Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been looking at the state of planning in Hastings Borough. In this third and final special report we look at two current controversial proposals for West St Leonards where public opinion is wildly at odds with the views of the council.
Plans for 192 houses on the Bulverhythe Recreation Ground have become the butt of jokes on social media with some observers asking whether each of the new houses will come with its own boat?
But as Stuart Baillie finds out it’s far from a laughing matter. So far the Environment Agency has been blunt, saying the development: “should not be permitted”. So why is our local council so hell-bent on pressing on with the plan and why is it being treated as the jewel in the crown of the council’s corporate plan, so much so that the council leader chose to single it out for mention at a recent full council meeting?
More worryingly for many is that the council is both developer and the planning authority, is this not a conflict of interest too far?
How would you feel if you moved in to a brand new house and the builders told you to keep an emergency bag by the door just incase your new home flooded? If you move in to one of the 192 new homes that Hastings Borough Council (HBC) wants to build on the Bulverhythe Recreation Ground that’s exactly what you will be told.
Whether by design or by accident HBC’s Leader Kim Forward made a remark at a recent full council which left many people believing that the controversial plan to put 192 new houses on the Bulverhythe Recreation Ground might already be a done deal, despite a list of objections that grows almost daily.
Ms Forward confirmed that the scheme was part of the council’s corporate plan, she said HBC was ‘committed’ to provide the 192 new homes at Bulverhythe – and it will be HBC’s planning committee that will decide whether it should go ahead or not.
Councillor Matthew Beaver, one of two borough councillors representing the area said at the time he felt the council was behaving in a ‘disrespectful’ way towards local people and added: “The inference is that the Bulverhythe Rec site is a done deal.”
When you speak to people living in the area you find there is a genuine concern that once the application goes to committee, despite all the objections and comments, because the council’s ruling Labour group have made it their ambition to develop this particular site they will push it through.
For this development HBC is both the developer and the planning authority. No date has been set for when the application will go in front of the planning committee.
Some of the key objections to building 192 new houses on the Bulverhythe site include:
- Should not be building on flood plains and on land at high risk of flooding
- Loss of green space
- Damage to and overall impact on Combe Valley Countryside Park
- Site is not in the Local Plan
- Air Pollution
- Climate Change
- Close proximity to the tip
Karl Beaney the other borough councillors for the area says: “I would like to see the planning application called in by the Secretary of state for a decision.”
Among the documents on HBC’s website relating to the proposal you’ll find that to reduce the risk of flooding or water-logging the development needs the building of a sluice gate, the building of protective bunds, the use of non return valves, the use of both underground and open pond storage areas for rainwater run off collected from all areas of the site. Those storage areas would be used until the water level of the Bulverhythe river dropped to allow pumps to move the stored water into the river and out to sea as the tide goes out.
But as Peter Oldfield oberves: “This proposal doesn’t really explain that these pumps, non return valves, bunds and sluice gate will need to be maintained in full working order for the total life of development. The same applies to all the technical adaptions that they propose to each housing unit – gas meters, electric meters, electrical sockets, non-return sewerage piping – all these services are to be fitted at least 600mm above the calculated potential flood levels if the pumps/non return valves/bunds or the sluice-gate fail to operate fully!
Mr Oldfield concludes: “Yes, these houses are being designed to cope with potential flooding events, an admission that accepts that this site will flood if the equipment fails at the wrong time or if a variety of extreme weather events happen. To compound this admission, it is also suggested that residents be prepared to evacuate if flooding occurs, residents are to be recommended to keep an emergency bag packed, just in case! Are these proposals really acceptable, is it right to expect residents to live under this expected failure of design?”
The Environment Agency has been blunt and pulled no punches it says:
“We object in principal to the proposed development as it falls within a flood risk vulnerability category that is inappropriate to the Flood Zone in which the application site is located. The application is therefore contrary to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and its associated planning practice guidance.
“We recommend that planning permission is refused on this basis.
“(This) land is defined as having a high probability of flooding. We are aware that the site has flooded on numerous occasions at a much higher frequency than that which defines FZ3b.
“The development is classed as highly vulnerable… it (is) clear that this type of development is not compatible with this Flood Zone and therefore should not be permitted.“
Flooding is just one of the recurring themes as you read through the 100 plus objections already lodged. Aimee Palmer, for example says: “The proposed development will cause irreparable damage to the Countryside Park and risks producing housing which is unsustainable because of the high flood risk, exacerbated by climate change.
“The increased number of cars on this already busy main road in and out of Bexhill will cause absolute mayhem.”
Councillor Beaney told Hastings In Focus this week: “Despite the Head of the Environment Agency warning against building on flood plains and the Labour Party nationally calling for an end to building homes on land at high risk of flooding, I find it shocking that this Labour administration continue to persist with this reckless plan to build on not only a flood plain but a much valued public green space which forms part of the Combe Valley Countryside Park.
“I believe there has been a serious lack of vision and leadership over many years by this Labour administration. The cabinet have made some very poor decisions, including the current proposals to build 152 residential units on the Old Bathing Pool Site.
“The Old Bathing Pool Site has remained vacant for many years and the West Marina area is such a unique site that is crying out for regeneration, but it’s important that the council gets this decision right. I believe that instead of large numbers of houses on this site we should be looking to create an exciting all year round landmark destination and community space for visitors and local residents.
“It would be good to see the site put to some temporary use while any future decisions are made about it. We have a wonderful creative community in Hastings and St Leonards and I’m sure the site could be put to a good use which could create jobs and boost the local economy.”
It’s the scale of the objection to the Bulverhythe proposal that is truly surprising. It’s not just local people who have concerns but people from across the town and beyond, who fear that a plan to effectively create what they see as a dam on Come Haven River will flood a significant area of the Combe Valley Countryside Park which will destroy large parts of the Filsham Reedbeds and put wildlife at risk including the park’s ‘nationally significant’ population of Dragonflies.
In addition to the Environment Agency, formal objections have been submitted by Sussex Wildlife Trust (SWT) and Sport England. The County Archaeologist is arguing that the pre-planning survey commissioned by the council to resolve archaeological issues arising on the building site itself fails to address the potentially far more significant consequences of excavations needed for the flood works.
Crowhurst Parish Council says in it’s objection: “We were not consulted during the… Environment Assessment and we do not believe that consideration has been given to the impact the proposed application would have to the existing flooding problems in Crowhurst.
“The Powdermill Stream is a tributary to the Combe Haven. It is only mentioned once in the FRA as an Environment Agency main river and the as being within 1.8Km.
“There are also another five streams in the parish which generally flow south to the Combe Valley. Four of these are tributaries which flow into the Powdermill Stream. Any change to the flow of the Powdermill Stream will have an impact to these streams and the surrounding areas.
“The flood monitoring service (River levels) for low lying properties in Crowhurst is measured by river levels at station ID 1166 – Combe Haven. So it affects, and is effected by, what happens within the Combe Haven.”
And it concludes: “The ecology report is also of concern. It only seems to focus on the actual development site. However, when the flood report is recommending work outside of the site to mitigate flooding, the effects on biodiversity and ecology in these areas should be considered. Bunds could affect any wildlife living along the Combe Haven banks and a sluice gate below the Filsham Reed Bed SSSI could have a major impact. The impacts of these mitigation options should be investigated before any decision is taken.”
Natural England has told HBC that its consultation documents do not, “include information to demonstrate that the requirements of regulation 63 of the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations… have been considered by your authority, ie the consultation does not include a Habitats Regulations Assessment.”
In addition Natural England points out that as submitted, the application could have potential significant effects on”
- Dungeness, Romney Marsh and Rye Bay Special Protection Area (SPA)
- Combe Haven Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)
- Beachy Head East Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ)
It says it needs more information in order to determine the significance of these impacts and the scope for mitigation and wants a Habitat Regulation Assessment (HRA), an assessment of the potential impacts to the birds associated with the sites, a hydrology assessment, and/or an assessment of the hydrological impacts of the proposed development on the above mentioned designated sites.
It says without that information, Natural England may need to object to the proposal.
Nick Claxton on behalf of Flood Risk Management at East Sussex County Council says: “The surface water drainage drawings provided do not provide enough assurance that the land take associated with some surface water management structures has been taken into account. There also appears to be reliance on permeable pavement on driveways, which
are most likely to be lost through the lifetime of the development as householders replace them with impermeable surfaces. On the basis of the issues outlined above, we are not reassured that development at this
location will not result in increased flood risk and we object to the principle of development on the application site.”
He goes on to say that while recognising the need for additional housing in the Hastings area, this need has to be balanced with the needs of existing residents and the overall environment of the borough. He says the proposed development will cause irreparable damage to the Countryside Park and risks producing housing which is unsustainable because of the
high flood risk, exacerbated by climate change.
Despite needing to divert a main sewer HBC has not been in touch with Southern Water about their plans. The water company has told HBC: “It appears that the applicant is proposing to abandon/divert a 250 mm public combined sewer. Any public sewer diversion proposals shall be approved by Southern Water… The exact position of the public assets must be determined on site by the applicant in consultation with Southern Water before the layout of the proposed development is finalised.”
Test boring on the site has been carried out and we have spoken to local people who were told by engineers on site that 23m long concrete piles would be required for a solid foundation to be created.
Councillor Andy Batsford, HBC’s lead member for housing points to the project providing a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to sort out and eradicate the flooding problems at the site but local people are sceptical.
So far HBC has spent a reputed £1million getting the planning application to the stage that it is at and many fear the council’s determination to press ahead is because it cannot afford to lose face by being seen to have wasted that public money on a scheme that people have been telling them for years was always going to be fraught with problems.
When you talk to Andy Batsford you are left in no doubt that providing decent housing for local people is his absolute passion: “I just want other people to have what I had when I was growing up – a secure council home, it’s a fundamental,” he says.
He confirms that the council will have spent up to £1m bringing the proposal to where it is now, explaining that it is part of a pot of money from Homes England amounting to almost £7m which will cover the cost of doing all the work – including any flood prevention work – required to bring the site to a state where it can be built on.
He says the council plan to start addressing many of the worries people have and will shortly, via its website, provide answers and explanations to many of the issues that come up time and time again among the objections being levelled at the proposal.
He says the “water-logging” that occurs is, technically not flooding, the ground in the area is compacted and does not allow water to drain away and so it sits on the surface. It is not, he says, flood water coming from the Bulverhythe River or Pebsham Stream. As part of the overall proposal HBC will remove the compacted layers of soil and replace it with fresh, and importantly porous, material.
Combe Haven will not have a dam built across it. The word ‘dam’ has been an emotive one he says and does not accurately describe what will be happening there. He explains there will be a sluice installed that will be “always open”. The sluice is intended to be used only in what he describes as a more than one in 100 year weather event, when the sluice would close. There is no absolutely no intention to permanently flood part of the country park according to Mr Batsford.
It’s this kind of misunderstanding Mr Batsford hopes swill start to be cleared up when the council starts explaining and providing answers, via its website, to those issues that are frequently raised by those registering objections.
By far the most significant objection so far has been from the Environment Agency that has said bluntly that the development: “should not be permitted”. According to Mr Batsford the council’s officers and planning consultants are working with the Environment Agency and he hopes that when the proposal eventually comes before the planning committee they will have provided the information that is needed for the Environment Agency to change its position.
He says the agency acknowledged that it is working from maps and modelling data that are out of date and HBC is helping to update the information the Environment Agency holds which he expects will allow it to revise its opposition to the plan.
Mr Batsford says he is “excited” by the prospect of new homes being built on the Bulverhythe site and believes a lot of the infrastructure and facilities a thriving community needs already exists: “To be honest I think I’d like to live there. It’ll be a great place to bring up your children,” he says adding that he believes there are already employment and shopping opportunities nearby as well as good schools and the recently opened new medical centre.
He believes the planning application could come before the planning committee as early as May.
Old bathing Pool site
It’s not just at Bulverhythe that HBC appears to be putting its fingers in its ears and pretending local voices aren’t being raised. For several years now there has been an active campaign against council plans to site housing on the site of the old bathing pool.
Local residents and campaigners say that for the last 30 years the open space that is the Old Bathing Pool site adjoining Seaside Road has been almost abandoned by HBC.
Over the years the local community has enjoyed its grassy open space that has seen varied uses – including exercise classes during the pandemic. But since 2015, when HBC proposed marketing the site, it has been under threat and in 2016 a plan was drawn up for a 124 dwellings.
Bryan Fisher says: “HBC and its then leader, Councillor Peter Chowney were visibly shocked at a large gathering’s vocal condemnation at what has been the only public consultation ever held on the subject. Those present in the Royal Victoria Hotel heard Mr Chowney promise on-going consultation as the development progressed but there has been none since.”
In 2018 there was a new developer – Countygate/Sunley. Leaked plans showed a 152 dwelling development centred on five high-density, high-rise blocks and a multi-storey car park. Mr Fisher says HBC refused to discuss the proposed development with the local community.
A full council meeting was attended by over 100 angry objectors but HBC voted to proceed towards signing ‘Heads of Terms’ with the developers. Local actions groups SOBS and West Marina Group have since spearheaded opposition to housing on this site, involving social media and protest gatherings. In 2020 a petition with over 2,000 signatories was formally submitted to HBC but, despite fulfilling the criteria, an open debate by the council was refused. A formal complaint was also snubbed.
“The community has repeatedly highlighted far more suitable sites for housing, seven of which are in West St Leonards. Meanwhile local community activists have submitted viable alternatives, utilising the site’s unique seafront position to propose leisure and tourism use. The aim was to generate jobs and revenue for the borough, rather than luxury second homes and AirBnB users. The ‘Heads of Terms’, despite assurances, has still not been signed, and now there is another developer – Countygate/ Generator Real Estate, but still no meaningful dialogue or transparency with the local community,” says Mr Fisher.
HBC issued a short statement on Friday saying: “This site is identified for development in the current local plan (Policy FB3).
“The design for the development is not finalised or fixed at this point. Any appointed developer will need to carry out public engagement as part of the formal planning process, which local residents will of course be invited to take part in.”
On the issue of when contracts will be signed with the prospective developer – something HBC said was ‘imminent’ more than two years ago a council spokesman said: “We can confirm the signing of contracts has not yet taken place. We do understand the concerns regarding this delay, and we will provide an update shortly.”
Read more by following these links
- The link below will take you straight to the HBC website page where you can read more about what people are telling the council