The Hastings Town Deal Board has launched its bid for £28.2m worth of funds from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) with a claim that additional investment totalling £85.6 m will be forthcoming as “matched funds” from other public and private sources to supplement it. The Board’s press release issue yesterday afternoon reveals a plan to oversee combined spending of £113.8m over the next six years on a wide mix of development projects. New facilities, skills and employment provision are heralded; so are proposals to ‘green’ the town centre, and provide new affordable housing.

A green technology Centre of Excellence will be based at the Ore campus of East Sussex College. Plumpton College will partner the Education Futures Trust in setting up a skills hub at the Firs on Elphinstone Road.  Three undeveloped sites on the Churchfields Industrial Estate are earmarked for factory units; another on the Ponswood Estates for “social-purpose” enterprises. 

But investment is otherwise geared to Hastings town centre, with the St Leonards half of the borough getting almost no attention at all. This was widely predicted  – both because the membership of the Board is heavily weighted with interests in and around the Hastings end of town, and because a number of ideas for projects submitted by and on behalf of St Leonards groupings were already known to have been rejected. 

However, to many observers, the oddest idea is the selection of Hastings Castle as, in the words of the Board’s promotional blurb, “our signature, flagship project” that “will capture the imagination…and can drive a step change in the performance of the south coast’s visitor economy”. It is noted that (prior to the Covid pandemic) annual visitor numbers to the castle were around 30,000 and that it does not feature on the itineraries of most tourists “nor do local people understand its importance… It stands as a neglected, inaccessible ruin.” The investment plan involves spending £5.65m, of which £3.5m would be contributed from the Town Deal fund, the rest apparently from English Heritage and/or other publicly funded agencies, to transform it into a tourist destination that “will provide the inspiration to bring Hastings’ visitor offer together”.

Making a comparison with Bodiam Castle and Battle Abbey, which each attract 150,000 annually, and Leeds Castle which soaks up 560,000, the Board’s prospectus laments “the scale of the current missed opportunity”. It calculates that “executed well, a modern interpretative attraction” would pull in 250,000 visitors a year,  1,500 extra jobs and £100m per annum “economic value”. 

Transformation of Hastings town centre into a “Garden Town” also receives an extravagant write-up. Infrastructure for improved walking and cycling throughout the town is promised; so is a “vision, inspired by Great Dixter’s world-famous philosophy of creative ecology, [that] combines horticultural innovation and biodiverse creativity to transform the public realm as an exemplary project in the region”.

Cllr Kim Forward, leader of Hastings Borough Council and herself a Board member, has greeted the submission of the Deal plan with enthusiasm: “It has been a huge undertaking by not only the Town Deal board but also the project team and project leaders to get to this point.  It is a fantastic opportunity for the town to reset our ambitions for regeneration and provides an exciting future for our town to look forward to, offering benefits to all those who live, work and visit.”

The MHCLG will spend the next two to three months assessing the plan before making an “offer” of funding, which could be less than the full sum requested. The board will then start developing detailed business cases for each approved project. Atthat stage, according to the prospectus, “the community will have the opportunity to help shape, influence and
develop some of the detail”.

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