It has been a long and hard fought campaign by the sizeable number of local people opposed to council plans that would see the building of more than 150 new homes on the old bathing pool site in West St Leonards.
Hastings Borough Council’s failure to listen to local people, on this and other issues, was widely seen as the key reason why the ruling Labour group performed so poorly in May’s council election so campaigners were buoyed when soon after the elections council leaders made an approach offering a meeting.
Now they wonder if that meeting achieved anything at all? Here Graham Wilkins looks back over the five year saga and explains the frustration felt by people in that part of the town.
Since we learned of Hastings Borough Council’s (HBC) plans for the Old Bathing Pool site in early 2016 the West Marina Group and SOBS (Save Our Bathing Site) have been asking for them to engage in meaningful discussions.
But HBC has remained disturbingly silent about its stalled plans to commission County Gate Properties to develop this iconic beachfront location. Leaked plans submitted by County Gate Properties as part of their bid to win the development contract, showed 152 residential units incorporated in five, five-story tower blocks. HBC proclaimed this would be a mixed development of housing and leisure and when pressed referred to it as a – destination location – continuing to suggest it would draw visitors to the area.
Sadly the promised leisure area that was shown on the leaked plans was a tiny Volleyball court and a children’s play area. A rather unused Volleyball court in the Old Town might suggest this is not very creative thinking, and a very busy and good children’s play area already exists on the bathing pool site, so it’s nothing new.
So by unpicking this proposal it is fair to suggest that it is unlikely visitors would be drawn to a housing estate as a ‘destination point’, however beautifully designed. So HBC’s promise to create a destination location is seen as a sop and has not been well received by the community.
So, what has happened since HBC and its consultants Carter Jonas proudly launched proposals for the bathing pool site at the Royal Victoria Hotel in 2016?
Anyone who was there will remember the outrage from a community packed into a room far too small for a public meeting – HBC no doubt underestimated the sense of public anger.
Peter Chowney the leader of HBC at the time, was visibly shocked by the public response. He claimed to be personally unhappy about building 120 residential units proposed by Carter Jonas. Sadly there has been no announcement to suggest the increased number of 152 suggested by County Gate would be reduced, even to the 120 suggested for the site in that presentation.
Peter Chowney promised to keep consulting with the local community and update them on any progress, surprisingly this did not happen.
When pressed, HBC repeatedly advises the community that the site was designated as a mixed development in the Town Development Plan and this could not be changed. Of course, this statement has been challenged, HBC had no problem changing the designation of its car park in Cornwallis Gardens from housing and retail to a hotel.
Again, and only when pressed by councillors in council meetings, HBC advise that signing contracts is imminent, and that signing contracts is imminent, and that signing contracts are still imminent, and that… you get the idea!
It is this lack of engagement that has enraged the community here in West Marina in respect of the grossly unpopular and rather secretive proposals for the bathing pool site.
It is at this point that HBC changed its tactic from exclusion to inclusion. Perhaps to try and claw back support and to recover from its poor electoral performance at May’s elections.
After years of requests to meet with leaders of the Council, namely Peter Chowney and then Kim Forward – each being rejected one after the other – the elusive new leader of HBC Kim Forward, took the initiative, at a guess under advisement, and agreed to an online meeting.
That meeting was centred around a very well-drafted letter highlighting how angry the community was about HBC’s rejection. The petition presented to HBC had asked them to engage in meaningful liaison with the West Marina community and SOBS Facebook group.
Anyway, at last, we have a digital face to digital face meeting. Was it successful? Well, no! HBC plans to go ahead regardless of public condemnation claiming that full consultation will only go ahead once the contract with County Gate Properties is signed. And with the recent announcement by Mr Chowney that a – Development Agreement – has been signed, what looked like a start of some level of community engagement appears to be a false start … no change there then!
HBC is talking to us, this much is true and we are thankful, but are they listening? That remains to be seen.