By Andrea Needham

In August last year, HIP reported that SeaChange Sussex had applied for £3.5m of government funding via SELEP (South East Local Enterprise Partnership) to develop 4,000 square metres of industrial units on the North Queensway ‘Innovation’ Park. Last October, it was confirmed that SeaChange had been granted the money. But can it deliver? And if so, will it cause serious damage to one of our local green spaces?

PICTURE: Dave Young

The Getting Building Fund (GBF) is money from central government for ‘shovel-ready’ projects: the funding has to be spent by March 2022. The county of East Sussex was granted a total of £11m for projects including the redevelopment of the Observer building in Hastings, the Riding Sunbeams project (a solar farm powering local railways), and restoring the Winter Gardens in Eastbourne. SeaChange’s £3.5m was by far the biggest grant to any of the eight East Sussex projects. 

Although schemes funded by the GBF have to be completed within 18 months, SeaChange claimed that it could do even better. Its business case for funding stated that construction would begin in January 2021, and be completed by October. It’s now February, and SeaChange has yet to put in the planning application, far less started construction.

As part of the planning process, SeaChange has asked Hastings Borough Council (HBC) for a scoping opinion – that is, to provide the company with details of what needs to go into the Environmental Impact Assessment for the site. As part of this process, HBC has gone to Natural England for their opinion on SeaChange’s plans. And here’s where they start to look a little sticky.

North Queensway is right above Marline Valley nature reserve and SSSI, owned by HBC but leased to Sussex Wildlife Trust. The SSSI designation for the site states: “These ancient woodlands on Wadhurst Clay and Lower Tunbridge Wells sandstone are dominated by a nationally uncommon [oak-hornbeam] woodland type. A valuable feature of the site is the steep-sided stream valley (ghyll) which contains plants that have an ‘Atlantic’ distribution. The site also includes an area of species-rich unimproved grassland, a nationally declining habitat.” Of particular importance are the 61 species of bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), including three rare species. 

PICTURE: Dave Young

Natural England has responded to HBC that it has “considerable concerns” about the plans, particularly because of the impact of run-off from the development site into the SSSI. It goes on to say that the larger of the two plots – contiguous with Marline Valley – should be omitted altogether. Read Natural England’s advice, and you can hear the frustration with SeaChange: “we had advised that development avoided this area. It is a matter of great concern that our clear advice is not being followed with the latest proposals.”

SeaChange’s plans call for 4,000 square metres of units. The larger plot – which Natural England want omitted – is 2,300 square metres, well over half the total. Without it, the whole project may fall. In its business case, SeaChange says that developing only part of the site “would significantly diminish the returns [to SeaChange] that it expects from its investment in the project and so a reduced project option has been discounted”. SeaChange’s ‘investment’ – redacted every time it’s mentioned in the business plan but freely available from SELEP – is £1m, which it is required to throw in as a condition of the GBF funding.  It should be remembered, of course, that 100% of SeaChange’s funding is public money – so when SeaChange talks about its investment, it really means our investment. It’s our money. 

So where we are now is this: SeaChange has to develop the whole site in order to get the funding and make the project profitable. Natural England advises very clearly that this could cause damage to the SSSI, and wants more than half the units to be ditched. SeaChange, in a comment for the Hastings Observer, says, “we’re fully confident we can address Natural England’s concerns, including the potential impact of development on the SSSI, ancient woodland and sandstone layer”. We shall see. 

It’s very muddy right now, but if you have time, go and walk through Marline Valley. It’s truly a magical place, wet and mossy and green. According to the SSSI report, it has bluebells, yellow archangel, dog’s mercury, honeysuckle, enchanter’s nightshade, adder’s-tongue fern, dyer’s greenweed, quaking grass, common-spotted orchid and many more. This is not a habitat we should even be considering putting at risk in order to allow SeaChange to build yet another business park. 

SeaChange has already completely destroyed Hollington Valley nature reserve in order to build the Queensway Gateway Road. It’s up to us to demand that Hastings Borough Council do the right thing, and refuse this application when it’s submitted. These are our green spaces. We’re living through a crisis of biodiversity. We have to protect what remains, and fight for more.  

Further information on this and other SeaChange projects can be found on the website seachangewatch.wordpress.com


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