But Council Leader Queries Competitive Process

At a meeting of the Hastings and St Leonards Local Strategic Partnership (LSP) held at the chambers of Hastings Borough Council on Monday, Director of Regeneration, Simon Hubbard, gave a presentation of the council’s latest bid for national funding: £25 million from the Future High Streets Fund for redevelopment of the town centre. 

This Fund was launched by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in December 2018 with a promised pot of £675 million to be spread across the country as part of its Plan for the High Street to “help local leaders implement bold new visions to transform their town centres and make them fit for the future”. Mr Hubbard told councillors and other members of the LSP that there is a two stage process of bidding –  a first phase under which bids were submitted in principle, followed by detailed submissions in the spring of 2020 for those which have been favourably received. Selection of these will be notified this summer.

Applying elementary maths, the value of the Hastings bid can be calculated as amounting to a 27th of the entire sum on offer. However, with all first stage bids in, High Streets Minister Jake Berry MP revealed last month that there are more than 300  of them – which suggests that either the chances of success for Hastings are less than one in ten, or else that funds will be eventually awarded in far smaller packages than originally envisaged.

Mr Hubbard was, nevertheless, upbeat in his assessment of prospects. A proportion of the full pot –  £55 million – is specifically earmarked to support the regeneration of “heritage” high streets. Bids “will help to restore historic high street properties for new work spaces or cultural venues” according to the Ministry. He described the current Hastings town centre as combining old and new buildings but with a pivotal place in history that should be taken advantage of for purposes of development of both tourism and education.

In comparison with many other town centres, Hastings “has done really well” over the last decade, he went on to argue. It maintains three distinct centres  – the Old Town, the new town and Central St Leonards. While the bid would necessarily concentrate on the new town, it would aim at increasing connectivity between the three. Already, despite being a “poor town” and “without resources”, there are lower rates of retail vacancies than average. Office space was almost fully taken. Any decrease of footfall of local residents in the centre has been more than compensated by the increase in visitors.

Loss of the university, with the forthcoming sale of its buildings in the Priory Quarter and on Havelock Road, had been disappointing but now presented opportunities. “We need to plan and improve, otherwise the risk is that we will go backwards” .

In discussion Peter Chowney, leader of the council, expressed concern that the national Fund would target “failing” town centres. That didn’t really fit Hastings: in the last quarter, due in part to the arrival of Primark, footfall was actually up. 

More generally, while supporting the bid and hoping that it would be successful, he queried the short term and competitive nature of the bidding system. “It’s a process which forces the poorest and most deprived areas to compete for scraps from the rich man’s table”, he said. The Future High Streets Fund was the latest in a long history of this kind of funding. On the other hand the recently published House of Lords report on the economies of seaside towns had concluded that the real need was for an overall long term strategy. 

Mr Hubbard responded that “come what may  – we may get the funding or not – we still have to develop a vision that reflects the town’s needs. We’re climbing a hill. But we are climbing”.

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