Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

Two iconic buildings, two different futures

Wednesday 28 November saw developments about two iconic Hastings buildings, St Mary In The Castle and the former Observer Building on Cambridge Road.  The latter has been empty for decades and is the biggest derelict building in the town. Whilst the news about St Mary In The Castle looks potentially positive, campaigners from Hastings Trust expressed dismay at the relative lack of interest or action from Hastings Borough Council regarding the future of the Observer Building. HOT’s Built Environment columnist, Richard Hull, writing in an individual capacity, delves further into the depths of the arguments.

Buildings are peculiar entities and even more so when they are large, imposing and distinctive; they are a very evident and obvious aspect to our surroundings and usually attract strong reactions from people. Hastings and St Leonards has many such large, imposing and distinctive buildings – perhaps more than most towns of a similar size – and, equally, many groups of people with strong attachments, feelings, claims and plans for those buildings. In the recent past, for instance, we have seen significant developments and/or vocal campaigns for Hastings Pier, the convent on Magdalen Road, the Jerwood, Marine Court, the Archery Ground, Hastings Museum – I am sure there are many more – and some quieter interest in buildings such as the former Turkish Baths in St Leonards.

It was interesting then, to this week see very different developments for two such iconic buildings, St Mary In The Castle and the Observer Building.  Interesting, because it begs the question – is the future of a building merely dependent upon the strength or influence of its supporters and is there thus no significance to the inherent characteristics of a building such as its architectural and aesthetic merits and its utility value?

So, after many months of uncertainty, the heavily trumpeted news for St Mary In The Castle appears relatively positive: a wealthy private school in Guestling, Buckswood School, has marshalled the resources to put together a detailed business plan for the venue. The impressive performance space will be managed by a charitable trust that will in turn be funded and supported by the school, who acknowledge in their press release that they wish to “promote the fact that Buckswood School is an important part of Hastings”.  The proposal is to be decided at Hastings Borough Council’s cabinet meeting on Monday evening.

On the same day, however, a group of campaigners organised by the buildings preservation group, Hastings Trust, gathered in front of the former Observer Building to publicise their recently-launched petition to Hastings Borough Council. The petition calls upon the Council to acknowledge that the building has ‘community value’ and that it should therefore be placed on the list of ‘assets of community value’ (such lists were instituted by the 2011 Localism Bill). Built by the prolific Hastings-based architect, Henry Ward, in 1924, the building was for a very long time a hub of activity and employment and at the centre of Hastings’ cultural life. After numerous changes of ownership and ten speculative planning applications,  it is currently owned by a South African investment bank, who tried to sell it at auction earlier this month, but without success.  Although Hastings Borough Council are understood to be supportive in principle, Council Leader Jeremy Birch has said that the Trust needs to present “a viable way forward” for the building, which is likely to mean a fully developed business plan.

Returning now to the question of buildings versus their supporters. How, for instance, should we compare the utility of the performance space at St Mary In The Castle, which is likely to be utilised mostly on weekend evenings, with the utility of the 41,000 square feet, over seven concrete floors, potentially available 24/7 at the Observer Building? How should or can we compare the frontages of the two buildings, the one with its classical-inspired columns and the other with its art-deco influenced ornamentation? How should we compare the histories and the heritage of the two, the one based in religious worship, the other based in employment and the media?


Unfortunately, the evidence of this week is that such high-falutin’ questions are these days irrelevant. Instead, business plans would seem to have more sway than community support. And the reason? Perhaps it is because the law is still heavily weighted in favour of property owners, especially when it comes to the right of appeal against local authority decisions. Because such appeals are very expensive, with barristers charging thousands of pounds per day, local authorities are constantly and, some would say, too averse to the risks of possible appeals by property owners.

See here for the petition to list the Observer Building as a community asset.

See here and here for HOT’s previous coverage of St Mary In The Castle.


Posted 07:13 Saturday, Dec 1, 2012 In: Campaigns


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  1. Barbara Rogers

    A comment on the article: is there a business plan from Buckswood? If so why is it not mentioned in the Council’s papers which rely largely on the boss claiming he has “fallen in love” with the building (not surprising considering how much good it will do for his fabulously wealthy business, sorry – school. There is no schedule in the proposal and no guarantees of community or other access.
    The deal on offer bears no relation to the tender document, which called for a full repairing and insurance lease plus an offer on rent. Instead, the Council is thinking of paying them to take it on! Words fail me.
    The crucial issue is for the Cabinet to follow negotiations closely and scrutinise any final deal before approving it. The Cabinet document calls for them to delegate all of this to an officer. A case for the District Auditor, I think.
    And since the deal on offer is now so generous, the Council should reissue the tender document based on that, and allow anyone to bid on it.

    Comment by Barbara Rogers — Saturday, Dec 1, 2012 @ 11:16

  2. Chris Cormack

    Barbara Rogers, the former lessee at St Mary in the Castle, expressed a wish to comment on the latest developments at St Mary in the Castle as follows:
    “The “Trust” has not been set up yet and may not be approved by the Charity Commission if it is being run by Buckswood, which is a private business. There are many big questions about the scheme and the Council should seek answers to these before making a final decision.
    There are others now interested in taking on St Mary in the Castle and they should have the chance to negotiate an alternative deal – they are working with disadvantaged young people and not those who can afford expensive school fees.”

    Comment by Chris Cormack — Saturday, Dec 1, 2012 @ 10:30

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