West St Leonards community groups seek share in Town Deal to fund development alternatives

Since October last year, Hastings Borough Council (HBC) has been insisting that it is on the point of signing a lease agreement with developers for the building of a mix of new housing and leisure facilities on the site of the former bathing pool at West Marina. Local community groups in West St Leonards have opposed the projected development from the outset. Now, with the council still apparently uncommitted legally – though telling HIP two months ago that completion of the lease “remains a priority and will be progressed” – its opponents have taken a bold step that they hope will outflank it. A joint submission has been made by West St Leonards Forum, Save Our Bathing Site (SOBS) and West Marina Org, not to the council but to the Hastings Town Deal Board with both temporary and more permanent plans to turn the site into a “prime seafront location for leisure and recreation”. The aim is to gain funding for an alternative development that avoids HBC’s house-building scheme by drawing on a share of the potential £25m Town Deal fund.

PICTURE: Dave Young

Alert readers will recall that this fund was allocated to the borough of Hastings last autumn by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) as one of 101 towns identified that need “levelling up”, in the words of PM Boris Johnson. It is to be administered not by the borough council but by a ‘Town Deal Board’, which the council was required to convene but would not control. 

Earlier this year the Board declared its intent to “design a programme, through which we will ensure we hear directly from our communities, including those which are within the most deprived wards, with regards to their regeneration priorities.

“If you have an idea or a project proposal for the Town Deal, we want to know about it!

“Please complete our Expression of Interest form and a member of the team will be in contact to discuss it further.”

PICTURE: Dave Young

The West St Leonards groups are taking the Board at their word. According to Bryan Fisher of the Forum group, their proposal draws on ideas for activities and facilities on the bathing pool site made over the years, and also a survey and forums with locals earlier this year. It involves “a re-vamp and revival of West Marina”, centred upon the pool site, West Marina Gardens, the Bo Peep parade and West St Leonards Station “as a fully rounded destination for residents and visitors”.

Mr Fisher says: “Local community organisations, no matter how enthusiastic and experienced their members, are often criticised for ‘not doing enough’ or ‘not offering solutions’. The latter is often aimed at organisations focusing upon protests against unwanted or ill-thought out plans – usually by either local or central government… Of course local community organisations do not have salaried employees to do their bidding, or consultants working on juicy contracts; but instead rely upon the expertise and enthusiasm of individuals. So it is nice to tell everyone about our exciting plans. 

“If the project is accepted in principle by the Town Deal Board, then there will be a lot more engagement about the precise detail. A locally based management board and project manager is proposed.”

So will the Hastings Town Deal Board show more interest than HBC has done? That would seem to depend on its individual members.

Will the Hastings Town Deal Board show more interest than HBC has done? That would seem to depend on its individual members 

Under MHCLG direction the Board has been required to include not only the local constituency MP and politicians from all levels of local government, but also representatives of local business, of “anchor institutions” of the town such as colleges, health providers and cultural bodies, and – most difficult to identify – of the community. 

The Town Deal Prospectus issued by the MHCLG in November declared: “Each town will decide how best to involve their local community… Communities should have a meaningful role in decision-making for the future of their town, and Town Deal Boards should draw on the local knowledge and insight that communities can provide on the barriers to driving local growth and productivity. We expect this to be achieved by including community representatives from prominent local civic and faith organisations in the governance structure, such as representatives from local community forums, voluntary and community sector organisations, or Councils of the Voluntary Sector.”

The time frame for appointing and convening the Board was extremely limited. Despite the intervening Christmas and New Year holidays, all Board members had to be identified and enrolled before the end of January. There was little opportunity to cast the net wide and, as Cllr Peter Chowney, then leader of HBC, remarked unguardedly in a council meeting at that time, the appointments were likely to be of “the usual suspects”. The 21 appointees – see list below – are indeed leading public figures in the town, ranging through political leaders and chief executives of both East Sussex County Council and HBC, business entrepreneurs such as Jess Steele and Rich Moore, and cultural figures such as Liz Gilmore of Hastings Contemporary art gallery. Steve Manwaring of Hastings Voluntary Action and Carole Dixon of Hastings Community Network (who is one of two co-Chairs) might be felt to represent smaller community groups in the town.

Few, if any, of the 21 look at first glance to have much connection with communities in West St Leonards. It is fair to recall that MP Sally-Ann Hart went on record during the November/December parliamentary election campaign as opposing the council’s housing development plan at the bathing pool site and supporting alternative ideas of leisure and tourism facilities there. But whether her support will carry weight in what looks like a generally left-leaning body remains to be seen.

Be that as it may, Mr Fisher and his team are asking individuals who support their proposals to write accordingly to HBC’s Managing Director Jane Hartnell and/or East Sussex County Council CEO Becky Shaw, both Board members. Relevant emails are [email protected] and [email protected] 

The next meeting of the Board is due to take place on 17th September at HBC’s offices in Muriel Matters House. Its full and final proposals to the MHCLG to secure the £25m funding for Hastings must be submitted by 31st January next year.

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