In the light of the council’s long term development plans for Hastings, what might the future hold for businesses, customers and employees in the town? By Emma Harwood

PICTURE MONTAGE: Colin Gibson

Hastings Borough Council’s Area Action Plan (AAP) highlights eight potential ‘opportunity sites’ which could be developed over the next 15 years in order to boost the town’s economic development and growth.

Within the town centre, the areas pinpointed for improvement and redevelopment include Morrison’s car park in Queen’s Road, Wellington Place and Albert Road, while Priory Meadow shopping centre  – described by the council as “doing much to establish  Hastings’ position within the retail hierarchy” –  is designated for extension. Further proposals indicate that Cornwallis Street car park could include more shops and 20 new homes.

In Bohemia, HBC has a ‘masterplan’ for the area behind White Rock which includes building 660 new homes, a leisure complex complete with tennis courts, plus a brand new music and entertainment venue, in place of the White Rock Theatre.

The plan, available for comment on the HBC website, stresses the importance of safeguarding and enhancing the vitality and viability of retail areas in Hastings, which are, it states, under threat of losing shoppers to centres at Eastbourne, Tunbridge Wells and Ashford.

“This would lead to a decline of the town centre and maybe an inability for it to serve even the needs of Hastings residents,” it goes on to say.

Priory Meadow, built on the town’s old cricket ground
PICTURE: Colin Gibson

However, with branches of retail outlets abandoning town centres across the country in the face of online competition, high rents and business rates – leaving inevitable redundancies in their wake – Hastings has been no exception to this national trend.

The collapse of BHS left a 38,600 square foot empty space in Priory Meadow Shopping Centre, set to be filled by the Irish clothing chain, Primark, next spring.

More recently Top Shop, followed closely by River Island, closed their doors to town centre shoppers. River Island is set to be replaced with another, as yet unnamed, ‘major retailer’, while H & M and Marks & Spencer, which both occupy units in the shopping centre, have announced they will be closing hundreds of shops nationwide.

In addition, the town’s only department store, Debenhams, has also declared it will close around a hundred shops across the country and downsize dozens more.

None of these companies have yet revealed whether Hastings will be affected by the closures. However, a spokesperson for Debenhams – which employs 126 people in this town told us: “We announced our intention to restructure our organisation around three business units: Beauty & Beauty Services, Fashion & Home and Food & Events earlier this year. Our work to create a simplified and consistent structure across these units, reducing complexity and driving efficiency in order to deliver our Debenhams Redesigned strategy, is continuing.”

She added: “We’d like to see a level playing field for all retailers. It is important to keep our high streets vibrant to continue offering choice and quality to consumers, however they choose to shop.”

“Business rates create distortions and we look to Government to ensure the system is fair to safeguard against a negative impact on both businesses and communities.”

Recently, Chairman of the Business Improvement District, Colin Dormer – and former manager of jewellers F. Hinds –said he thought the trend of big retail collapses and closures could be positive for the town by potentially encouraging more small businesses.

“There’s been a resurgence of small independent shops, new businesses, and different styles of businesses. That’s a natural progression: people are going to get new opportunities because there’s no longer that mass competition. We’ve almost come full circle in my view. Years ago there were lots of independent shops, and there weren’t many big chains, and its almost going round again.”

If this pattern is to continue, however, it does highlight potential difficulties in filling the gaps of the 290,000 square foot Priory Meadow Shopping Centre – now owned by one of the UK’s largest property investment companies, New River – with major ‘anchor’ shops that will enable the town to compete with neighbouring shopping centres.

If the centre, built in 1997 on what was the town’s cricket ground, is to be extended, as signified in the council’s AAP, it will need to attract large retailers able to afford the higher rents and business rates.

A RETURN TO THE OLD HIGH STREET?
Meanwhile, on Queen’s Road, one of the main routes into town, a combination of low rents, business rates, property prices and close proximity to the town centre, is attracting a growing number of small businesses. Their presence is having a positive impact, not just on the road’s cosmetic appearance but on the community as a whole, through the friendly and unique services and goods they offer.

The Imperial pub reopened in 2016 as a micro-brewery selling wood-fired pizzas. The Drift In, a cosy bar selling locally brewed cider and German beers opened its doors in July. Further down, is the more established restaurant Cookhouse, Mexican restaurant Xochipilli, and the Grand Rue de la Pera – a congenial café stocked with books, which also hosts poetry evenings. The Queens Deli and Shop, which opened in November 2017 and the Printed Matter bookshop, are more examples of the changes happening here.  Across the road from the deli the Yi Pin Oriental Food Express opened its doors just weeks ago.

Clothing boutique, Pure, which sells European-style garments in linens and colourful fabrics, has been here for twelve years, while Chef’s Ware, which sells quality kitchen utensils and appliances at competitive online prices is a further recent addition and is already expanding into the neighbouring premises less than half a year after opening.

Angus Francis-who co-owns Chef’s Ware with his father said the rent in Queen’s road was low enough that he didn’t have to pay rates. But to rent a shop further down the road near to Priory Meadow and the pedestrianised shopping area would cost three or four times more, plus a hefty business rates bill. “The old Boots, in the centre of town is £78,000 a year and it has got less space.” he added.

“I couldn’t imagine being in a place like Robert Dyas, for example, you would have to have a really high turnover to survive.”

“But these bigger shops are all going to fall down, they can’t justify something that doesn’t turnover the value of their rates and their rents.”

Jez Smith, owner of the Queens Deli said businesses in Queen’s Road would certainly benefit from the extra footfall large chain giants such as Primark would bring to the town. Primark is bucking the trend nationally because it doesn’t have an online presence.

“That large retailers are struggling and closing down has got to have a lot to do with the internet,” he said.

“If people are going to go out shopping in a high street environment, what independent retailers offer is a level of service you can’t buy online.”

He added that attracting retailers like Primark would be a fantastic endorsement for
the town. “I think that anything that improves Hastings as a proposition is a good thing.
I don’t think it matters which section of the demographic it appeals to, it is essentially about the more the merrier, and for Hastings to appeal to a wider spectrum of people.”

“Service, knowledge, fresh produce – that’s where you might see the re-emergence of what was essentially the old High Street. For instance, people come in here and they talk to one another.”

“Cosmetically things could be smartened up, everything needs a good old scrub up round here.”

“And I think that the council has a responsibilty to somehow put Queen’s Road on the map.”


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