20160723_202444

DOCTORS IN THE ICE HOUSE?

by Hugh Sullivan

Hastings Council’s planning committee will determine later this month whether an innovative development in the provision of GP medical services in the Old Town will go ahead. Two practices currently operating from Roebuck House on the High Street are hoping to re-locate to new premises at the Ice House in Rock-a-Nore incorporating not only a new GP surgery and dentist surgery on the upper floors, but also a pharmacy and health restaurant on the ground floor and gym/dance studio in the basement below. However they are facing opposition from their prospective neighbours opposite, the Shipwreck Museum and Blue Reef Aquarium, whose administrators claim that these intended uses, which need planning permission, are out of kilter with the Council’s Development Management Plan for the Old Town. They have filed objections on the ground that the promotion of medical services in this area, however beneficial to local residents, will add to already existing traffic and parking problems to the detraction of tourist interests which the Plan is supposed to enhance.

The trend in GP provision, both locally and nationally, is for practices to get bigger with a view to meeting wider ancillary needs – “co-location of medical services” in NHS jargon. Several practices in Hastings and St Leonards that were previously operated by single-handers or small partnerships in limited space have been taken over by a national group IMH (head office in Manchester boasting around 50 sites in all), viz. Station Plaza, Little Ridge, Essenden Road and Shankill. The practices at Roebuck House are thus in the minority that are still owned and run locally. Together they currently serve 10,000 patients and, according to partner Dr Craig Namvar, who is buying the Ice House site in his own name, his is the only one on the east side of Hastings which is still taking new patients onto its list. It does already offer ancillary services that include ante-natal care and mother-and-baby clinics, and asthma and diabetic counselling. But floorspace constraints prevent it from expanding further.

The intended premises at the Rock-a-Nore Ice House will have six consulting and examination rooms as well as the dentist’s surgery and pharmacy facilities. And Dr Namvar’s vision is to provide not just reactive medical services but also an environment that promotes positive health, hence the intended restaurant and activity studio.

Planning consultants Murphy Associates who have been advising Dr Namvar argue in their supporting document – “the fact that the local planning authority has a preference for tourist related uses in this location should not be imposed to the extent that it fails to provide and promote healthy places to live, choice, diversity and competitiveness.”

That last phrase draws the planning committee’s attention to the fact that, although the current planning use for the site is for a hotel and it has been marketed as such in shell form for the past eight years by the previous owners, there have been no takers, and the building has remained empty throughout this period. It seems that the structure is too small to interest any national hotel chains while being too constrained and inflexible for a boutique. The residential flats in the buildings alongside, which have been sold successfully over the past decade have been laid out individually in such a way as maximise the waterfront views – it would be more difficult for a hotel to avoid some back rooms ending up with their guests offered only a close-up vista of the cliff face. Nevertheless the planning committee have requested further “clarification” of the historical marketing process before accepting that retention of the site for hotel development is not viable.

Parking and traffic flows are clearly problematic issues, as they are all over Hastings.

Jacqui Stanford of the Shipwreck Museum complains that at busy periods the Rock-a-Nore car parks are already full or overflowing, with traffic backed up the road and having to turn and exit in vain. But for that matter the existing High Street premises are hardly well provided on either score. Furthermore, as Dr Namvar points out, the peak hours of GP consultations tend to be between 8 and 11 am on weekdays whereas the tourist attractions, including those raising formal objection, have a predominantly afternoon or evening and weekend clientele, and a relatively limited season. The prospective GP practices would have to rent parking spaces amongst the existing Council provision at Rock-a-Nore – but so too would any successful hotel.

For further details of the planning consultation see the Council’s open website: http://publicaccess.hastings.gov.uk/online-applications.