Hastings Council Leader’s Report: May 2019

Local Elections

Although there were no elections in Hastings this year, there were in neighbouring Rother Council, where all council seats were up for election. The results were:

Conservative 14

Independent 13

Liberal Democrat 7

Labour 3

Green 1

So the council is no longer Conservative controlled. Latest news is that a coalition of non-Conservative councillors will be forming an administration. Labour had no councillors before, but took seats in Central Bexhill and Sidley. So congratulations to Paul Courtel, Christine Bayliss and Sam Coleman for forming what may be the largest Labour Group ever on Rother Council!

Elsewhere in East Sussex, Conservatives lost seats in Lewes, but that already had no overall control, so it seems unlikely that the Conservative minority administration will continue. There is now only one district council in East Sussex controlled by the Conservatives (Wealden).

The Wealden result is hard to interpret as almost all their ward boundaries had changed, and the total number of councillors, following a major review. But Conservative losses there seem to be more modest compared to neighbouring Rother.

Overall, these results were hugely influenced by Brexit. There does seem to have been a trend in recent years of local elections being used by voters simply as an opinion poll on central government and national issues, rather than local issues. It seems pretty clear that voters don’t see councils as having a great deal of influence over their lives anymore. Since the 1950s, the powers of local government to influence their own areas have been gradually taken back by central government. Added to that, massive cuts to council budgets have left them less able to do much of significance with the powers they do have, beyond their basic statutory duties. We need to restore powers to local government, and funding, to bring the important decisions back closer to local communities, and revitalise local voting on local issues.

Country Park Visitor Centre

Two years ago, Hastings Council was awarded an EU UPSTRAW grant to build a new visitor centre in the Country Park.

However, constructing a building of that size is unusual, and it wasn’t at first possible to find a building contractor who had the knowledge and experience to do straw bale construction, and who was big enough to take on the contract. Eventually, after research into the world of straw bale construction, a consortium of ‘artisan’ straw bale builders was formed to bid for the contract.

So the contract has been awarded to a consortium headed by SIA Design and Build. The specialist straw bale companies are Green and Castle, Red Kite and the wonderfully-named Huff and Puff Construction. The straw bales are already on site, stored in a barn nearby. Work is expected to begin later this month, with some timber frame pieces already made off-site. We will be developing on-site information prior to contractors starting work, to keep the public informed as the project progresses.

When it’s completed, the visitor centre will be run and maintained by Groundworks Trust, an environmental charity who are already working with the council on a number of projects in the Country Park. The building will be close to carbon-neutral, thanks to the high thermal efficiency of the straw bale construction, and it’s intended to install solar panels on it to generate its own electricity. It will even have its own mini-treatment plant for effluent, which means it doesn’t have to be connected to the sewerage system.

Construction will take a few months, but when finished, we’ll have a brand-new visitor centre for the Country Park that will also be a showcase for straw bale construction. It’s been a long and slow process to get it started, and at times it looked like it might not be possible, but I’m glad we stuck with it.

Hastings Pier Update

Permission was granted by the Planning Committee for use of the community rooms in the pier visitor centre as a ‘family entertainment centre’. This was a change of use application, rather than a full planning application, as no actual changes to the structure are taking place. There were no legitimate planning grounds for turning down the change of use application – if the committee had turned it down, the application would have been allowed on appeal, and the council would have had to pay costs.

Nevertheless, I am saddened by the change of use of the Birch Room, which was set up as a community space and named in memory of Jeremy Birch, former leader of Hastings Council, who died almost exactly four years ago – it does seem rather insensitive to use this space for slot machines.

The pier re-opened last month, although nothing much seems to be open on it. The Pier Jam was going to be the first big event of the year, but that had to be cancelled because of high winds. Hopefully, there will be more events, and more open, on the pier as the season progresses. We need a pier that attracts people to town, and to that part of the promenade, with lots to see and do. At the moment, it doesn’t achieve that.

Grant Funding for the Country Park

We’ve been told that the Hastings Council bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund, in partnership with Groundworks Trust, has been successful. The partnership has received an award of £277,000 to fund a project to promote and encourage access to the Country Park.

This project is called ‘Hidden Hastings Heritage’, and will take place over the next two years across Hastings Country Park. The project focuses on the hidden stories and physical reminders of the park’s varied and often littleknown past, to offer new activities and events in the park for schools, community groups, local people, and visitors.

Activities will take place across the whole of the park and will help people get into the park and learn about its history. The project will also bring to life the park’s history online, with physical interpretation and signage installed at key locations, with improvements to paths too. As part of the project people will be able to enjoy hidden stories such as the role of the park in the growth of Victorian Hastings, as home to RAF Fairlight, in the development of Radar during the First World War and links to notable local figures such as John Logie Baird and Marianne North – and much more.

The full programme of events and activities will now be developed, but watch out for lots of events and activities for all in the largest green space in Hastings, but is still undiscovered by visitors and by many local residents. This grant will help us make the Country Park accessible and appreciated by all.

Observer Building

Last week, I was taken on a tour of the Observer Building redevelopment, with Jess Steele and Beth Woolf of White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures (WRV), a local community-based not-for-profit regeneration company. They recently bought the building from the previous owners, who spent a great deal of money getting planning permission for conversion to housing, then sold it on without beginning the development.

White Rock Ventures’ plan for the building is rather different from the previous owner, however. They’re the organisation that bought and redeveloped Rock House (a previously derelict office block next door to the Observer Building) as housing, business start-up spaces, and community spaces. Now it’s home to 43 businesses and 88 individual tenants, all paying securely capped rents.

Now WRV are taking on the challenge of bringing the iconic Observer Building back to life. The building has been derelict for 34 years and at least 500 jobs were lost on its closure. Since then, the building has had a chequered history, passing through many different hands, and was bought by one owner as a way of laundering drug trade money, and who ended up in prison (while still owning the building). Fourteen planning permissions have been granted for the redevelopment of the building – none of them has resulted in any successful development, and the building has remained, for the most part, unused. It is a very hard building to redevelop. It was built from reinforced concrete to support the huge weight of printing presses, so it’s difficult to change the layout much. However, White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures plan to rescue it and create new jobs and opportunities.

White Rock Ventures have owned the building for just over 10 weeks. They have already procured a team of local professionals, begun repairing the concrete defects floor by floor and are aiming to have the first local work space tenants moving in later this summer. They’ve also made repairs to the roof to make the building weatherproof. No other owner of the Observer Building in its 34 years since its closure has ever made any repairs of any significance, so they’re making a good start. Although plans are not finalised, they’re intending to create housing in the building, as well as work spaces, artists’ studios, gallery space, leisure facilities, and a rooftop terrace.

The project will be funded using a mixed model of grants and social investment. White Rock Ventures have a successful track record with Rock House (developed with just £85k in the bank on purchase and now worth £1.6 million). It’s a risky venture, but their regeneration of Rock House shows they can succeed, particularly if they get the support of the local community, so they can demonstrate the popularity of their proposals to potential funders.

One important way to achieve this is to donate a small amount and leave a message on their Crowdfunder page. The message is as important as the donation – even if you can only give £1, it will help them to show the strength of local support. The deadline for donations is 1 June, so don’t delay.

Every name and message of support counts. I’ve made my pledge! Make a donation and find out more at: https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/the-observer-building

The Observer Building has been a blight on Hastings town centre for too long – this is the best chance we have had yet to redevelop it. Please support them!

Commercial Property Purchases

Three years ago, Hastings Council began a programme of commercial property purchases to offset to some extent the huge cuts in government grants to the council. The formula for this is simple. Councils can borrow money cheaply from the Public Works Loans Board. We use this to buy freehold properties with a full repairing lease (which means the tenants are responsible for all the repairs) which already have tenants. The rent is used to pay off the loan, leaving a surplus that can be used to fund council services. The percentage net return on the investment is usually around 2%-5% (around ten percent or more before loan repayments).

After the loans are paid off (usually 40 years) the council retains all the rents as income, meaning the net return on the property gets much higher, and the council has gained a valuable capital asset. Forty years ago, the council decided to borrow money to build factory units by creating Ponswood, Castleham and Churchfields industrial estates. Now those loans are paid off, and the council gets several million pounds a year net income from those investments, as well as owning the land and buildings.

This programme over the last three years has been very successful. All the purchases have been within Hastings borough (although we are looking outside the borough too, in the Hastings ‘travel to work’ area). The additional net return on these investments, after loan repayments and charges, is now well over a million pounds a year – without this income, cuts to council services would have to be much deeper. These property purchases have included:

  • Muriel Matters House (the council offices);
  • Sedlescombe Road Retail Park (Pets at Home and Dunelm)
  • Builder Centre (next door to the above);
  • Bexhill Road Retail Park (TK Maxx);
  • Bexhill Road Aldi (the former Peugeot garage currently under development, with a deal for the council to take possession when it’s finished);
  • Heron House (the DWP offices on London Road, in picture);
  • Lacuna Place (offices in Havelock Road, including Tesco).

The council has developed a scoring system to assess whether we should proceed with a purchases, and all these properties were purchased after a lot of ‘due diligence’ work, including full surveys, and in each case seeking external expert advice on value for money. Quite a few other properties have been offered to the council, but have been rejected because they didn’t get through the due diligence process, didn’t represent good value, or had structural or legal problems.

But this process of purchasing properties isn’t just about generating income. It’s also about regeneration and protecting jobs. Many of these properties were owned by offshore companies or absentee multinational corporations, who failed to maintain communal areas, and failed to enforce repairing obligations in the leases. Lessees often found them difficult to contact, and didn’t even know when the freehold had been sold on. Having the council as the freeholder ensures that both freeholder and leaseholder obligations will be met, and that leaseholders have a local, secure landlord they can easily contact and work with.

So the programme has been a success, on several different levels: income for the council, securing jobs, and better maintained retail premises. We’ll be looking to extend the programme, wherever we can find the right properties.

Hastings Town Centre

Compared to other town centre retail centres, Hastings is doing well – particularly Priory Meadow Shopping Centre. Hastings Council also owns this, but in this case we have a head lease with New River Group, a property management company who manage the centre and deal with all the shop leases and lettings.

Over the last quarter, footfall was up by 0.7% over that quarter in the previous year.

That might not sound much, but it compares to an average drop of 10% across the rest of the south east. This increased footfall was largely due to the opening of Primark, although that happened quite late in the quarter – next quarter, footfall is likely to see a significantly higher increase.

As a result, other shops in Priory Meadow have also benefitted, with almost all reporting increased sales (some reporting sales figures up by more than ten percent). That applies particularly to other clothing retailers, who are getting the most benefit. That might not be expected, but it seems people are attracted by Primark, but then go to other clothes shops too. All the units in Priory Meadow are currently let (even if they’re empty, someone is about to move in) and there’s a waiting list for units there – not surprising, as it’s now one of the most successful shopping centres in the country.

Elsewhere in Hastings town centre, Queen’s Road is undergoing something of a renaissance, with lots of new, independent shops and cafes opening up. Debenhams too has escaped closure, although its long-term future remains uncertain (as it does with all Debenhams stores).

Hastings Council has also submitted a £3m grant application to the Future High Streets Fund, a government fund to help ‘failing’ high streets. Even though it’s difficult to argue that Hastings Town Centre is ‘failing’, there are still many problems which we could address, so we’re hoping the bid will be successful.

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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Secretary