Hastings hit the national headlines this week when a man living in Alma Terrace, Silverhill, was slapped with an enforcement notice by the borough council after he built a 20 foot replica of the Eiffel Tower in his front garden just a few months ago..
The story might have brought a smile to the faces of people reading about it in The Sun – but for those living further along Alma Terrace, next to a house that has been left decaying for more than a decade, there was little to laugh about as Hastings Borough Council’s planning enforcement officers have been unable to do anything – until this week – to to sort out the much more serious problems they have been left to live with that include rat infestation and threats to the structural integrity of their homes.
On top of that, critics list a lengthy series of what they see as own goals scored by Hastings Borough Council’s planners over the years. Stuart Baillie decided to have a look at the state of planning in Hastings – then things got a whole lot more complicated.
There are times when you set out to research an issue because one element of that issue has caught your attention but then as you speak to people and peel back the layers you discover more – and more, and then even more!
Very occasionally, you reach the point that I have reached in writing this feature – there are so many threads and elements to the story that you wonder where to start!
So lets go back to the beginning and consider why I have a special interest in the workings of a local planning committee and it all revolved around one story.
We’re going back 30-odd years to a time when one young reporter was reaching the conclusion that councillors were not the all-powerful people he once thought them to be.
That was me, I was attending a meeting of the planning committee for Dumfries and Galloway Regional Council.
Some months before the committee had approved a plan for a major out-of-town retail development – similar in style to Ravenside – at the meeting I was attending councillors had another proposal before them for a similar project almost literally across the road from the one they had previously approved.
One councillor wanted to block the second plan, it was over-provision he said; the town could not sustain these two giant centres he said, rather than create one vibrant centre they would create two and neither would flourish he predicted.
Officials over ruled him and his colleagues. They were told they could not refuse a planning application on the grounds of over-provision, it was up to the developer to consider the commercial viability of their projects – as over provision was the principal concern of the elected members around the table there was little more discussion on the matter and the second out-of-town centre was approved.
Both centres were built but as had been predicted neither ever achieved its full potential. I don’t think either was ever fully occupied and the last time I was back in Dumfries both centres had multiple empty units and were looking just a little shabby.
I remember leaving that meeting asking myself what was the point of having a planning committee? What was the point of councillors if their local knowledge was not wanted?
So fast forward to a Hastings Borough Council (HBC) planning committee in 2018 shortly after I had started Hastings In Focus. Councillor John Rankin, a man who knows his patch was worried about plans to manage traffic going in and out of a proposed new housing development just off Harrow Lane. Roads officials wanted a simple T-junction but Mr Rankin thought that unsafe, he believed a mini roundabout would be better for a development that would see 140 new houses being built on the former playing fields.
He was basing what he said on his local knowledge and from conversations he had had with local people who had expressed their own reservations. A side effect of the new development, he feared, would be increased parking on Harrow Lane itself because of limited parking provision within the development.
However, Mr Rankin’s concerns were casually dismissed as officials told him that the T-junction plan was the recommendation of experts in their field and as Mr Rankin did not have the necessary qualifications to challenge the views of experts, so the points he made were not to be considered.
Those two meetings might have been over 30 years apart but once again I found myself leaving a planning meeting wondering why? If councillors are not allowed to challenge the advice of ‘experts’ then why not just let those experts make the decisions and save a lot of time and money and perhaps avoid raising the expectations of local people who believe their council and its councillors have some power when it comes to making planning decisions when, in reality, on many issues it appears that they do not.
Let’s face it, if the reservations and objections of an elected representative can be simply batted away then what hope is there for the views and opinions of the local people as they take part in the myriad ‘consultation processes’ launched by both Hastings Borough Council and East Sussex County Council?
As an interesting side note I’ve discovered that councillors ARE allowed to challenge the ‘experts’ although it probably makes life easier for officials if councillors are unaware of Lord Nolan’s 1997 report on Standards in Public Life that says: “It should be firmly stated that there is nothing intrinsically wrong if planning committees do not invariably follow the advice of officers.
“Planning officers exist to advise [emphasis in original] planning committees, which are entitled to reach their own decisions by attaching different weight to the various planning criteria which are relevant to an application.”
Interesting to know that, I wonder if members of HBC’s planning committee have been made aware?
Among a list of contentious planning decisions that have been made by HBC – more of which later – is what has come to be known as ‘The Bunker’ on the Rocklands Caravan Park.
So much has been written about The Bunker over the years and I will not go in to great detail here, but at a recent meeting of the planning committee Councillor Phil Scott accused the owners of the building of ‘thumbing their nose’ at the council by going ahead and making changes to the building without planning consent then applying for that consent retrospectively knowing there was little the planning committee could do but approve it.
Planning Services Manager Eleanor Evans explained that it was the developer’s ‘right’ to do that but explained to members that the owner of The Bunker had been asked ‘many, many times,’ to consult the council BEFORE making changes that require planning consent.
There are other instances too where the council’s planning department seems simply impotent in the face of developers and property owners who want to do their own thing – or who don’t want to do as they are told and will happily leave their property to deteriorate to the stage where it’s ready to fall down, which then forces the council not just to take action but to foot the bill too.
Take Alma Terrace. The house at number 39 has been empty for more than a decade, neighbour Nick Kirkham told Hastings In Focus: “It’s in a very poor state of repair. The boarded over windows are nearly falling out with the frames either rotten or non existent, the outdoor plants are now growing through them. The roof above the first floor bay has collapsed and is letting in water, the lintel above the ground floor bay has broken. Local builder Roy Funnell wrote a report to the HBC several years ago expressing his concerns about the structural integrity of the front of this building.”
Scaffolding, which neighbours say is effectively holding the house together, has been in place for four years and is, Mr Kirkham understands, being paid for by HBC.
Finally, THIS WEEK HBC has issued an enforcement notice against the owners but then you have to ask the question what good do enforcement notices do?
In June last year HBC heralded the news that it had issued a 16 week notice to the owners of the old Victorian arches at the top of Battle Road. That notice gave the owners 16 weeks to make repairs or pull it down – now 36 weeks later the site looks the same as it did last summer and one councillor confided to Hastings In Focus that it would ultimately be left to HBC to deal with as he didn’t believe the owners had the resources to either repair, or tear down the building.
But how can this be happening in a town that back in 2000 established the Grotbusters initiative and said it was prepared to offer advice to Government and other councils on how to implement similar strategies.
Grotbusters came about as a direct response to the town’s high number of run down and derelict buildings. It uses a piece of planning law (Section 215 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990) to approach landowners to ask them to tidy up and improve the look of their properties. If property owners fail to do so, then they can be served with an Enforcement Notice, which can lead to a prosecution and fine, initially of up to £1,000, then a cumulative fine of £100 a day if they do not do the work. Surely the owners of the Battle Road property must owe the council a tidy sum by now?
It certainly all sounds good in theory!
Back in 2017 the then leader of Hastings Borough Council Peter Chowney said: “We expect property owners to look after their buildings. We make no apology for fining irresponsible property owners who let their properties fall into disrepair.
“The seafront has improved dramatically over the last 17 years, and we were pleased to see more work still taking place as a result of Grotbuster enforcement. Nevertheless, we were able to identify more, where warning notices will be served. Since 2000, we’ve improved 830 buildings, structures and land through the Grotbusters process. HBC has offered advice to Government, other councils and various organisations on how to implement similar strategies.”
Grotbusters was seen as something that was very much driven by the late and much revered council leader Jeremy Birch for whom it was a passion leading one social media commentator to remark this week: “Jeremy Birch drove it forward with his legendary gumption and gusto. Leadership since has been visibly timid. Abusers sniff out the weakness and loopholes all too easily.”
Other commentators highlight the loss of certain members of the planning department staff for what they see as a falling off in enforcement. Back in Alma Terrace Mr Kirkham says the constant staff changes have been especially frustrating. as each time someone new comes along he feels he’s starting from scratch all over again.
Councillor Andrew Batsford, HBC’s lead member for housing blames central government: “Losing key staff is a massive issue coupled with on-going real cuts to local government funding meaning that we have less staff trying to deliver the same services with more demands on them, there is only a certain number of hours in day.
“Jeremy saw the start of the austerity programme devastating local government but even he could never have imagined the length and depth of it. The appetite to continue that work has not diminished but the realities of being able to deliver above and beyond the statutory enforcement is a strain but one we hold dear as we see the positive impact Grotbusting did and does for our town.”
Disquiet surrounding the performance of Hastings planners is nothing new. In 2014 its actions – or rather inactions – at Rocklands made the pages of Private Eye: “When the diggers went in and the trees began to be ripped up, appalled locals complained to the Labour Hastings Borough Council to be told nothing could be done because the trees weren’t protected – but they were.
“By the time the council admitted its error, the trees were gone. Landslips have since made the adjoining coastal path impassable and dangerous. Removing the trees cannot have made the ground more stable. The next step, say campaigners, is for the council to enforce its decision, get the eyesores removed, repair the damage to the landscape and replant the hillside. Then all will be lovely again in about 50 years time,” the magazine reported in its infamous Rotten Boroughs column.
HBC’s planners also stand accused of showing lack of concern for the town’s heritage. In the preparation of this story we have spoken to many people closely involved over the years with panning decisions and they have contributed to a lengthy list of planning decisions where they feel the council could and should have done better.
They cite the development of Azur that not only closed off a right of way but impacted the clear sight lines along the seafront originally planned into the design of the seafront by borough engineer Sydney Little back in the 1930s. Kiosk development along the seafront has further ruined those sight lines. The Foreshore Trust also funded the construction of those kiosks which as snack bars have proved to be unsuccessful commercially.
Many mourn the fact that ‘perfectly good’ Victorian buildings were demolished to make way for Asda.
One local historian told me this week: “St Leonards still retains its Victorian integrity – just about – there’s not much tourist potential in creating a Croydon-on-Sea, or by making Hastings and St Leonards just like everywhere else.”
Lifelong Hastings resident Liz Bourn is particularly unhappy about many of HBC’s plans for ‘her’ town: “They are still persisting in their foul ideas for the Bathing Pool site and now in an almost more absurd way they are wanting to concrete over the recreation ground at Bulverhythe.
“HBC seem to be determined to concrete over all green sites in Hastings and St Leonards.”
It’s a theme that was taken up by Councillor Mike Turner at last week’s full council meeting when he asked the council to review the extent of the planning permissions that had already been granted, or were already in the pipeline in his ward. He said he feared that if all that was planned went ahead, “there would not be a blade of grass” left to walk on in that part of town.
At the moment the council is encouraging local people to comment on the draft local plan, the document that, once approved, provides a blueprint for the town’s future. But just how much of a blueprint?
The current local plan says there should be housing in Cornwallis Street on the site of the existing car park – ah but Hastings Borough Council now wants to fund the construction of a hotel on that site – so much then for the local plan, while on the seafront Muriel Matters House, the office block that is home to HBC is designated as a hotel.
There’s more to talk about, there’s the old bathing pool site; there’s the council’s determination to build 192 houses on Bulverhythe Recreation Ground against the will of almost everybody; local people, neighbouring councils and environmental groups.
Then there’s the handling of Robsack Meadow! Now follow this if you can. The Labour controlled council tried to push through development plans in the face of a mighty campaign of opposition yet when the council was thwarted by the Planning Inspector the Labour group in its manifesto for election in 2018 tried to claim they had successfully seen off the risk – campaigners have been seking an apology from Labour ever since but have never had one.
And of course there’s so much more to say about Rocklands, so much that one day someone will undoubtedly write a book on the subject.
But for this week I’m going to leave it there. I hope you see what I mean by there being so many strands and layers to this story… we’ll tell you more next week!
What are your thoughts on the way Hastings and St Leonards are shaping up? Have you let the council know your thoughts on the local plan? What’s your view of the plans to build five storey blocks of flats on the old bathing pool site, or the plan to build on the Bulverhythe Recreation Ground? Tell us in the comment section below.