Community centre site up for sale this week
The old West St Leonards primary school site in Bexhill Road (at the bottom of Filsham Road) is again under threat, this time of ‘mixed use development’. Bernard McGinley takes a look at the green space while it’s still there, and also took the photos.
The South Saxons Wetlands were threatened with development two years ago. Eventually the application (HS/FA/15/00076) to Hastings Borough Council (HBC) was withdrawn. According to East Sussex County Council (ESCC), the land is surplus; it is offering the Bexhill Road front of the site (south of the Hollington Stream) for sale as a ‘roadside development opportunity’, ‘allocated for mixed-use development’. The agents are Fludes of Brighton.
The deadline for bids is Friday 24 February, by ‘informal tender’. Fludes say:
The existing buildings are currently used as a community centre. These have not been inspected. We understand they comprise a Gross Internal Area of approximately 2,200 sq ft.
Demolition is the unspoken intended fate of the community centre. As the South Saxons Action Group (SSAG) have suggested, ESCC are again attempting to sell the West St Leonards Community Centre (aka Community Association) and the land on which it sits, apparently with little local consultation. If this is so, it would be a breach of ESCC policies to deal with the disposal or transfer of community assets, such as the ESCC Property Disposals Policy (July 2016) and the Community Asset Transfer Policy (June 2014). Has ESCC followed its own procedures here?
There is concern about whether there has been proper consideration by ESCC of possible forms of community use. ESCC say the site was declared surplus in June 1996 by the Finance Management Property Sub-Committee, and so there has been no recent decision to dispose or lease the land in the ownership of the County Council. Surplus status doesn’t dissolve responsibilities however.
The Property Disposals Policy is full of worthy and high-minded declarations, such as this on the question of valuation (p6 ):
The Council must also comply with normal and prudent commercial practices including obtaining the view of a professionally qualified valuer
So has a professional valuation has been sought? No. ESCC state there is no such valuation at this stage.
Three pages later it gets even more sententious:
Principle 4 – Work in Partnership & empower our communities
• To ensure the community has been fully consulted before and during the disposal process and that equality issues have been fully addressed
• We will make detailed option appraisals to ensure we have assessed each disposal reflects the needs of the community.
Some stakeholders consulted
There isn’t yet a detailed option appraisal however. The County Council say they notified the trustees of the Community Association late last year, and have had conversations with a number of local stakeholders, ‘particularly from the health sector, who have expressed an interest in the future of the site’. They add that no options report is required or available for this particular case. (Verbal formulae such as ‘informal tender’ and ‘test-marketing’ appear to make a difference.) An options appraisal – were one eventually to be made – would include an assessment of community use, particularly if a group submits a bid under the Community Right to Bid legislation.
The same Property Disposals Policy declares (on p13) that local ESCC members will be ‘consulted on all property disposals at an early stage including when the land is in the process of being declared surplus’. In this case ESCC say Cllr Kim Forward (also of HBC) was briefed late last year on test-marketing the site. (Attempts to hear from Cllr Forward failed.)
Similarly procedurally, any disposal that is agreed would be subject to an Equality Impact Assessment. Confusingly, ESCC say that as there has been no decision to sell or lease the site at this stage, it is not yet required. The Fludes brochure states ‘FOR SALE’, but presumably ‘test-marketing’ is not a decision. It seems that the necessary appraisals and consultations are to follow later, when there will be momentum towards development.
That is little consolation to the many users of the buildings, facing closure by September and the loss of land at the front of the site to a bus-lane (part of the capital programme of works connected to the Link Road).
In a general comment ESCC says ‘It is not policy, nor practical, to engage with everyone who believes they should be consulted before marketing commences, but the policy steer is to ensure all matters are taken into account before a decision is made.’
Wide variety of activities
The West St Leonards Community Association & Social Club covers a wide variety of activities for people of all kinds — such as tea-dances, barbeques, cake sales, table-sales, war-gaming, mother-and-child activities (including baby clinics, face-painting and bouncy castles), sports, discos, dog-shows, quizzes, residents’ and other meetings, political ward surgeries, exhibitions, a licensed bar and venue hire. Community facilities are scarce in West St Leonards, and so a petition has been launched to protect a future for the Community Centre. (Open spaces are also scarce, as the controversy about apparent abuses regarding 123-125 West Hill Road shows.)
The site has a rich local history, both archaeologically and in living memory. There was an infant school on the site by 1899, with playing fields adjoining. By 1955 these facilities were part of the renamed West St Leonards County Primary School. By 1974 the school had been further extended, but eventually it closed and a new one opened in Collinswood Drive. The surviving buildings – centrally the old dining hall – became the West St Leonards Community Centre.
Replacement only an “aspiration”
The HBC Development Management Plan states of the former West St Leonards Primary School (site ref FB2):
‘6.96 The Community Hall in the southern part of the site is nearing the end of its useful life and developers will be expected to provide a replacement building.’
The Flude brochure makes no mention of this – the onus is on the purchaser to find out such requirements. According to ESCC, however, this replacement building is an ‘aspiration’, not a requirement. (Given the ease with which developers can waltz away from commitments to provide affordable housing, this looks flimsy indeed.) ESCC add that the planning policy refers to a much wider parcel of land than that being marketed [viz. the Wetlands], and that ‘all taxpayers would expect the council to ensure any group seeking to acquire, build and manage such a facility to provide a sustainable business case for their interest’.
The long-admired view to St Ethelburga’s Church and clock in Filsham Road is under threat. A petition is being launched to help save the Community Centre in some form. In West St Leonards, marginalised and underprovisioned, the dissatisfaction continues.
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