates included three Hastings councillors. The achievements of the staff in Hastings, particularly in the later years with a hostile university working towards closure, were remarkable – we should all be grateful to them.

Sadly, both Julian Crampton and Jeremy Birch are no longer with us, but it’s a tragedy, and a betrayal of their work, that it should have come to this. Not all is lost though. East Sussex College in Hastings now has a thriving University Centre, with around 300 students studying for degree-level qualifications. And we’ll keep looking for a university partner to re-establish a campus in Hastings. One day, perhaps we’ll be able to reinvent the project, and honour the memory of Julian and Jeremy with a new university.

That’ll do for now – if you’d like more information on any of this, leave a message on 01424 451066, or e-mail at cllr.peter.chowney@hastings.gov.uk

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