PICTURE: Dave Young

Queens Arcade, the glass-roofed walkway between Queens Road and York Gardens in Hastings town centre which has housed a mix of small trader outlets since 1882, isn’t just an aesthetically pleasing place to get a haircut or buy meat, fish and confectionery. In 1924 John Logie Baird was renting one of the units for his engineering workshop and there gave his first public demonstrations in televising pictures of objects in motion. As the plaque within asserts, it has good claims to be called “the birthplace of television”.

It is also, in these days of unprecedented retail challenge, and of exhortations to high streets to meet the threat of online competition by offering shopping ‘experiences’, an attractive enclave of old-style independent merchandising – not to be undervalued in a tourist town.

PICTURE: Dave Young

So why is the freehold building due to be sold at auction next week by Brighton auctioneers Clive Emson with so little publicity or marketing effort? The traders themselves seem to have heard nothing about the prospective sale until mailed with the news a couple of weeks ago. It’s a question raised in the last few days by many local people with an interest in how Hastings should conserve and exploit its historic and aesthetic character. The answer must lie with the trustee owners.

Trust history

The Went Tree Trust, set up under a will of 1926 made by former mayor of Hastings, Alderman Ben Harry Went Tree, has owned and managed the arcade for almost a century. The Trust has two peculiar and exclusive objects – one to purchase artefacts for show in Hastings Museum, the other to assist Hastings citizens to emigrate to countries of the British Commonwealth (originally Empire). It’s unlikely that income from the Trust has been applied to pay for any outward passage for quite a while. But it has certainly benefited the museum over its long history, including financing additions to the collection there relating to Mr Baird. And at least two of its three current trustees have close connections with the museum: Marion Purdy, who is also a trustee of Project Art Works, is a former museum chair; Catherine Hirst, formerly on its staff.

The trustees put out a formal statement to HIP last week: “It is with great regret that we have taken this decision to sell. We appreciate its historic value and the opportunities that it’s provided for local businesses for over 150 years. However, this move is necessary to secure the charity’s financial future and enable it to continue to support the charitable aims of its founder, Alderman Went Tree. We are confident that the arcade will thrive under new ownership.”

The financial pressure on the Trust is readily apparent from its published accounts. In the five years up to January 2020, i.e. even before any manifestation of the Covid-19 pandemic, these accounts show consistent losses – an average of £60-65,000 annual rental income, but expenditure well in excess, including losses of £66,000 in 2018-19 and of over £28,000 in 2019-20. It’s difficult to understand how such regular losses can have been allowed to repeat year on year despite the arcade continuing to attract a more or less full roster of tenants: according to the auction particulars, just one double unit out of 16 is described as “vacant”, though of course no ‘non-essential’ traders can open their doors during the current lockdown. 

However, a glance at the accounts filed with the Charities Commission shows that in 2018-19 expenditure on legal and professional fees is recorded as over £37,000 in 2018/19 rising to over £53,000 in 2019/20, with a note showing that most of the latter sum was paid to solicitors Heringtons, of whom the third trustee Sally Kinsey is a partner. Over £38,000 is identified as legal fees referable to “rent and rent arrears” – an indication of management difficulties, if nothing else.

Clearly, if the Trust cannot manage its asset in such a way as to make a profit for the benefit of its charitable purposes, it must be right for its trustees to sell. 

Community interests

But Adam Wide, a prominent local campaigner for community enterprises and trustee of Heart of Hastings (though he emphasises that he does not speak on this subject for HoH), questions why the Went Tree trustees are acting so precipitately. “Why only two weeks’ notice?” he asks. “Selling in this manner gives the local community no time to make a bid. Surely it would make more financial and charitable sense to market the property widely within Hastings to see what alternative ideas may be brought forward.”

Other postings on social media have wondered whether Hastings Borough Council could step in to make a bid. The council has access to government funds for town centre conservation (see page 3 of this issue). But although the arcade is not a listed building, it’s difficult to imagine that any new commercial owners would be allowed to change its aesthetic appearance – nor any reason to think they would want to do so. From the council’s point of view, it’s not obvious why it should be protected from falling into private ownership.

The issue is rather whether sale by the imminent auction, due to be conducted online next Wednesday 24th March, is the best method of securing the maximum price. The property is believed to have been valued in 2019 at or over £1m. The auction particulars state a guide price of £325,000-350,000. General high street values have undoubtedly been hit hard by the pandemic, but the extent of this loss, if sustained, is eyebrow-raising. The trustees should concern themselves with whether they are really acting in the Trust’s best interests.

The Ragged-Trousered Engineer

In his autobiography, John Logie Baird refers to Alderman Tree, his landlord in Queens Arcade, as ‘Mr Twigg’, and describes how he required him to vacate after an explosion in his engineering workshop there in July 1924.  The two men argued on the pavement outside, Baird further entertaining the small crowd that gathered to watch the altercation by splitting his trousers. He left Hastings altogether soon after.

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