The pandemic has had a cruel impact on society, but there has been one positive – everyone now appreciates the benefits of exercise and the huge contribution open spaces contribute towards wellbeing writes Bryan Fisher.
Franklin D Roosevelt is quoted as saying: “Forests are the ‘lungs’ of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people”, but he could equally have been talking about parks, fields and even promenades! Although it does perhaps take the horrible threat of Covid-19 attacking our lungs to get some people out and exercising, but hopefully those in that group will continue to appreciate the benefits of exercise post-pandemic.
The people of Hastings and St Leonards do not have Roosevelt’s forests, but we do have other open spaces.
Having the ability to exercise in relative safety, away from traffic, when you want and for how long you want has certainly been a huge positive benefit to the wellbeing and health in general.
Areas in the borough like Alexandra Park, East and West Hills, Bulverhythe, Filsham Valley and the Old Bathing Pool site have been in high demand. Sadly though, just when they have proven their added value to society, some are to become unavailable.
Our borough deserves the best councillors, but only we, the electorate, can ensure that we get them!
If Hasting Borough Council (HBC) has its way, Bulverhythe Fields, Filsham Valley and the Old Bathing Pool site will either disappear or be seriously altered as open spaces when new housing is built.
So, consider if the pandemic arrived in 2025 not 2020 – where would those in West St Leonards go to exercise? Everyone accepts the need for nearby open spaces to exercise or just enjoy – so why should the western end of the borough be deprived?
Even if you ignore – at your peril – a future pandemic, an extra 1500 or so residents in the western end of borough will make our community feel even more compressed and, dare I say, depressed.
It would certainly be a ‘Road to Damascus’ revelation if HBC suddenly acknowledged the overwhelming opposition to the housing developments on Bulverhythe’s flood plain and the Old Bathing Pool which is also a designated flood plain; but in truth HBC seems more intent on following the Road to Nowhere!
On December 16th last year Lucie Mason formally presented to the full council, petitions containing 2,056 signatories against housing on the Old Bathing Pool sit on Seaside Road. Not only did those controlling the proceedings ignore their own constitution and declare the votes invalid, they have also ignored a subsequent written protest from Lucie.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that Lucie’s significant efforts on behalf of the community have been ignored by HBC’s ruling party.
This is far from an isolated incident.
In 2020 local people and community groups were invited, at short notice, by a HBC-created Town Deal Board to submit project plans to be awarded UK government funding. I believe there were 155 submissions, which is impressive given the short notice. However, every submission from West St Leonards was rejected, including the innovative Science-on-Sea project. The reasons given for their rejection were spurious or just plain wrong. When Virginia Vilela formally protested on behalf of two of the schemes that they had not even been discussed – she never received a reply!
So when you hear HBC’s Labour-led council stating matters are dealt with in an open and transparent manner… you will understand why many local community action groups beg to differ!
So how about HBC’s attitude to Freedom of Information requests? These are a mechanism by which individuals or organisations by law obtain information from local or central government.
HBC have the ignominious honour of being formally warned by the Ombudsman for failing to answer legitimate FoI requests. Another example is the lack of engagement with the local media, who you would have thought were worth keeping ‘on side’.
Instead some have published their concern at questions being ignored or access for interviews being denied. If the ‘Fourth Estate’ cannot ask pointed questions either – is this really a functioning democracy?
So when you hear HBC’s Labour-led council stating matters are dealt with in an open and transparent manner, with opportunities for interested parties to engage in meaningful communication, you will understand why many local community action groups beg to differ!
If you take just one example, the local community, the local media, and all political parties except the local Labour Party have expressed their ongoing support for the campaign to oppose housing on the Old Bathing Pool site – wanting a leisure-based solution to provide revenue and jobs. Imagine the irritation when HBC decides that an obscure advert hidden in a local paper and a very vocal opposition at an open meeting many years ago about a different project count as full and transparent communication?
West St Leonards Forum, a local community group seeking to take on responsibility for the area have undertaken a 2,500 resident questionnaire and under challenging Covid–19 restrictions, canvassed local businesses as initial steps in their move to create a Neighbourhood Plan that aligns to HBC’s Local Plan.
For months they have been trying to get some engagement from HBC to build the Neighbourhood Plan together, but requests have always been side-lined. The establishment of a viable organisation and its neighbourhood plan are enshrined in UK government law, and already successfully working elsewhere, but that does not seem to bother HBC for some reason.
You decide whether the lack of interest by HBC’s ruling party in the wishes and aspirations of the West St Leonards’ community is incompetence or arrogance. I know already!
…residents and businesses care about our local area and want the best for it…
The one area where HBC’s ruling Labour Party seems to be actively communicating with ratepayers is via social media with Councillor Andrew Batsford, who seems to enjoy stirring up individual and groups with statements but rarely offers substantive evidence to support his claims. While this does make Facebook a lively media outlet, can we assume those views expressed are personal, not HBC’s official stance or preferred method of communication?
Onto a couple of important dates for your diary, and hopefully some deep thought! On January 25th an eight week consultation period begins for HBC’s long-deferred Local Plan Review.
This is a crucial opportunity for individuals and community groups to register any concerns they may have regarding the council’s proposals, but equally it is an opportunity to put forward proposals from the community as to how they would wish to see the town develop over the next 15 years.
I think most of us residents and businesses care about our local area and want the best for it, so you need to give this some deep thought. Perhaps also get in touch with organisations like Hastings Urban Design Group or our own West St Leonards Forum for advice. Then submit your ideas!
The second item that will hopefully involve some deep thinking on your behalf is the local council election, still scheduled for Thursday May 6th despite the pandemic.
If you care about the local area you will want to select a councillor who will match your aspirations – whether that be in regard to the environment, regeneration, employment, better accounting on projects, etc. So it is not just about which representative – and perhaps political party – has done well in the past, it is also about what they promise to deliver for us in the future. Our borough deserves the best councillors, but only we, the electorate, can ensure that we get them!
Photos by Virginia Vilela
To contact West St Leonards Forum: https://www.weststleonards.org.uk/about/make-contact-3/talk-to-us
To contact Hastings Urban Design Group:
To contact West Marina Org: https://westmarina.org/
To contact Save Our Bathing Site: https://www.facebook.com/groups/301737300488168
Hastings Online Times recent article re Town Deal Board:
World Health Organisation – 10 key facts on exercise in the WHO European region: https://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/disease-prevention/physical-activity/data-and-statistics/10-key-facts-on-physical-activity-in-the-who-european-region