North Queensway site set for another £3.5m splash 

On 8th July SELEP (the South East Local Enterprise Partnership, which channels both public and private funds into economic development in Essex, Kent and East Sussex) announced that it had secured £85m from the government’s Getting Building Fund.  The Fund is to be spent on ‘shovel-ready’ schemes in its area of operation – effectively, projects which could be started immediately and completed within 18 months – that would provide “much-needed jobs, growth and the groundwork for further investment”.

Following a meeting of its Strategic Board eight days later, SELEP then listed 34 projects that have been selected to share this largesse between them. Of these, two are in Hastings: £1.7m is for the restoration of the Observer Building: £3.5m is to be spent on “address[ing] the town’s immediate need for modern manufacturing space… 

“Close to 4,000 sq m of commercial floorspace will be made available to accommodate up to 15 businesses in an established industrial location with good transport links,” says the SELEP prospectus. “These manufacturing units will be constructed with sustainable growth in mind, using low- and zero-carbon technologies to provide a low maintenance and low energy cost solution.”

The project is calculated to “create 96 new jobs and safeguard a further 33, as well as creating 17 additional construction jobs”.

Who and where?

Oddly, and in contrast to almost all the other projects in the list, the Hastings manufacturing site is not identified in any of SELEP’s publicly available documents, nor is the identity of the developer concerned. These bits of information could only be inferred from a declaration of interest made by Cllr Rupert Simmons, representative on SELEP for East Sussex County Council but also director of Sea Change (brand name for East Sussex Energy & Infrastructure Development Limited) – and from the fact that Sea Change has been attempting to hawk a 12-acre manufacturing site at North Queensway Innovation Park for the past eight years after gaining a  £1.5m investment loan, also from SELEP, for initial development.

At that time, 2012, SELEP described the site as having the “potential to create 865 jobs in Hastings”, though Sea Change posited 700. Its funding application documents referred to “growing demand for commercial space amongst local manufacturing companies wishing to expand as well as companies from outside the area looking for a new base… (We) are in discussions with several interested occupiers.” It was suggested that likely takers would want to “self-build”, i.e. undertake construction to their own specification. All they needed was a junction off the Queensway road into the greenfield space plus the installation of basic utilities. The £1.5m was duly spent, but no takers emerged. 

In 2015 Sea Change advised that, with the provision of services, “interest has increased considerably… There are active negotiations with companies that will take 60% of the site once the infrastructure is underway.” A further grant was obtained for £550,000 “infrastructure costs”. 

Still no takers

Then they announced that they had found their first occupier – a furniture showroom, Michael Tyler Furniture Limited, which wasn’t creating any new jobs, just moving from elsewhere in Hastings. In the event, this company didn’t move in and nothing was built.

Another potential taker was the Bartlett SEAT garage, which currently trades from a site which obstructs completion of the nearby Queensway Gateway Road (another Sea Change project which has gone way over budget). Planning permission was obtained for this use at North Queensway in January 2019 – but no building seems to be happening.

Andrea Needham, Green Party activist, who has maintained a website, Seachangewatch, to keep tabs on the company, points out that the company has always wildly over-estimated the jobs that might be created at the site: 700 (or 865) in 2012; 300 in 2013; 176 in January 2016. She notes that the latest figures are more modest, but perhaps equally unsubstantiated. “How Sea Change keeps persuading SELEP to hand over vast sums of money, when their projects are almost universally a disaster, is something I’d very much like to know.”

There’s no point in asking Sea Change on what basis their current figures for North Queensway are calculated, however. Their spokesperson confirmed to HIP that they “have applied for funding from SELEP for a commercial scheme” but say that “the funding is not yet confirmed, and [they] don’t wish to give details of the scheme until it does get confirmed.” 

And it is true that the £3.5m grant is not yet a done deal. A further “business case submission” for each project must be received by the SELEP Accountability Board by 18th September and will be reviewed by it in October. There will be a reserve list of projects presented to the Board at that point, according to the SELEP Strategic Board minutes, “in order that any projects that can’t proceed for any reason can be swapped for an alternative prioritised project”.

Will Sea Change make the final cut at North Queensway? We will have to wait and see.

Sea Change: A political twist

At the Hastings & Rye electoral hustings held last December at East Sussex College, local Labour candidate Peter Chowney, then still leader of Hastings Borough Council, made a remarkably frank admission: that the two development companies, Sea Change (see main story above) and its predecessor Sea Space (brand name for Hastings and Bexhill Renaissance Limited), which have been channelling public sector funds for economic development in the area over the past 15 years, were “not fit for purpose…had never worked properly and had never been accountable”.  Remarkable, because Cllr Chowney was himself appointed a director of Sea Space in 2010 and still remains on the board; he also served as a director of Sea Change from its formation in 2011 until resigning in July 2015.

Unsurprisingly, neither his fellow-candidates on the podium, including MP-to-be Sally-Ann Hart, nor any member of the public audience sought to persuade Cllr Chowney at the time that his verdict (effectively on himself) was over-harsh. Perhaps they assumed that he knew what he was talking about.  It’s perhaps ironic, then, that Ms Hart went on record earlier this month to express her “delight” at  SELEP’s allocation to Hastings of £5m from its Getting Building Fund. 

“This is much needed investment in our town and shows that businesses are still committed to investing here”, she is quoted by SELEP as saying. “This latest announcement in funding will go towards restoring the old Observer Building in the town centre and supporting more manufacturing space, creating nearly 100 new jobs. This is great news for our town and I would like to thank everyone at the SELEP for investing in our area again.”

It seems unlikely that she was made aware of the involvement of Sea Change in the deal before making this pronouncement.

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