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Enviro 21 - the development that never was.

Jobs – what jobs?

With the planning application for the Queensway Gateway road due to come before Hastings Borough Council shortly, how is SeaChange’s track record on job creation in its business park ventures? Andrea Needham of Combe Haven Defenders takes a close look at the Enviro 21 business park and wonders why so much public money is being wasted.

The Enviro 21 business park on Queensway was funded with £7m of public money on the basis that it would create 500 jobs.  How many have actually been created?  According to our research, 24. In other words, less than 5% of what was promised.

As Hastings Borough Council prepares to consider the planning application for the Queensway Gateway road, the purpose of which is to allow the ‘unlocking’ of land (the Hollington Valley Site of Nature Conservation Importance) for yet another ‘business park’, it’s worth taking a close look at what happened with Enviro 21.  Why did the miracle of job creation we were promised never happen?

The murky history

Enviro 21 has undergone many mutations since it was first proposed in the early 2000s. What you see now is a site with a huge area of undeveloped space. The promised wind turbine has never been built, and the conference centre and restaurant is very far from busy. In short, whilst the occupiers of the existing buildings are happy with them, the whole site is very far from the thriving eco-community once envisaged.

‘Major international company’ wants the space

A planning application for Enviro 21 was first submitted in 2004. At that point, the application was for a single, five-storey, building. Two years later, no construction having started, permission was sought to slightly amend the original application. At this point, SeaSpace (the regeneration company which was a precursor to SeaChange) claimed that the building was to be occupied by a ‘major international company’.

‘Major international company’ changes its mind

The fantasy: artist's impression of fully developed Enviro 21 (image from design access statement).

Which company it was, we don’t know, as they subsequently pulled out, leaving no takers for the site. Undeterred, SeaSpace came back some 18 months later with a third planning application for the site. This time, the plan had changed utterly.  Instead of the single five-storey building, they now proposed 10 separate units, to ‘make provision for a number of smaller tenants with more flexible workspaces’. The total floorspace had been reduced from 16,000 square metres in the original plans to 9,900 sqm.

First firm in…

Building started, and the first three buildings were ready for occupation in summer of 2010. In April 2011, Hastings Observer ran a story about the first firm to move into Enviro 21. The director of Poppypac – an ‘environmentally-conscious manufacturer for the health and beauty industry’ – told the paper that, “The Enviro 21 scheme mirrors our vision for low-carbon business and we’re excited to be in at the start.”

…finds it a bit lonely

The reality: three units, followed by receivers.

A year later, things weren’t looking so rosy, with Poppypac the only firm to have moved onto the new site.  The Observer ran another story, ‘Business park half empty two years after launch’ which quoted the director of Poppypac again. This time, she was less upbeat. “We thought this place would become a thriving eco-friendly business park but that seems to have died a death,” she said.

Blame the recession

John Shaw, director of SeaSpace (and subsequently SeaChange), was quick to blame someone else for the fiasco: “The recession has been a factor for the lack of interest so far. We found that the economic climate meant there was more demand for smaller and larger units than the mid-size units on site.” So not his fault in any way.

If John Shaw is right that the problem is the size of the units, the sensible thing to do might be to use the large area of land at Enviro 21, which was cleared for development but never built on, to build different size units. Was this going to happen?

Phase two

In June 2010, SeaSpace had claimed that, “Coastal Innovation will build further business units at South Queensway at a later date.”  In March 2011, East Sussex County Council referred to what was now being called ‘phase 2’ in a report on the ‘evolving economic development landscape.’ By then, the total number of jobs to be created had mysteriously gone down to 230, but ESCC remained bullish, saying that ‘strong interest has already been expressed for phase 2′. Where this interest came from we shall never know, but what is apparent is that it subsequently went the same way as the ‘major international company’.  Phase 2 has never been built.

In 2012, the site went into receivership. The land that was cleared but never built on has been for sale ever since.

And the jobs?

The stated purpose of all the endless industrial estates we seem to need locally is to create jobs. Hastings Borough Council and SeaChange appear to believe that if we build the estates, the people offering the jobs will come. It’s a very simplistic view of regeneration and suggests that the only real problem in our town is that there is insufficient space for business.  There are, apparently, huge numbers of people desperate to start businesses locally, if only there were a business park they could move into.

‘Up to’ 500 jobs

But does the reality bear out that view?  Enviro 21, we were told, would produce up to 500 jobs. Those two little words, ‘up to’ should be noted here: anything from one job to 499 jobs could be, technically, ‘up to’ 500 jobs.

So, how many jobs?

We’ve tried to find out how many jobs have actually been created by Enviro 21, as opposed to being relocated from other areas.  In other words, how many jobs are there that would not exist had Enviro 21 not been built?  As we soon discovered, nobody wanted to tell us.

Freedom of Information: but nobody has the information

First we tried Essex County Council (as the accountable body for the South East Local Enterprise Partnership, since the project was part-funded by SEEDA (South East England Development Agency, a precursor to SELEP).  They didn’t have the information, but said East Sussex County Council would.

We submitted our request to ESCC.  No dice: they didn’t have it but suggested the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.  We’re still waiting for them, but in the meantime tried Hastings Borough Council.  No luck there either, but they said we could get the information from SeaChange.

We’ve contacted SeaChange, who of all people should have the information.  However, as a private company they are not bound by the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, and can refuse our request.  Our experience of SeaChange is that they’re not exactly forthcoming when it comes to information about their projects, and indeed they have not responded to our request.

Let’s count for ourselves

Since nobody wanted to tell us how many jobs had been created, we thought we’d count for ourselves, by ringing the companies on the site.

Sussex Exchange: the cafe is the major job creator for Enviro 21, with 14 positions.

There are three units at Enviro 21; one is rented by a local charity as a donation centre, and the other two are rented by manufacturing companies. All of them relocated to Enviro 21 from other business premises near Hastings. The two manufacturing companies each created five new jobs when they moved in. The charity donation centre did not create any new jobs. Fourteen people work at the Sussex Exchange, the restaurant and conference centre on the site.  So the grand total of new jobs?  24.

Who paid?  We did!

Enviro 21 cost, according to who you believe, £11m or £20m.  The South East England Development Agency (SEEDA) threw in £7m but where the remaining £4m, or £13m, came from, we don’t know – perhaps it didn’t come from anywhere, since most of the planned units have never been built.

Accountability: or not

What it boils down to is this: SeaChange receives huge amounts of public money for ‘regeneration’ projects – the Bexhill Gateway road; Lacuna Place, Priory Square and Havelock Place in Hastings; North Queensway (where a large area of woodland was felled but nothing has ever been built); Enviro 21; the Queensway Gateway road (which SeaChange claims – incredibly – will create up to 1,370 jobs).

They get the money by claiming that the project in question will create hundreds, or even thousands, of jobs.  The project goes ahead – but there is no audit, no follow-up, no accountability.

If the jobs don’t materialise (as in the case of Enviro 21), SeaChange can just shrug, blame the economic climate, and move on to the next thing.  John Shaw, who has presided over this fiasco, is not called to account for this monumental waste of public money.

This is our money, these are our green spaces.  How long are we going to let this destruction continue?

 

If you wish to object to the Queensway Gateway road project, see here. Or to contact councillors on the planning committee, here.

See also Significant and adverse impact on wildlife site

Posted 16:39 Sunday, Jan 11, 2015 In: Home Ground

7 Comments

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  1. Farqhuit

    Interesting article. Thanks for going to the trouble of getting the numbers and confirming my suspicions.

    Comment by Farqhuit — Thursday, Feb 5, 2015 @ 21:05

  2. paddy stephenson

    If anyone thinks the Queensway Gateway proposals will get the thumbs down, they are living in cloud cuckoo land….from various mutterings and rumours, it is patently clear that this is all done and dusted – and was done and dusted a very long time ago. The planning application was due to go to committee this month but we hear it has been delayed until next month – where is the public consultation on this proposal???

    Sea Change has hoodwinked everyone and it is time for some serious questions and some serious answers. Environmental vandalism and waste of public money is one way of putting it, DAR.

    Who are these people who seem so hell bent on wrecking our countryside and throwing money away without evidence of any benefit?

    And never forget that all the housing development land made available by this road to nowhere is allocated to Rother NONE is allocated to Hastings.

    Comment by paddy stephenson — Tuesday, Jan 20, 2015 @ 14:07

  3. DAR

    Excellent article (and no, I don’t know Andrea Needham and she hasn’t paid me to say it!) which must have taken a fair amount of time and effort. It’s about time someone called Sea Space/Sea Change – and other culpable bodies – to account for their environmental vandalism and waste of public money, invariably justified by claiming a project will “create jobs” because they know that councils and governments are desperate to boost employment in certain locations. Well done, Andrea, I think you’ve blown that one out of the water! Let’s hope the Queensway Gateway gets the thumbs down – we don’t want more of the same.

    Comment by DAR — Thursday, Jan 15, 2015 @ 16:19

  4. Jim

    Thanks for this great investigative article. Nobody looks at these inflated employment claims closely enough.

    Comment by Jim — Monday, Jan 12, 2015 @ 23:08

  5. Ralph Hobbs

    Perhaps someone could tell Seachange that we don’t need more outdated ‘quick-fix’ tree planting, we need real ecological enhancement and compensation for loss of species-rich grassland! This means avoiding putting nutrient-rich topsoil on newly created verges, and instead of using ryegrass and other inappropriate grass mixes, using local provenance wildflower seed surface broadcast directly onto nutrient poor sub-soil. I would be happy to provide further technical advice on this if they wish to contact me. Thanks

    Comment by Ralph Hobbs — Monday, Jan 12, 2015 @ 22:39

  6. Andrea Needham

    The comment from SeaChange seems to relate to this article – http://hastingsonlinetimes.co.uk/hot-topics/home-ground/significant-and-adverse-impact-on-wildlife-site – rather than the one above. I’d be more interested to hear what they had to say about the 500 jobs becomes 24 issue.

    But in any case, it’s utterly disingenuous of SeaChange to say that HBC’s environment manager’s comments are about the development of a future employment site rather than the Queensway Gateway road. The only reason for building the road is to allow the employment site!

    If you look at SeaChange’s own plan (http://www.seachangesussex.co.uk/our-programme/queensway-gateway/) you can see how the proposed business park would pretty much wipe out Hollington Valley in its entirety, with the exception of a tiny piece of woodland in the south of the site. SeaChange claims they’ve taken ‘expert advice’ from ecologists to minimise environmental impact, but clearly there’s little you can do to minimise the impact when you’ve covered the whole thing in concrete.

    Hastings needs jobs. What it doesn’t need is more and more of these destructive schemes, wasteful of public money, which promise the world but deliver almost nothing.

    Comment by Andrea Needham — Monday, Jan 12, 2015 @ 22:25

  7. Erica

    I enjoyed this article, it tackles questions that I often ask myself.

    I went to Sussex Exchange for the second time last week. I have heard from various people that they have enjoyed the restaurant facilities (though the review by HOT’s Bevali Francis when she went for the Sailing Club Xmas Dinner was lukewarm). My experience of the hospitality was good. I don’t think the British are good at new spaces – we like age, atmosphere and a central location more than modernist lines and out of town sites, but I felt the Sussex Exchange might be beginning to build a regular user group.

    I went for a training session. I also had a little wander around the area. I liked the space, and the peace and quiet – I certainly wouldn’t describe it as buzzing! I worry about lack of access by public transport, but it is served well for arrival by car – not very ‘Enviro’.

    I assume it is an attempt to provide training and conference space in our area – though this is of limited use if it isn’t supported by bed-spaces for 2 or 3 day events.

    I don’t deny that regeneration is a difficult, and slow, task to achieve, but it is also impossible to deny that so far, the impact of SeaSpace/SeaChange developments has been light on employment opportunities and very heavy on cost – both financial and ecological.

    Comment by Erica — Monday, Jan 12, 2015 @ 14:12

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