When a site has lain undeveloped for more than 30 years there’s probably a reason – property developers are not known to sit back and do nothing when there’s a chance to make a few quid!
So perhaps there is a reason why the old bathing pool site at the western end of St Leonards seafront has never been redeveloped. Yes there have been many plans for the site but none, so far, has come to fruition.
Just last month Hastings Borough Council (HBC) announced the latest proposal to go under investigation; a scheme that could see 150 new homes built on the site as well as leisure facilities, studios and galleries, potentially a hotel, children’s play areas, a cafe, water sports facilities and a slipway.
It’s the same shopping list that the council has been trying to get a developer to buy in to for the last 20 years and each time a developer has looked at the site they have come back with the same message and that is; without public money being available to offset what have been described as ‘abnormal costs’ associated with developing the site no project has a hope of being financially viable.
This time councillors have given a ‘cast iron’ pledge to consult local people ‘every step of the way’ and in the meantime have granted a five-year lease to developers County Gate/Sunley giving them time to set out their plans which it is hoped will satisfy the council’s ambitions, allay the anxieties of residents and find a solution to a conundrum that previous developers have been unable to solve.
There is already controversy on social media about the latest plan, with a dedicated facebook group having been set up by local people concerned about HBC’s motivation and about what might happen to the site in the long term…
So as this new chapter for the site opens up we thought we’d take a look back – not that far – to the Carter Jonas report that was prepared in 2016. That report highlighted many of the site’s limitations and as you read through the report you realise that those limitations have been putting potential developers off for getting on for three decades.
Closed in 1986, by 1992 there was little left to see of the famous Hastings and St Leonards bathing pool that had been opened in 1933 to great fanfare. It was what is today called a ‘destination attraction’ which means that people travelled from far and wide to come and enjoy what it had to offer.
Designed and built by the controversial borough engineer Sidney Little and using the fashionable building material of its time, reinforced concrete, the bathing pool was a landmark and lives on today in the memories of those who still fondly remember it.
While many local people want to see the site redeveloped, ideally they would like to see it retained for leisure purposes. Indeed there is a vocal group who would like to see a reincarnation of the bathing pool – that however is extremely unlikely as the old structure only ever turned a profit in its first year of operation, every year after that it cost Hastings council money to keep it open and running.
So what did the Carter Jonas report conclude just three years ago?
One of its first observations was location: “Although an excellent site at the end of the waterfront promenade, its considerable distance from the town centre puts it at something of a disadvantage… any prosperity in the town centre is a long way from this site, making it very much the far end of the seafront conurbation.”
The Carter Jonas report identified the exposed nature of the site as an issue: “The Environment Agency (EA) have no budget for defending this part of the coastline against rising sea levels and the costs of fixed defences along 300 metres of promenade could run into many millions of pounds without the additional costs of repaving and lighting,” it said.
…financial return on developing the site…
But it was the significant proportion of land on the site that could not be developed that was a concern, the report saying: “Approximately 50 per cent of the site is undevelopable for conventional building development because of underground constraints or sea defence issues, with only the eastern part of the site being relatively unconstrained, and even here there is a back-filled swimming pool below the surface of the informal park. None of these problems are insurmountable, but they will need to be fully investigated before any land sale or joint venture can be agreed, since they may affect the potential financial return on developing the site.”
The report went on: “The constraints are numerous and complex. The principal one is the large surface water holding tank in the centre of the site which does not allow any development over it but does allow open space to be sited above it. It is surrounded by major culverts, access vents and chambers in a complicated arrangement which is best left well alone.
“The situation is further complicated by an ugly electricity sub station to its north and to its west is a BT fibre optic cable which would be very expensive to move. The western part of the site is also constrained by a variety of services, and it is not certain what their exact location and depth below ground is without further on-site ground investigation. Some may be moveable at a reasonable cost, some not.”
Carter Jonas acknowledged that their’s was not the first study that had been carried out at the site, in 1999 – just seven years after the site had been cleared – Halcrow Fox/ Cluttons produced the West Marina Area Regeneration Study. From that document a number of elements for the redevelopment that are still talked about today were first suggested, those included a public slipway; water-related commercial and leisure uses; food and drink; business; community; residential; open space; and public promenade. If all that sounds very familiar it’s probably because that is very similar to the mix that HBC has been discussing with its latest potential developer County Gate/Sunley.
In 2001 Fuller Peiser/ Posford Haskoning created the West Marina Development Study specifically to report on the feasibility, design and management of the slipway and advise on how development of the site could be brought forward. At the time it was felt the slipway element to the proposal was vital to the regeneration of that area of the town, and that a scheme that was predominantly about developing housing would not bring about the same regeneration benefits.
Significantly though, this report highlighted the fact that if the proposals were to make any progress then public sector funding was going to be required to make them work.
A further seven years elapsed and still nothing had happened as far as development of the site was concerned and then Tibbalds/Campbell Reith came up with a scheme in 2008.
Somewhat significantly, considering that it had previously been considered to be ‘vital to the regeneration of the area’ this scheme did not include a public slipway but did have an increased number of residential units. It also had large areas of hard and soft landscaping but still needed a lot of public money to make it work.
When Carter Jonas first became involved towards the end of 2014 they say in their report that their views were clear. In previous plans there was, in their opinion, too much mixed use, too much open space and too much hard landscaping. They felt the scheme that had previously been proposed didn’t ‘work hard enough’ to pay for what they describe as ‘abnormal costs’ in redeveloping the problem areas of the site. Carter Jonas also concluded that the need for public money to make the scheme feasible had not gone away and they saw little prospect of being able to secure the public sector cash injection that could have kick started some form of redevelopment.
Indeed Carter Jonas concluded that there was indeed good reason why the site had not been developed, saying: “We stated that there was a reason for this site remaining undeveloped for over 30 years and that new ways needed to be found to develop this key waterfront site. These include taking an entirely pragmatic and quite unconventional approach which worked with the constraints rather than against them, and which required the minimisation of abnormal costs by clever design.”
At a meeting with councillors Carter Jonas held what were described as ‘frank discussions’ with councillors and council officials, telling members of HBC: “Only residential uses create any residual value in a relatively weak and uncertain market, the ‘abnormal costs’ were prohibitive, and that mixed uses barely ‘washed their face’.”
On top of that by the time Carter Jonas had come to look at the site it had been reclassified and now had a level of flood risk associated with it that usually saw the Environment Agency oppose residential development.
Despite all of that HBC remained clear that it wanted the space to be a public place, not just a private residential enclave and the council decreed that it ‘must’ have a strong mixed use element. The Carter Jonas report notes that the council’s requirements did not seem to take financial viability in to account and concluded: “…it is expected that retail and food and drink outlets will struggle to survive year round in this location.”
Despite all of that Carter Jonas did come up with a plan. The development they proposed was based on four key elements:
- A central square over the undevelopable waste water reservoir and adjacent services;
- The retained seafront walkway/cycleway rethought and enclosed by relatively ephemeral timber buildings focussed around a potential artists’ colony and display space;
- An informal and somewhat eclectic village of vertical timber town houses in the west;
- A more formal residential development in the east relating to the form and scale of the Conservation Area.
They said their concept was ‘truly pragmatic’ and turned the constraints of the site ‘on their heads’.
The developers explained: “The central square is laid out over the unbuildable areas; the ugly electricity sub-station is redesigned as a children’s playhouse, the seafront walkway/ cycle path is retained but can be incrementally upgraded over time and the brightly painted glorified beach huts are celebrated as a cost-effective and appropriate seaside solution; the apparently random village in the west carefully avoids the cost of diverting major service corridors; the more formal eastern development benefits from a less constrained site and might attract different development markets such as the silver surfer.”
Carter Jonas believed their proposal, ‘builds on the vertical/horizontal aesthetic of Hastings Old Town’ and told councillors: “This should be a humorous place of colour and delight which celebrates the seafront, rather than a conventional housing estate.”
At a meting of the HBC cabinet in November 2015 councillors agreed to set aside £125,000 to meet the costs of ‘bringing the site to market’. Just over three years later they have granted a five-year lease to County Gate/Sunley to give the developers time to come up with a proposal. Councillor Andy Batsford, Housing and Leisure portfolio holder for HBC said last month: “We want to get this right. We desperately need housing, we need investment and we need to increase tourism in our town.”
It will be interesting to see if the County Gate/Sunley consortium can find solutions to problems that previous developers have not been able to overcome and perhaps crucially to see if they can make the project work without the need for public funding.
In 2016, writing in the Hastings Independent Press, Clive Gross said: “The future of this site to the town is too important to be left to the vagaries of the commercial property market, or the desire of our borough council to off-load a difficult ‘asset’ from their books. It is up to us to make sure this key space does not go the way that so many other others here have over recent decades.”
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