Arts on Prescription (AoP), a local community interest company which offers art and creative activities as a therapeutic means of mental health support, is to be awarded a tenancy by Hastings Borough Council (HBC) of a venue in Alexandra Park as a base for its activities – the former clubhouse and green used up to the autumn of 2019 by disbanded bowls clubs Alexandra and Clive Vale. The award was agreed unanimously at a cabinet meeting last week.

AoP was founded in 2019 by community activist Tara Reddy to link patients suffering from depression, loneliness or anxiety with local artists who can, in the words of the company website, provide “creative, reminiscence and confidence-building activities to enhance wellbeing and reduce social isolation”. Its output has been available for prescription by local GPs and other health professionals over the past two years. However, the social restrictions enforced from the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic have meant that it has been mainly been conducted online hitherto. Now it will have a permanent physical base, albeit with an initial commitment for only one year.

Back in February 2020 the council resolved to cease paying for the upkeep of the bowling green in its 2020/21 budget. The site has subsequently been maintained by the park contractors Idverde over the past two summers as a standard grass area. Then, in the summer of 2021, the council undertook a low profile promotion asking for ‘expressions of interest’ to be submitted by alternative commercial or community enterprises. 

CREDIT: Felix Sullivan

The commercial viability of the site appeared diminished by a stipulation that there was to be no public provision of tea, coffee, soft drinks, ice creams or light snacks, which would compete with a kiosk already rented out at one end. HBC’s cabinet was told last week that, nevertheless, six organisations put in tenders. One sought to develop a pre-school sporting facility; others proposed respectively a community farm and farm shop; a centre for children and families including baby and toddler sessions; a dog grooming business; and a mixed-use facility including for outdoor leisure and private hire. 

“A natural setting”

The bids were “of quite a high standard”, Cllr Peter Chowney, HBC’s financial portfolio holder, told a meeting of HBC’s cabinet last week, and the one received from AoP was not the best financially – in fact the initial year’s rent would be limited to £1,000 without full repairing obligations. But he praised the idea of providing mental health benefits “in a natural setting”; the “social value” of the bid should, he argued, put it first. 

There is some irony in the probability that the loss of the bowling greens has itself led to problems of isolation and inactivity. At the time of removing the subsidy for them, Cllr Andy Batsford, then HBC’s leisure services lead member, issued a statement admitting that “bowling is a great way to prevent elderly isolation and keep
active. We want to make sure we preserve this traditional sporting pastime”.

But, nearly two years on, Cllr Paul Barnett, deputy leader of the council, made a strong speech in cabinet in support of AoP’s provision, referring to serious mental health issues in his Hollington ward among younger age groups and to an increasing gap in life expectancy between rich and poor. “It is not in the main because older people are running out of puff after a lifetime of sweat”, he declared. “It is more shocking than that. It is younger people, particularly younger men, who are killing themselves in middle age.” 

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