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Archery Ground in early August (photo: Nick Terdre).

Archery Ground in early August (photo: Nick Terdre).

Archery Ground developers get their way

Cabinet ministers and others agree that the Archery Ground in St Leonards-on-Sea is part of a site of national importance. Hastings Borough Council is less impressed, and their relentless indulgence of developers has continued anyway. Following approval by the planning committee of owner Gemselect’s request for changes, Bernard McGinley wonders what happened to good housing and St Leonards.

The Archery Ground in St Leonards was once exactly that, an intended companion piece to St Leonards Gardens nearby. The layout, sensitive to landscape, was the work of the founder of St Leonards, James Burton, the great Georgian builder. His architect son Decimus designed Archery Villas, which still stand near Quarry Hill.

Despite local protests, a college was built on the site in the late 1960s. The uproar led to the founding of the Burtons’ St Leonards Society (still going in South Lodge, St Leonards Gardens). Decades later, demolition of the college was approved on the grounds that it really wasn’t very good. The committee report on HS/FA/09/00482 (June 2012) had this:

Architectural quality
. . . the existing college buildings have no architectural quality that is worth preserving (Policy C2). The central slab block in particular is of a hugely unsympathetic appearance and poor architectural quality.

Some wondered therefore who gave it planning permission, and why.

Looking across Archery Ground to Archery Villas, designed by Decimus Burton (photo: Bernard McGinley).

Looking across Archery Ground to Archery Villas, designed by Decimus Burton (photo: Bernard McGinley).

When 163 housing units were proposed by Gladedale for the same site in 2006, STAG (Save The Archery Ground) was formed to resist the plans, layers of underground car parking and all. When the application finally went to committee in 2012, the proposals were rejected 8—2.

Following appeal hearings in central St Leonards in late 2012, the planning inspector, Katie Peerless, found the Gladedale proposals to be unacceptable but set out some design criteria for the future.

A new design emerged (HS/FA/13/00590) that tried better to acknowledge the qualities of site, in 97 units (plus the refurbished Archery Villas) in a scheme offering enough coherence and integrity to be acceptable to all ‘stakeholders’. In November 2013 the revised scheme was passed unanimously by HBC’s planning committee.

However, the site was subsequently sold on to Gemselect and Orbit Housing, and some serious rethinking set in, focused on cost reduction. Soon a revised plan was proposed (HS/FA/15/00175). The plans were watered down, in a clear and effort to save costs: the bridge, cellars, roofs, balconies, windows, were all to be made worse (see the array of objection letters).

There were unconvincing denials of cost reduction or ‘watering down’. The deletion of steps was presented as a favour to wheelchair users, unfeasibly. Some of the proposals seemed to reflect pre-emptive ghettoisation, like the old reluctance to install a bath on the basis that people would keep coal in it.

At the planning committee meeting on 27 July, the chair said of the old scheme it was ‘regrettable it was not going forward’, and treated a full application like a minor amendment. It was not going forward because of HBC’s collusion in the matter, so that an inferior scheme could supersede it.

The council had years to get this right — and they failed. The planning committee meeting was a dismal affair which ended in a 7-3 vote in favour of accepting the proposed changes. Some small consolation is provided by the owners’ decision not to apply to remove the footbridge giving easy access to Pevensey Road at the Highlands Gardens end of the site.

The committee report was presented by Chris Hawkins, who joined HBC in May 2016. It was not explained why he was in charge of such a complex case, or why no other planners were available who had knowledge of the long and complex history of the case.

Previously Mr Hawkins worked for developers such as DHA and Countryside Properties. By a remarkable coincidence, he worked in Eclipse Park, Maidstone ME14 3EN, alongside the site’s co-developer Orbit of Eclipse Park, Maidstone ME14 3EN. It does not pass the ‘smell test’ that this particular planner should have been parachuted into this role.

Standards

The council constitution (Part 5) is full of principled requirements about doing the right thing always, and avoiding even the appearance of possible wrongdoing. This is from the Planning Protocol there:

39. It is not enough to avoid actual impropriety. Members and officers should always be open about their relationships to avoid any reason for suspicion and any appearance of improper conduct.

Nearby, the Seven Principles of Public Life also repay attention:

Integrity
Members should not place themselves in situations where integrity may be questioned, should not behave improperly and should on all occasions avoid the appearance of such behaviour.

Honesty
Members should not place themselves in situations where their honesty may be questioned, should not behave dishonestly and should on all occasions avoid the appearance of such behaviour.

Unfortunately these statements are drivel — not because they are not worth making, but because they are so steadily disregarded. The committee report is full of such lipservice and cant, intoning on about ‘a particularly high standard of design’ while seeking to remove it from the pre-existing permission (HS/FA/13/00590). Mr Hawkins at the meeting spoke of ‘a sensitive site’ but not of its mistreatment.
The reputation of HBC planning department as the home of questionable standards continues.

Archery Villas are in a state of dilapidation. A notice warns of the risk of asbestos dust (photo: Bernard McGinley).

Archery Villas are in a state of dilapidation. A notice warns of the risk of asbestos dust (photo: Bernard McGinley).

If the fingerprints of one Archery Ground developer can be seen on the HBC documents, the other too has ‘previous’ in the borough: see cases HS/FA/10/00427 (land adjacent and to the rear of 73 Filsham Road) and HS/CD/13/00873 (ditto, where conditions 2, 4, 7, 9 and 11 were not complied with), and HS/CD/14/00043 (245 The Ridge, Osborne House site) where compliance has remained badly incomplete since April 2014. The committee report’s talk of ‘strong planning conditions’ (p16) is less than persuasive, given such history.

Informed objections

At the planning committee meeting on the Archery Ground application, STAG, represented by Lee Wilson, objected — not to the revised housing tenure proposals, but to the impacts on construction and maintenance. The new councillor for Maze Hill ward, Andy Patmore, also spoke strongly against the scheme and was highly critical of the proposed disimprovements:

Tenure-blind developments support sustainable communities and promote social cohesion. Tenure blindness is now industry-recommended best practice as advised by the Chartered Institute for Housing, the NHBC [National House Building Council] Foundation, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, among others. This relates clearly to Hastings Borough Council’s General and Development Management Guidance Policy, paragraph 2.25, and DM1 Design Principles, part c), which state that the design needs to perform well against nationally recognised best practice guidance on urban design.

For a site of national importance it needs to perform better than well. The applicants’ amendments clearly do not adhere to current HBC guidelines and industry good practice, the tenure-blind approach. They actually do the opposite.

The speakers were comprehensively ignored.

A dubious report

One objector wrote an informed letter about the committee report’s many errors and omissions (on which this account gratefully draws). The new case officer showed he did not know the area or the case well by cannibalising so badly the report from June 2012 (HS/FA/09/00482); referring to Archery Villas (Grade II-listed) as the non-existent ‘James Burton Crescent’ was a particular howler.

There were many points of dissatisfaction with the report:
a) The descriptions of properties were frequently wrong: buildings were said to be demolished when they were not, and vice-versa. Conservation Areas were misdescribed and in one case misnamed. The case officer even managed to get wrong whether the rest of Burtons’ St Leonards was to the east or west of the Archery Ground.
b) Listed buildings (by R Norman Shaw for instance) and other heritage assets were ignored.
c) The 60% social housing was a change from 20% previously, but went unremarked. How the application complied with or affected Policy SC1 (Overall Strategy for Managing Change in a Sustainable Way) was not explained.
d) The report understated the removal of balconies, and euphemised the removal of a staircase. It suppressed details of proposed changes — for instance, some buildings where uPVC windows were to be used instead of aluminium ones.
e) Section 106 procedures for social spending would yield a contribution of £36,654 for the playspace, highways, art and ‘travel plan monitoring’, compared with a payment of £161,000 under the previous plan – a substantial saving for the developers.
f) A late new condition – condition 34 – was not in the published version of the report made available at the meeting and remains unpublished online.
g) In mangled and prissy English and a persistently dubious use of the passive voice, the report euphemised its way to a conclusion that, ‘These alterations are considered to be acceptable’, ‘it is not considered that the alterations would result in any significant harm to its setting’, ‘It is accepted that some of these amendments are less than positive’, and ‘Whilst this is perhaps considered somewhat of a retrograde step…’ This was a long way from the requirements of the local plan:

Policy EN1 (Built and Historic Environment)
There is a presumption in favour of the conservation of assets and their settings. The more important the asset, the greater the weight that will be given to the need to conserve it. As heritage assets are irreplaceable, any harm or loss will require clear and convincing justification.

h) Policy HN1 b), on treating well designated heritage assets, went unmentioned.
i) Dubiously, even mention of the withdrawal of application HS/FA/15/00107 (in January 2016) was suppressed in the committee report, though it is a crucial part of the recent history of the site, including its ‘Variation required to remove foot bridge from the approved development’.

An unnecessary outcome

There were late changes to the proposals, about monies and supposed feasibility, of which STAG were not notified. The planning services manager asserted – unconvincingly – that such a procedure was completely normal. For a site of national importance it is not normal.

If the officers appeared tendentious, the councillors seemed complicit. Instead of taking the view that social housing should be as good as private-sector housing, HBC councillors asked about details and not about the principles of what was being changed.

The architect, Marcus Beale, spoke confusingly on how some of his original balconies were ‘surplus to requirements’, and unpersuasively on uPVC windows being used because of climatic conditions. He made it clear though that it was Orbit which drove the changes, and not his practice.

Some years ago an HBC conservation officer said of the Archery Ground:

This simply is not a giveaway site. It’s in the heart of a nationally important architecturally designed historic settlement, and both the planning authority and the developers have a huge responsibility to do the right thing.

But neither did. The quality of the design offer, the administrative standards involved, the capitulation to degradation, were all damaging to St Leonards and its residents, including future ones. Housing development was inevitable, but not this trashing of local distinctiveness.

Central government policy in these matters is outlined in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) of 2012. Two paragraphs (among many) are of particular interest:

63. In determining applications, great weight should be given to outstanding or innovative designs which help raise the standard of design more generally in the area.
64. Permission should be refused for development of poor design that fails to take the opportunities available for improving the character and quality of an area and the way it functions.

The committee did the opposite, in each case.  The coarsened design was approved.

As St Leonards is subject to more influx (typically from the London boroughs), the legacy of James Burton continues to be abused. In the Bible it says, ‘A prophet is not without honour except in his hometown, and in his own house’ (Matthew 13 : 57, NET version). Hastings Borough Council – members and officers – say Amen to that.

Posted 11:05 Saturday, Aug 13, 2016 In: Home Ground

4 Comments


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  1. barney

    Ted – you need to research the history of this site – until such time you will never understand the importance of what is highlighted in this excellent article. We may need housing but not any cost to our heritage. This development was just about acceptable previously now it has been downgraded in order to save money and its a mess.
    Why do our elected councillors agree to these shameful applications? Because they seem unable to stand up to their paid planning officers so the inappropriate developments continue without restraint.

    Blink and you will miss the next abuse of our historic treasures which are so much a part of this wonderful town. St. Leonards is slowly going under with the bulldozer with the approval of our planners – go and have a look at the West Hill Road site near the TX Max store – now what do you think about that? This entire site has been razed to the ground despite a plethora of conditions relating to the ecology and importance of this site – all wildife gone….all trees and nesting birds gone. All flora gone…Will anyone be held to account for this blatant and illegal contravention of the Wildlife legislation Act? What do you think?? Watch this space.

    Comment by barney — Friday, Aug 19, 2016 @ 10:31

  2. Andy Ammo

    What quality? What revitalisation? There was planning permission for an Archery Ground scheme, agreed after long and serious dispute. The developers then applied for new permission to systematically bastardize the scheme, to save money.

    The Council could have shown some civic pride and resisted the later scheme. It could have taken the view that social housing should have standards as high as elsewhere, but it didn’t. Not even in an area of acknowledged national importance.

    The article indicates that the problem was not the revised housing tenure proposals. The scheme approved will not provide ‘much needed quality housing’. The previous scheme could have done that — but the Council agreed with the developers to abandon that design.

    The Council’s poor reputation in the 20th century is nothing compared to now. One example is the planning department’s record over 123-125 West Hill Road. There are many others.

    Comment by Andy Ammo — Thursday, Aug 18, 2016 @ 23:28

  3. Ted

    Not sure I can see what is wrong with this, is the clue in the 60% social housing? It was a Conservative Council in the 60’s which agreed to the building of the college, if I recall there was much debate then, Hastings Council through the 60,70 and 80’s had a poor reputation when planning was involved. I think this will provide much needed quality housing and revitalised the area.

    Comment by Ted — Wednesday, Aug 17, 2016 @ 21:52

  4. barney

    Excellent article Bernard – but since when did this council or the planning department ever seriously take on board their responsibilities to do the right thing when deciding the fate of our historic buildings in this town? Yet again they have blatantly ignored the National Policy Planning Framework and will continue to do so until there is an independent inquiry into the planning procedures in this town. And that day cannot come soon enough.

    Comment by barney — Monday, Aug 15, 2016 @ 11:33

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