United: Here We Go?
Like a tsunami it has rolled in from the deep with hardly an anticipatory breath: the announcement earlier this month of serious proposals to build a brand new multi-sports complex at Combe Valley with funds to be raised from housing development of both Pilot Field and Horntye. Those who have followed the struggles of both Hastings United football directors and Horntye Park trustees to keep their respective sports arenas afloat will know that they have each been casting around for alternative set-ups for some years. But the idea of embarking on a joint venture of such proportions is a visionary one – particularly when it appears that it will be dependent financially neither on Council nor EU nor lottery nor Sport England nor other public funding, nor on a rich sugar daddy showering largesse from afar, but rather on hard-headed local enterprise.
In introducing the proposals the United board of directors issued a statement indicating that they are the culmination of 18 months of work in conjunction with the Horntye trustees and property development “partners”, the Burney Group, Sherlock Consultancy and Keepmoat Homes. They pledged that – “there will be economic, social and community benefits arising, plus inward investment and vitality, at no cost to Hastings Borough Council or the public purse. There will also be no adverse impact to existing facilities”.
It should be recognised at once that none of the land involved is privately owned. The freehold of Pilot Field, the home of the principal Hastings football club (in various guises) since 1921, is held by Hastings Council. The land at Horntye, which once constituted the playing fields of the former Summerfields School, is held in trust by the charity that previously owned the Priory Meadow cricket ground and bought it effectively as a replacement. The land at Combe Valley earmarked as the location for the new sports “village”, more popularly – and sometimes infamously, recalling its perennial exposure to wind and flood – known by generations of local footballers as Bulverhythe, also belongs to Hastings Council, even though it is situated outside the borough’s boundaries.
Importantly, therefore, all planning decisions that will need to be made concerning the new site there will, at least initially, be in the hands of Rother District Council, while Hastings Council will be the relevant planning authority for the proposed housing developments at both existing sites.
The latter have been extremely coy hitherto in their public reaction to the proposals. Spokesman Kevin Boorman put out a bland statement that “we’re looking forward to receiving more details about the plans and obviously the council will take a formal view when it’s appropriate to do so” – as if they had no more knowledge of what’s afoot than the general citizenry and no guiding principles to apply in terms of general provision of both sport and housing for the town. The proponent sporting bodies would hardly have put their ideas on the drawing board and roughly costed them without some substantial consultation behind the scenes and, we hope, some encouragement to believe that the Council will provide at least moral support. But as landowner, planning authority and having regard to its role as both provider and protector of amenities, the Council no doubt feels it has to tread carefully in public. It is democratically accountable.
While many in the town will welcome at least in principle the prospect of much-needed additional housing and much-desired improvement in sports facilities, there will no doubt be opposition. Will the infrastructure of neighbourhoods of Elphinstone Road and Bohemia Road accommodate major new housing estates? Will the houses be affordable? Can the land at Combe Valley be sufficiently protected from flood, from wind and from contamination from the Pebsham rubbish sites? How will sporting participants and spectators travel to get there? Will they be able to park in sufficient numbers? Will there be environmental objections to the further encroachment, following on the building of the link road, upon the green corridor between St Leonards and Bexhill?
For Jeremy Bunday, a volunteer director of the Horntye Park Management Company and also chair of the South Saxons hockey club that currently puts out seven regular teams to play on the artificial pitch there, the prospects for the relocation are immense. The surface of the pitch at Horntye, now 16 years old, is, he says, reaching the end of its usable life and would have to be replaced within the next two or three years at a current cost of up to £250,000. The sports hall and multiple corridors of function rooms, offices, dressing rooms etc, were designed and built in 1999-2000 with a lottery grant of over £3m as a potential centre for county cricket, which Priory Meadow had been, and as venue for weddings and other community events. But while the cricket pitch itself remains excellent, Sussex CCC have shown paltry interest in holding matches there; and the bits-and-pieces lay-out of the building has proved unattractive to other premium visitors. Local schools mostly either have sufficient facilities of their own or simply disregard any significant sports provision for their pupils. As a result the facilities lie idle too many daytime hours.
The proposed complex at Combe Valley should on the contrary attract constant footfall by the variety of sports on offer. It could be a true community centre rather than just a venue for a few specialist club members. You could play a game of hockey or squash at lunchtime, watch an afternoon football match and then sink some beers to celebrate or commiserate afterwards. Not everyone’s ideal Saturday perhaps, but a potentially big opportunity to expand – and unite – the town’s sporting community. Here we go?