Detailed plans for the building of 151 new homes plus a community centre and major supermarket on the former Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) office-block at Ashdown House were lodged by developers Danescroft on the Hastings Borough Council planning site last week. The plans show that the houses and community centre will have a frontage on Harrow Lane. The supermarket premises will be accessible from the A21, Sedlescombe Road North, and are destined to be taken by Aldi, making them their third store in the borough. 

More detailed plans have also recently been submitted by a different set of developers, Bellway Homes, for 210 houses, including 52 classed as “affordable”, on the former Grove School site off Darwell Close in St Leonards.

Neither of these essentially brownfield developments are new proposals. The Ashdown House application was lodged initially in December last year after the DWP pulled out. Bellway Homes obtained outline planning permission for house-building on the former Grove School site back in June 2018. But with average house prices in Hastings rising by over 18% in the last year according to latest Land Registry figures – the highest rate of increase for any local authority area in South-East England – there is apparent impetus to proceed expeditiously in both cases. Both applicants are hoping to be given the go-ahead this autumn.

Ashdown House prior to demolition
CREDIT: Dave Young

Tenant’s perspective

The rise in Hastings property values will of course boost the developers’ potential profits. It is, however, having an arguably calamitous effect from a tenant’s perspective on rental charges. More than 50% of households in Hastings live in private rented accommodation, and average rents in the borough have risen 9.9% over the past 12 months, according to property website Zoopla.

Borough councillor Andy Batsford, lead member for Housing and Homelessness, last week described the current rental market as “out of control and broken, pricing family after working family out of the opportunity of the most basic need – a safe, secure home. There just are not the rented homes out there on the market to rent at real affordable prices, forcing working families to stretch their finances”.

He went on: “This situation is driving family after family into debt, break ups and ultimately making people homeless and needing to seek help from the council. Every single case includes individuals and children in desperately unhappy and unhealthy situations not being able to go to school, or family life breaking down due to the stress of money and not having a safe roof over their heads.”

His solution – an appeal to landlords to rent their properties through the council so that local families currently in temporary accommodation can “have a safe and secure home and can get back to work and the children back to school and some sort of normality.”

Letstart scheme

The idea of council management within the private sector is not new to the borough council. In October 2015 it set up a Letstart Lettings scheme under which private owners would lease properties to council-backed tenants for a minimum three year period at a rental significantly lower than obtainable on the open market in exchange for guaranteed payments and management services. By June 2018, 25 properties were said
to have been signed up under the scheme amidst a welter of criticism from Conservative councillors
that the administrative costs were excessive and negated its value.

That was in an era of much lower rents, and it’s difficult to see why Cllr Batsford’s appeal should be more successful now, unless he is able to arouse ethical rather than economic enthusiasm.

Perhaps he could start with his fellow cabinet members, leader Cllr Kim Forward whose register of interests includes “a second address in the borough” and former leader Cllr Peter Chowney who declares that his partner “runs a holiday cottage” in St Leonards and gains rent from a property there.

Appeals and petitions

Meanwhile, Changing Hastings, a local pressure group set up in 2019 to address the problem of rapidly increasing house prices and “sky-rocketing” rents, also issued an ethical appeal last week for volunteers to “mount a campaign to get sustained and proper action” right now. It’s not clear what action is intended, but the territory is clearly mapped – “Are you a victim of the broken housing market? Or is it a family member, friend or loved one facing the challenge of a market gone mad? Perhaps you just feel passionately about ending the inequality in housing which has seen far too many people literally dying in our streets in the last five years?”

Louise Hersee, a local resident and Labour Party activist who found herself and her son evicted under a Housing Act section 21 notice in 2019, has started a separate petition on Change.Org calling for a referendum for Hastings & St Leonards residents on three specific action points to be addressed by the Borough Council:

• ensuring that its residents are prioritised above buyers from outside the area in the local housing market;

• putting a cap on the number of Airbnbs;

• introducing rent caps in line with the Local Housing Allowance.

But it seems improbable, as Ms Hersee may well acknowledge, that any such actions could be taken without major changes in national law. And, as with any political changes of this sort, there would be losers as well as winners. In a debate over second homes which was also running within the Hastings Creatives website last week, one member pointed out that “many of the professional freelance creatives of Hastings have used their homes, either as a whole or in part, to supplement their income in uncertain times. Some of them would even argue that it allows them to continue to live and work here”.

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