No Deal For St Leonards?
The Hastings Town Deal Board will meet on 16th November to discuss and approve a draft investment plan for the town to be funded by £25m of government money. Receivable over a period of up to five years, it represents Hastings’ share of the £3.6 billion Towns Fund announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson back in July 2019 and administered by the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).
Four projects within this plan – developments at White Rock Baths, East Sussex College, Claremont Alley, and electric car charging points – have already been approved and prioritised, as we reported in September (Town Deal: Last Chance To Bid, HIP 161). A number of others will be considered by the board at the forthcoming meeting. However, it seems that provisional decisions have already been made in respect of the majority of further potential projects, referred to as “Expressions of Interest”, under a vetting procedure which the board delegated to a “working group” including council officers and an “independent assessor”.
St Leonards Parish Church: No Funds from the Deal
PICTURE: Hastings Urban Design Group
No comprehensive list of projects, either those provisionally approved or those apparently rejected, has been released by the Town Deal Board publicly. But contrasting news of deal or no deal was conveyed to each promoting group by respective emails in the week beginning 19th October, from which the sample list is set out below.
Questioning the selection process
As was perhaps inevitable, a number of those who have received rejection letters are already questioning the selection process.
One point of contention is the concentration of the projects that have found provisional favour in and around Hastings town centre. Or, to put it the other way round, none are located outside. In particular, neither St Leonards nor Hastings Old Town seem to get a look in.
The board had been invited at the outset to nominate a particular geographical area within the boundaries of the borough, which combines Hastings with St Leonards, to direct their investment plan towards. The MHCLG prospectus of November 2019 explained the importance of this – “so that local communities and other bodies understand where the area of benefit will be”. The board expressly opted to benefit the whole borough.
Register of Interests
On the other hand, of the 21 board members, none are recognisably associated with St Leonards. The MHCLG prospectus requires the board secretariat to keep a register of the interests of each board member, and at a meeting in March it was resolved that this register should be published on the Town Deal website hosted by Hastings Borough Council “once every six months”. It is not apparent there. But in any event it’s not needed to see that Hastings town centre businesses are well represented, including Priory Meadow (Stuart Mitchell), Hastings BID (John Bownas), the Source Park (Rich Moore) and the Trinity Triangle (Jess Steele), while St Leonards is not so favoured.
Communities should be part of originating ideas, setting objectives and visions rather than just giving feedback
Whatever the board’s initial intentions were, in June this year further guidance was received from the Ministry. An annexe headed “Intervention Framework” contained the advice that “There will be a strong preference for interventions focused in the town centre, gateway areas, or key employment sites.” Towns were also required to undertake “spatial analysis, setting out why the target areas have been chosen, what is being done to support other key areas of their town, and how their strategy will support their town centre”. At a board meeting on 25th June vice-chair Carole Dixon summarised this for attendees
as: “Focus should be on the town centre, but will include other areas.”
The original prospectus stressed the need for a fully representative Board and intensive public engagement – “It is vital that towns engage with communities to find out directly from the public what they love about their place and how they want to see it grow.” And the later June guidance running to 66 A4 pages remained hot on active engagement of the community. “Interventions …should have the support of the community,” it declared, “through early and ongoing engagement and genuine partnership arrangements…Where possible, communities should be part of originating ideas, setting objectives and visions rather than just giving feedback on proposals that are already some way along.” It suggested that towns might use “capacity” funding already provided in December 2019 – in the case of Hastings amounting to more than £173,000 – to support this.
However, towns were also advised to maximise private business involvement so as to find additional funding to leverage money from the fund. One can sympathise with Ms Dixon in her summary of this part of the guidance. According to the minutes, she told the Hastings board: “Business-led thinking is encouraged although it is recognised that we want this to be community-led, this will have to be a business-led piece of work.”
The point of contention that is most sore in the minds of those rejected is the delegation of the initial vetting procedure. Proposals appear to have been rejected, not by the board, but by an “independent assessor” assisted by officers of the borough council. And some may feel that the chosen assessor, Leeds-based economic development consultants Genecon Limited, if not lacking independence, has at least a somewhat dubious track record in Hastings. Its website proclaims that it advised Sea Space, the controversial regeneration company, on the strategy and funding that enabled the development of the Priory Quarter and Queensway Business Park: “Our submissions were instrumental in making the case to Government for innovative mechanisms to unlock private sector funding streams and deliver real economic change in this priority town.” With both these enterprise areas now in financial free-fall, that doesn’t look such a clever boast.
Chris Lewcock, responding to rejection of the “Science-on-sea” proposal on behalf of Hastings Urban Design Group, has written a letter to the board suggesting that there has not been a level playing field and asking for some re-assessment at board level. “There has been no opportunity
to discuss the bid with the Town Board officers or make a presentation to the Town Deal Board”, he complains. “Other groups, represented on the board, were invited earlier in the year to make presentations.
“It looks as if a draft Town Investment Plan (TIP) will go before the Town Deal Board on November 16th. Possibly the Board Members will take a different view to the officers about which balance of projects from all those submitted should be included in the TIP…
The officers, working group and independent assessor will have been working diligently, I’m sure, but they aren’t the Town Deal Board, which has to take an overview based on their recommendations about the overall package to submit to Govt”.
“Not meeting the criteria”
The rejection email sent to Virginia Vilela, who has spearheaded the West Marina Project aimed at developing a leisure and tourism destination on the seafront at West St Leonards, stated briefly that their Expression of Interest was “assessed as not directly meeting the Town Deal criteria set out by government in its guidance”. No further explanation has been given.
John Bownas of Hastings BID (Love Hastings) was, however, understandably rather happier. He issued a press release last week: “We are pleased to say that a number of projects that benefit the town centre and that were put forward for consideration as part of the Hastings submission to the Government’s Town Deal Fund have gone through to the next round.”
Town Deal And No Deal
Projects provisionally approved
• New electrical supply points for market traders and events
• Improvements to the general public areas, including better signage
• A creative lighting scheme to boost the evening economy
• Creation of a flexible performance space in the town centre
• A wide programme of public art interventions
• Shop front improvement grants
• A land train
• Traffic calming and semi-pedestrianisation of Queens Road
• New radios and CCTV cameras to support the BusinessWatch network
• A landing stage for the pier
• Creation of a large covered space in the town centre
• Better management of commercial waste storage and collection in the town with underground storage and waste compaction
• A new visitor centre to celebrate Hastings’ claim to be the birthplace of television
• Upgrading Rock-a-Nore seafront and museum area into Nautical Heritage Centre
• Revival of St Leonards Parish Church as a maritime museum under the title Science-on-Sea
• Redevelopment of the West Marina area into a tourism and leisure destination
• Adapting Bulverhythe recreation ground as part of Combe Haven Countryside Park
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