Council Budget Cuts Threaten Club Wipe-Out

Proposed cuts in the Hastings Borough Council (HBC) 2020/21 budget will affect many areas of town life from shortening of museum opening hours to rescheduling of street cleaning services. Amongst savings of nearly £1.8m, there is one item that could hit hardest upon the sporting life of the town – reduction of £20,000 in the subsidies paid for the upkeep of bowling greens.

There are, according to council figures, around 310 members of bowls clubs spread, in aggregate, over eight teams across the borough. Most play at one of three principal bowling areas currently provided with a pavilion and greens maintained by the council: at White Rock Gardens, West Marina and Alexandra Park.  Up to last year each of these three areas was servicing multiple clubs: White Rock, Rosemount, Hastings and Hastings Visually Impaired at White Rock; St Leonards and Observer at West Marina; Alexandra and Clive Vale at Alexandra Park. 

Bowling at White Rock

Why the duplication? You might as well ask why AC Milan and Inter Milan share the San Siro stadium. It’s a matter of history, and most of the bowls clubs in Hastings have a long one. The Alexandra club celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2018. However, it folded last year after being hit with an annual fee of £1,000 to use the pavilion. And it seems that HBC now intends to withdraw from 1st April the maintenance of the greens at both Alexandra Park and West Marina which is currently undertaken by its estate contractors, Idverde.  Members of the various clubs at these locations can instead, it is suggested, join one of the clubs at White Rock, where there are still four greens that will apparently continue to be maintained. 

A long-term future?

The secretary of White Rock BC, Simon Moore, is not unwelcoming but seems doubtful that many of these ousted players will either be willing to transfer their sporting allegiance or, if they do, that there is a long-term future for the sport, even at White Rock.  Each individual green costs up to £10,000 per year to maintain there, the head green-keeper has told him, in an uncontrolled area open to the public to abuse or misuse. Paying that level of upkeep on top of ever-increasing charges for pavilion maintenance and insurance is beyond the means of ordinary club members, and would drive them out altogether. There are currently less than 70 of them at his club.

Car parking at White Rock, for which the bowlers compete with tourist traffic is also a big issue: East Sussex County Council, who control the roadways, offer no dedicated concessions, other than an extension of the 4-hour maximum stay generally applying in and around Falaise Road.

Volunteers

Aren’t most sports clubs in town, and certainly in surrounding villages, kept alive and kicking by volunteer labour – whole cricket grounds mown by the local farmer on his tractor, pavilions and clubhouses swept and kept by dedicated associates? The typical age range of most bowls club members no doubt reduces voluntary offers of this kind, and Mr Moore laments the difficulty of organising any reliable volunteers for the services his club needs.

On the other hand, one could point to Hollington Old Church Bowls Club off Wishing Tree Road. They do not own their clubhouse or green, renting both from the Trustees of the Gibbons Memorial Playing Field. However, their club chairman, Malcolm Sealby, confirms that they do not receive any subsidy from either the Trustees or from HBC, and accept sole responsibility for the upkeep of their playing facilities. 

Council statements

HBC’s leisure services lead member, Cllr Andy Batsford, has issued a statement: “Bowling is a great way to prevent elderly isolation and keep active. We want to make sure we preserve this traditional sporting pastime, but we have to be honest about the fact that we can’t afford the current subsidy for the clubs in Hastings.

“It’s really important to stress that we want to work with the bowling clubs and the larger community to look at ways of addressing the funding pressures we face as a town. The subsidy level for bowling is significant, especially when it is compared to the levels of subsidy that other sports receive. I really hope that we can achieve a way forward”.

The council’s proposal to remove Idverde maintenance from the greens at West Marina and Alexandra Park seems to have come very precipitately.  But, according to HBC, discussions with the clubs have been taking place since 2016 with the aim of reducing the council’s subsidy –“Unfortunately, despite the work done to date, no viable option has been found”. And at a meeting between HBC’s Resort Manager and representatives of the affected clubs held on 31st January, the latter were invited, according to an HBC spokesperson, “to propose alternative ways of operation that could reduce the level of subsidy currently in place, and to prepare for the changes and the need to relocate to a central venue if no alternative can ultimately be found”.

As Mr Moore points out, the restoration of a green that has been left to seed for even a season or two would be very difficult. Closure of pavilions doesn’t mothball them either. The clubs may have been made an offer they can’t refuse. But what are the council’s intentions for the emptied facilities left behind? Just more monuments in the wasteland of what was once municipal glory?


We hope you have enjoyed reading this article. The future of our volunteer led, non-profit publication would be far more secure with the aid of a small donation. You can also support local journalism by becoming a friend of HIP. It only takes a minute and we would be very grateful.