The 6.6 acre freehold site of the former power station at Ore Valley, allocated in the Hastings Local Plan for up to 50 units of housing and now vacant after the forced departure of community land trust company Heart of Hastings (HoH) in April, has been put on the open market for sale. 

The site is owned by SeaSpace, the trading name of ‘regeneration’ company Hastings and Bexhill Renaissance Limited. International estate agency Savills has been entrusted by SeaSpace to gather bids from potential developers. But whether it will attract any positive bids which trump the proposals previously put forward by HoH and its commercial partner Bioregional for the development of more than 70 “sustainable and affordable” self-build houses on the site (see Sore Valley here) remains to be seen. 

Particulars on Savills’ website make it clear that sale will not necessarily be to the highest monetary bidder. Proposals will be considered, according to SeaSpace, “not just on the basis of price but on community benefits – such as the delivery of affordable housing and the creation of local work and training; on the financial strength of the offer; on consideration of a number of site and proposal-specific matters including suitability in planning policy terms and project funding risks; and on deliverability to ensure the scheme selected has the best chance of regenerating the area”.

There is no set asking price; offers may be conditional or unconditional; and at present no deadline date has been fixed. “Exact bid requirements” will be devised by Savills in due course.

The background should be well known in outline to HIP readers. In 2015 Jess Steele and others were promoting an idea for an “organisational workshop” project, designed to develop skills of local people for building community housing. Cllr Peter Chowney, who is a director of SeaSpace as well as leader of Hastings Borough Council (HBC), says that he suggested the Ore Valley site to them as a good place to do it.  This led to the SeaSpace board agreeing to license the site to HBC for an initial period of 18 months, later extended, so that the council could in turn sub-license it on to HoH, a company of which Ms Steele is founder trustee. The purpose, in Cllr Chowney’s words, was for “HoH to take forward their ideas for developing the site”. SeaSpace also offered a potential grant of £700,000 towards development costs, though that sum was later withdrawn in circumstances which have not been explained by either the company or the council. 

HBC commissioned a study from “viability and affordable housing consultants”, Adams Integra. They reported back to the council in February 2018 that a sum in the region of £1.2m would be needed to cover ongoing decontamination costs and other expenditure required for basic infrastructure at the site. Adams Integra concluded that there was no economically viable model for development, whether by HoH or anyone else, without significant public subsidy. 

The story then becomes rather murkier. HoH are insistent that, as a community land trust, they were not only well-placed to bid for grant funding but did indeed receive favourable indications from relevant funding bodies –  provided that they could demonstrate ownership of the land. Cllr Chowney agrees that this is the case. But he says that at that point “the SeaSpace board decided not to extend the licence further, and to market the site”. HoH were required to vacate for this purpose. They protested, arguing that SeaSpace should have accepted their credentials along with Bioregional as appropriate community developers; or, even if SeaSpace were under some formal duty to test the market for alternative bidders, they could do so without putting an end to HoH’s occupation. Cllr Chowney and another director of SeaSpace, Steve Manwaring, who as director of Hastings Voluntary Action represents the town’s volunteer community on the company board, say that they both argued that HoH should be allowed to remain on the site while it was marketed, but that they were overruled by a majority of the board. HoH duly departed before the end of April. 

Cllr Chowney and Mr Manwaring both insist that they cannot argue specifically in favour of HoH’s bid, or “campaign” for them. If they did, “that would exclude us from participating in the decision on the disposal of the site, because we’d have a prejudicial interest as a supporter of one of the bids. So both of us have insisted that a fair process has to be established, in which HoH are allowed to present their ideas to the SeaSpace board before any decision is made”.

A neutral observer might well conclude that the criteria for assessment established by the SeaSpace board are in fact, with whatever motive there may be, tipped in favour of HoH. What other bidders are likely to come forward who will not only deliver affordable housing but also create equivalent local work and training? On the other hand, why do Cllr Chowney and Mr Manwaring regard themselves as barred from applying their knowledge of, and contacts with, the local Hastings community – attributes which you might think they had been appointed to the SeaSpace board to deploy. And why have Savills, hardly the most inexpensive of agents, been hired to marshall the process? One might invert Polonius’ remark: “if this be method, there’s madness in’t”. 

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