Council Cabinet votes to demolish Harold Place loos despite Tory opposition

Hugh Sullivan reports

After acrimonious debate and rival accusations of political cynicism levelled from either side of the Council chamber, Hastings Council Cabinet voted on Monday evening to demolish the toilet block at Harold Place in the town centre. It was closed last year in order to save cleaning and maintenance costs and has been boarded up since then, awaiting further decision. 

The Council’s favoured option was, until the last hours before the meeting, to undertake an ambitious re-development of the site for letting as a restaurant, borrowing funds in excess of £800,000 in the expectation of a commercial return.  There was said to be a “relatively well-known, quality” national chain which was believed willing in principle to take a long lease of up to 15 years at a rent of not less than £60,000 per year.  But at the meeting it was admitted that this prospective taker had failed to come forward with any offer.  Council leader Peter Chowney urged that, after a full year of failed marketing, the only realistic alternative now was to raze the building, at least to ground level.  The expense of this had been costed at £105,000, with a further £55,000 to be spent on landscaping the empty site.  A third option, of the Council developing the site from its own resources as a cafe or restaurant, was regarded as too “risky” financially.

Conservative councillors Rob Lee and Andy Patmore tabled an opposition amendment: to re-open the toilets. They pointed out that the capital expenditure required for the  programme of extensive repairs and refurbishment that would be necessary for any re-opening, previously costed at £150,000, was actually £10,000 less than the aggregate cost of demolition and landscaping proposed by Mr Chowney.  Cllr Lee argued that annual spending on cleaning and maintenance could be defrayed by charging for use through a turnstile  – a suggested 20p per visit.  Cllr Andy Patmore suggested that there could also be a voucher system enabling users to recoup charges by getting credits at local shops.

Labour councillors closed ranks against them. Cllr Colin Fitzgerald referred to five new toilets available to the public on several floors of the refurbished central library in Claremont.  He accused the Tories of “naked opportunism”, purporting to favour retaining toilets while failing to show how they could be paid for. Cllr Andy Batsford was equally scathing, arguing that the Council had been forced into the cuts by “your government”.  (“Her Majesty’s Government”, Cllr Andy Patmore corrected him).
“This is what austerity looks like”, he said. Labour were making “tough, well-thought out choices”; the opposition were being “politically opportunistic”.

Cllr Andy Patmore retorted that it was Labour who were being cynical, since it would be cheaper to refurbish and re-open than demolish.  He reminded his political opponents that there had been an adverse reaction among locals in the town to the original closure, and that this remained an issue “on the doorstep” – a reminder of the forthcoming local elections in two months’ time. He also pointed out that if demolition was started in two or three months time, it would cause major disruption in the town centre “right in the middle of summer”.

The voting then proceeded on party lines: the Conservative amendment was defeated, and the decision made to demolish. Work will presumably commence in the coming weeks.

Heritage Strategy
The Council Cabinet had previously voted to approve a Heritage Strategy document put forward by Kevin Boorman, the Council’s Marketing and Major Projects Manager, following a 61-page report by “historic environment” consultants Drury McPherson which included a list of recommendations to protect and maximise the town’s “heritage assets”.  As Mr Chowney acknowledged, the Strategy document was couched in very general “over-arching” terms, and would need to be followed by a “fairly detailed action plan” to implement some of the recommendations. He also described a number as “ somewhat aspirational”, such as one to reduce parking on the sea-front. 

Although the Cabinet approval was unanimous, Cllr Lee stated that his own support was “not entirely whole-hearted”. He pointed out in particular that a recommendation to install a visitor hub in the town centre would be a reversal of the recent move from the Old Town Hall to Muriel Matters House.

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