DESTI-SMART

This is yet another tortured acronym for an EU funding stream, which the council bid for and won – it stands for ‘Delivering Efficient Sustainable Mobility, Accessibility and Responsible Travel’. The fund has provided around £160,000 to investigate sustainable transport solutions in Hastings – primarily to investigate and put together a business plan for an electric ‘mini-tram’ along the seafront.

This idea has been around for a while, but we’d not gone further with it because of the development costs and the research needed around the route, ticket prices, and ideally bringing a test vehicle to Hastings. The term ‘mini-tram’ is a little misleading as it isn’t a tram and it isn’t particularly ‘mini’. This would be a double-ended vehicle, one or two carriages, carrying around 30 people (like the one in the picture). It would be battery powered (or possibly hydrogen-powered) and would run on tyres rather than rails, but with the potential of using transponders to define a route that the tram would follow, as an ‘invisible track’. There would probably be two such ‘trams’.

The Desti-Smart money doesn’t provide any capital funding for the tram or its infrastructure – that would have to be raised from ticket sales, and potentially other capital grants, which means a fair bit of business planning and investigation would need to be done to test whether the proposal would be viable.

The money can also be used for other sustainable transport investigations around the town centres, for example improvements to cycling and walking infrastructure, but again, there’s no actual capital funding to implement such schemes – we’d have to look elsewhere for that.

Flexible Homelessness Support Grant

A report was discussed about this at the February cabinet meeting, and how the council uses the grant to prevent people becoming homeless, and to help people after they become homeless.

The number of homeless applications received by the council has remained relatively constant over the last three years, as has the number accepted as ‘statutorily homeless’ under the Homelessness Reduction Act (HRA). During 2017/18, 260 applications were accepted, and temporary accommodation provided. However, the council is having to spend much more on temporary accommodation, because the length of time people are spending in temporary accommodation is increasing, usually because they simply can’t afford escalating private rents, and there’s little or no social rented housing available. The average length of stay in temporary accommodation is currently 130 days, but can be much longer.

The reasons for people becoming homeless are also changing, too. In the past, homelessness most commonly resulted from relationship breakdown (with a partner or relative), but now the commonest reason for homelessness is shorthold tenancies being ended, and the increasing of ‘no fault’ s.21 notices, where a landlord can repossess a property for no stated reason.

The HRA introduced a 56-day ‘prevention duty’, which is owed to people at risk of homelessness. That’s followed by a further 56 day ‘relief duty’, which applies to people who are actually homeless. Both of these new duties must be completed before the council can accept a homelessness application – so in some cases, it could be 112 days until a person can be accepted as ‘statutorily homeless’. Those accepted as homeless are also provided with a ‘Personalised Housing Plan’ under the HRA, assessing people’s needs and setting out their plan for getting a home – although this is pretty meaningless if there’s no suitable accommodation available.

For 2018/19, the council received £519,000 in Flexible Homelessness Grant. Useful, but hopelessly inadequate considering the cost of temporary accommodation alone is now around £1m a year. Some of the main things this is spent on include:

  • Three ‘housing options officers’ to work with people who are homeless or under the threat of homelessness;
  • An Affordable Housing Development Officer, to work with housing associations to maximise new building of social rented housing (Hastings Council is not a social housing provider, so we have to work with housing associations);
  • A Temporary Accommodation Officer to manage the supply of temporary accommodation, and minimise the number of people placed in accommodation outside the borough;
  • Rent in Advance and deposit payments to help people get into rented accommodation.

For 2019/20, we’ve got a bigger grant (£745,000), so we’ll be doing some additional things, including:

  • ‘Tenancy Sustainment Funding’, to help people retain an existing tenancy;
  • A ‘Rent Guarantor’ pilot project;
  • An additional specialist Housing Options Worker to help rough sleepers into accommodation.

We’ll also be putting in a bid to the Community Led Local Development programme (an EU funded project to help people in the most deprived parts of Hastings & Bexhill) for a project that will link homelessness prevention activities to employment support, with matched funding from the Flexible Homelessness support grant.

In addition to this, the council also bid for (and won) another grant to deal with rough sleeping, receiving £600,000, shared with Eastbourne. That will focus on a ‘housing first’ pilot to get the most entrenched rough sleepers into accommodation. That’s a very intensive process, and requires temporary accommodation to assess needs, as well as a lot of support with addiction and mental health problems as well as sustaining a tenancy. The staff to do that have now been appointed, and temporary accommodation acquired. There are already two rough sleepers who have been placed in permanent homes, with a further six being assessed. The council is hoping to identify a further 20 properties for permanent accommodation from Optivo housing association (it has to be social housing – former rough sleepers couldn’t possibly afford private sector accommodation as their housing benefit would nowhere near cover the cost of the rent).

There are also other staff the council already has to deal with rough sleepers, which are not included in the outline above. Rough sleeping is a growing problem in Hastings, although fewer than half of the rough sleepers in Hastings have a local connection, and only about a quarter actually lost their last home in Hastings. But the council’s rough sleeper support service doesn’t discriminate, and helps everyone who’s sleeping rough, unless they want to return to their home town, in which case we help them to do that.

I’ll report more on the way the Rough Sleeping Grant is being used next month …

Overall though, this a problem that we shouldn’t have to be dealing with. Homelessness and rough sleeping could be dramatically reduced by introducing longer term secure private sector tenancies, and capping rents to Local Housing Allowance levels (ie the amount that a tenant can get in Housing Benefit or the housing element of Universal Credit). But that requires a change to government policy.

Hastings Pier

Following the march along the seafront to demonstrate against the pier being closed without notice or explanation about why, a meeting was held at the council offices with the pier’s owner, Mr Gulzar and Brett McLean (supporting Mr Gulzar), along with Amber Rudd, Friends of Hastings Pier, the organiser of the march, council officers and me.

The meeting was cordial, although it was difficult to get any clear answer about when the pier would be re-opened, or why it was closed at all. However, Mr Gulzar did eventually commit to re-opening the pier by the end of March. He was asked why it was necessary to close the whole pier, since the only repairs needed seemed to be to a small electrical fire in the pavilion restaurant, but there was no hint that Mr Gulzar would consider re-opening the rest of the pier. He also stated that vandalism was a reason the pier had been closed, but was unclear about how that would be dealt with so the pier could be re-opened.

All present were as encouraging as they could be, saying that some of the long term plans he’d proposed seemed positive: a landing stage with boats to Eastbourne, replacing the lost eastern pavilion, and a new building for events and performances. We all encouraged him to make the details of these plans public as soon as possible (he hasn’t approached the council with any proposals yet, beyond minor issues and additions, such as a series of ‘log cabin’ kiosks).

Mr Gulzar complained about the council taking too long to consider his planning applications, but it was pointed out that of the six applications he’s submitted, four of them are invalid.

It’s fair to say that myself, Amber Rudd, and the Friends of Hastings Pier were pretty united in what we were saying to Mr Gulzar, which can be summarised as:

  • Get the pier re-opened as soon as possible;
  • Work with Friends of Hastings Pier, and reach out to the people of Hastings more to involve them in the future of the pier;
  • Put notices on the pier to say exactly why it’s closed and when it will re-open;
  • Work with the council to discuss planning applications before you submit them, and don’t carry out work on the pier without listed buildings consent;
  • Make the detail of your longer-term plans known, as this could be popular and would help repair damaged relations with the public.

It was unclear whether these requests will be met, but we’ll have to hope that Mr Gulzar got the message and will involve others (including the council, Friends of Hastings Pier, and the wider community) in the future.

West Marina

At the cabinet meeting in February, it was agreed to advertise the West Marina (old bathing pool) site for disposal (by sale of a lease). This is a statutory process we have to undertake, before we consider the proposal to sell a lease on the site to a developer next month.

The site was originally a huge open-air swimming pool (the biggest in Europe), built as part of the seafront improvements carried out by Sidney Little, the Hastings Corporation Borough Engineer in the 1920s and 30s. It opened in 1933, but proved to be expensive to maintain and run. It was converted into a holiday camp in 1960, which eventually closed in 1986, and was left derelict until it was eventually demolished ten years later. Part of the old pool was used for a stormwater overflow tank, for the nearby water treatment outfall plant.

The principle of developing the West Marina site for mixed use housing and leisure was established in the Hastings Local Plan. That followed two years of extensive consultations, culminating in an ‘examination in public’ by a government inspector. The plan was eventually approved by the council in 2014. The redevelopment of the site has also been a commitment in the last two Labour manifestos for the Hastings Council elections.

A public consultation was held a couple of years ago, where a lot of people attended, with a lot of different views expressed, including the need for a slipway, leisure activities, artists’ studios, open space and much more. Some wanted the site retained as open space, although the principle of developing the site has already been established, and it’s always been a brownfield site, originally with a very large and intrusive building on it.

The principle for the site is that it should be a ‘destination’, to attract visitors and tourists to the western end of the promenade. Housing needs to be a part of it, partly because Hastings needs a lot more housing, but partly because the housing is necessary to pay for the leisure development, which would not otherwise be viable. The council has established that it doesn’t want to sell the site for a profit – the site will be ‘cost neutral’, so all the proceeds from housing sales will be used to fund the leisure developments, but the development won’t be costing the council anything either.

Over the last year, the council advertised the site to look for a developer, and considered around a dozen or so proposals that were put forward. However, almost all of them didn’t follow the brief of wanting to develop the site as a genuine ‘destination’ – rather, they were proposing a housing estate with a few beach huts and maybe a café. Only one, a developer called Countygate, came up with anything like what we were looking for, proposing a slipway, a couple of cafes and a restaurant, children’s play, artists’ studios, an open space, beach chalets, holiday accommodation, limited retail, and potentially a hotel. They were also suggesting around 150 homes, above the 120 ‘possible net capacity’ suggested in the local plan.

As Countygate are the only developer to have submitted a proposal that could meet the brief in the local plan, and our manifesto commitment, the cabinet will be receiving a report to consider the disposal of a long lease of the site to Countygate, after the sale has been advertised. The land is being leased, rather than the freehold sold, because that allows the council to retain control of the site, as the leaseholder would need the council’s permission as freeholder to develop the site.

The council has also had a meeting with the Ministry of Defence about using their land in Cinque Ports Way as part of the development, and Aldi, who own the old Stamco site, about purchasing that too for development. This would make more land available, although these sites probably couldn’t be used for housing as they’re in a flood risk area.

If the cabinet meeting approves the appointment of Countygate, Countygate would then begin a process of consultation to draw up a plan for the site. There would be a pre-application planning consultation forum, but I’d also want them to carry out wider consultations too, using for example drop-in sessions in different parts of town. This is a development that would provide new facilities for the whole of the borough, as well as to enhance tourism and help the West St Leonards economy. For a long time, very little regenerative development has taken place at this end of the borough. This proposal has the potential to put that right.

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