Marine Court Seafront Retail in Troubled Times
Marine Court, the vast art deco building in the shape of a Cunard ocean liner, dominates the St Leonards seafront. Erected in 1936-38 and housing over 150 flats in its 14 storeys it was, when completed, the tallest residential block in Britain. The salt air blowing in from the Channel was always going to make it high maintenance, and in recent decades it suffered serious neglect. The Grade II listing in 1999 made the costs of upkeep that much higher. However, the freehold was bought by the residents through a company, Marine Court (St Leonards on Sea) Freeholders Limited in 2010, and the prestige of the address, not to mention the glorious sea views from its upper windows, has ensured that most of the flat owners have been affluent enough, or can charge sufficient rent to sub-tenants, to meet the restoration bills as they are incurred.
A glance at the addresses given for the directors of the company at the Companies Registry suggests that many have first homes in London.
The 19 commercial units strung along the seafront at ground floor level have a different profile. The respective owners hold long leases, paying rent and service charges to the freehold company. Some are in business themselves; others sub-let. In the 1950s there was a smart store called Philpotts and an upmarket tearoom, Addisons; in the 1960s The Cobweb nightclub flourished. But by the 21st century the parade had become home to a low rent assortment of art studios and Bohemian fashion, officially designated as retail but with limited footfall, plus an increasing number of bars and cafes.
Hastings Borough Council has striven to protect the retail element by asserting a planning policy that the parade should not have more than 40% A3 use (premises where food or drink is consumable on site, i.e. restaurants and bars). But in the modern economic climate where goods are increasingly bought and sold on-line, that looks an outdated attitude. The restaurant Half Man Half Burger, which arrived in 2015, has been a conspicuous success, substantially increasing footfall to the parade. When it applied last year for planning permission to extend its premises into the next door unit (which currently accommodates a cycle hire and repairs business), there were no local objections other than from the residential owners immediately above, who had noise concerns that the planners did not share, nor was there any opposition from conservation bodies. But the council prevaricated for five months, according to co-owner Rory Myers, and then turned it down because it didn’t accord with their policy. What were they trying to protect?
Changing patterns of customer demand are one issue for the commercial owners. Operating beneath longstanding scaffolding, erected for purposes of restoration work on the exterior of the flats above, is another. The managing agents HML, with smart offices on the Waterfront at Sovereign Harbour, Eastbourne, are a branch of a nationwide property management business. They service both the residential flats and the shops and bars below. The feeling in the street is that they do the bidding of the freehold DFLs (down from London) with regard to restoration and upkeep of the flats, but have no interest in maintaining a fair relationship with the scruffy commercial elements at ground level. Whether that’s so or not, they enraged commercial owners and sub-tenants in September 2016 by giving only 24 hours’ notice before erecting unsightly scaffolding along the parade which remained in place for around a year. Meanwhile massive hikes in service charges have been imposed.
Current controversies centre on the cost of works to upgrade a series of shared toilets at the rear of the premises with enhanced fire precaution measures including smoke alarms. The shops, which don’t need to provide toilet facilities for their customers, make sparing use of them; on the other hand, they are essential to the bars and restaurants, which do. Either way the projected cost of almost £100,000, charged in advance on the basis of estimates, is widely regarded as completely out of proportion to what is necessary or reasonable. But a recent meeting with the agents produced no meeting of minds. “We don’t object to paying a fair sum”, one commercial owner told me. “But at every turn of the discussion the agent referred to ‘Grenfell’ as a conversation stopper. That’s not reasonable – this building is all concrete”.
None of the commercial occupiers, leasehold owners or sub-tenants, wished to identify themselves as spokes-persons for the general dissent. But several have stuck on their windows a well-crafted poster (there is no shortage of local artists and illustrators after all) of a cruise liner foundering in heavy seas with the tag-line #SAVEMARINECOURTSHOPS. Some are said to be taking legal advice on how to challenge the extent of the charges being levied. Others have simply left. There are several shopfronts now boarded up, which is having an adverse effect not just on general morale, but on the footfall which most of those who remain depend upon.
Extending west beyond the 19-shop parade is the Burton-style Marina colonnade. Here several retail fronts have been left derelict and boarded for years. The concern is that Marine Court could go the same way.
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