Hastings Council loses out on £700,000 funding for community housing project

Community Land Trust company Heart of Hastings (HoH) has occupied the site of the former Broomgrove Power Station and surrounding green spaces in Ore Valley for the past three years on licence from Hastings Borough Council (HBC). The licence expired in February and has not been renewed.  HoH is required to vacate, and is reluctantly taking steps to do so.

The stated reason for the eviction is that SeaSpace, the trading name of ‘regeneration’ company Hastings and Bexhill Renaissance Limited which owns the freehold, wants the site to be “clear and presentable” to prospective developers for purposes of a “fair tendering process”. However this is a clear reversal of previous intentions on the part of both SeaSpace and the council.

HoH had been conducting a number of short-term and low-cost community projects at the site, which have now been brought to an end. However its primary purpose was to develop a community programme for house-building there. SeaSpace not only offered the site to HBC for this purpose but also added a potential sweetener of £700,000 – a sum seemingly generated from selling adjacent land at the former Stills factory site to private developers Gemselect Limited – by way of development funding. 

In July 2017 HBC’s Director of Operational Services prepared a report for cabinet acknowledging that “the risks of not developing the site and the foregoing of potential opportunities for Ore Valley and the wider borough are high.”

“In particular, a widening economic and social gap between this community and much of the rest of the borough is a significant long term risk to social cohesion and civic health.” 

Cabinet Approval
The cabinet duly approved, unanimously and indeed without discussion, his recommendation “to take ownership” of the site from SeaSpace on the above terms subject to “satisfactory outcome of due diligence”, and to commission a report “examining the optimum way(s) in which the site could be developed for the benefit of the local community”. 

A study was duly commissioned from consultancy firm Adams Integra Limited, who market themselves on their website as “viability and affordable housing consultants”. Their report came back to the council in February 2018. Its contents have not been publicly released, but a redacted version was eventually published several months later after a Freedom of Information request from a disgruntled resident. 

Decontamination Costs
Adams Integra concluded that a figure of £1.2m would be needed to cover decontamination costs and other expenditure on basic infrastructure. There was concern that HoH’s intended construction programme based on self-build workshops enabling participation by the local community was lacking in the kind of experience necessary for a complex development.  

HoH’s trustees did not regard this conclusion as particularly negative from the point of view of funding viability. It had always been known that decontamination costs would be high, and there were a number of special grants that might be available to HoH, including from the Community Housing Fund, to top up the base figure of £700,000 pledged by SeaSpace. To boost credibility they teamed up with Bioregional, a social enterprise with over 20 years experience of design and build. They assumed that council officers would go forward with them in a positive spirit to develop workable proposals. Instead the council avoided any further constructive engagement, though it also gave no public indication of any intention not to proceed.

Citizens of Hastings have become accustomed to HBC conducting most of its property development business in closed session, citing “commercial sensitivities”. But certainly there has been no reported council debate, whether in cabinet or otherwise, since July 2017. And when asked by HIP to respond to our questions on the breakdown of arrangements with SeaSpace and forced eviction of HoH, they declined.

Future Marketing
The press office for SeaSpace maintains that the tender process now being instituted through estate agents Savills is not just a question of marketing to find the highest bidder. “All tender responses will be judged against a number of criteria in line with the company’s objectives to identify the most suitable proposal for the site – looking not just at price but also the social, physical and economic elements of each proposal and its deliverability”.  It adds, however: “Hastings Borough Council decided it did not want to proceed with acquiring the site, so the £700,000 funding was redistributed into the general regeneration programme for the local area.”

But that doesn’t mean that another Hastings project will have gained. SeaChange, the trading name of East Sussex Energy Infrastructure and Development Limited, acts as successor ‘regeneration’ company to SeaSpace. If it has inherited this windfall, it seems likely that it will have been applied further afield. Neither SeaSpace nor SeaChange, despite each company being publicly funded and having elected councillors among its directors (leader of HBC, Cllr Peter Chowney is a director of SeaSpace), presents its accounts in any transparent manner, nor are they susceptible to any Freedom of Information enquiry. However it is apparent from recent pronouncements that Seachange has been concentrating significant resources in recent times at Sovereign Harbour and the Bexhill Enterprise Park in preference to any projects in Hastings.

Time to listen to Ore Valley

by Julia Hilton

Since 2016 the Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust (HoH) has been building a vision for the old power station site that has lain empty and neglected for nearly 40 years. This blank space in the heart of Ore Valley could become a new community, self-renovating from the bottom up, creating truly affordable housing and jobs fit for the future. 

HoH has partnered with Bioregional, an international developer with 20 years experience of creating exemplar sustainable communities, and could now be starting the exciting process of  transforming the valley from somewhere seen as a problem to a bold vision for the future. co-created with one of the most neglected communities of Hastings. Think what that could do for people’s self-confidence and pride.

Instead of engaging with this exciting plan, SeaSpace have refused to meet with HoH despite numerous requests. Its licence to occupy has not been renewed, and it has been told to clear the site to enable the estate agent Savills to sell the land. Since when has it been necessary to vacate land during marketing?

HoH has not been given confirmation that it will be invited to make a bid or what that process will be. 

I have been a volunteer on the site from early on and helped the team start to create their landscape plan for the eventual development. Through community run surveys they have learnt about every tree and every precious area of important plant community.

Every Wednesday and Saturday the site has been open with a warm welcome and an invitation to drink tea on hand-made benches outside the tea shed.  Over 2,000 people have been reached through various events, including performances held on the stage, built for the cost of a bag of nails. Raised beds have been built to grow vegetables. Everyone knew these structures were temporary and would go when they started building their new community, but this would be within their power, not imposed from outside.

As Dan O’Connor, member of the BUD (Bottom Up development team) and site steward says: “To be told to vacate the land we have put our lives into for more than two years, to destroy what we have built, and burn what we can’t transport or store elsewhere, to basically remove all trace of us from the land, feels vindictive and unnecessary.”

What do Seaspace and the local councils think that this complete lack of respect or willingness to engage will do to the confidence and well-being of local people? 

The three “A-member” directors on the SeaSpace board (i.e those with a veto on disposals) are from the three councils, representing East Sussex County, Hastings Borough and Rother District. It is in their power to decide how to dispose of this land. As our representatives, it is time they took control of proceedings and challenged this arrogant high-handed way of doing business. For too long there has been no public calling to account nor any democratic scrutiny of SeaSpace’s activities. 

The company’s primary purpose, according to its constitution, is ‘to improve the social, physical and economic environment of Hastings and the surrounding region’. They have been given vast amounts of public money to do this, but all their decisions are made in private, with the people of Hastings denied any access to the decision-making process, or any information about what is going on inside the company.

How is destroying the work of volunteers who have been bringing the site to life helping ‘to improve the social environment of Hastings?’  It is time for all three councils to intervene, stop this wanton act of destruction and start a proper process of engagement with HoH.

This whole sorry process highlights the urgent need to radically reform the local regeneration agenda, and put local people and a public conversation at the heart of how we create a vision for our town. 

• Julia Hilton is a regular volunteer at the Heart of Hastings site in Ore Valley.

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