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Hastings Town Hall Photo Jon Collins

Hastings Town Hall Photo Jon Collins

Relocation reel

Administrative changes are pending from the local Councils. Reporter Jon Collins takes a look at property portfolios and implications.

As visitors to St Mary in the Castle or the Kino-Teatr in Norman Road will be aware, uses of space change over time. The ‘long life, loose fit’ model is one approach by planners (and others in that role); alternatively, the local regeneration organisation, Sea Change Sussex, is on record as assuming a building life of twenty or thirty years, which implies a lot of demolition (as well as an assumption that the necessary costs can be covered).

The operational assets of Hastings Borough Council (HBC) are many – and their management a matter of continuing judgement. HBC has an Asset Management Plan 2012/13 to 2015/16, which discusses the Strategic Property Asset Collaboration in East Sussex (SPACES):  all good worthy stuff ‘to align public sector asset management planning in order to identify opportunities for sharing public sector services and assets at less cost within East Sussex’.

Prior to this, HBC’s accommodation and smarter working strategy was approved in March 2004 – and since then, efforts have been underway to relocate staff from offices in Menzies Road, Wellington Square and elsewhere and to consolidate operational services in Aquila House (by the seafront fountain).  By around 2011, most Council services were concentrated on two sites: the Town Hall and Aquila House. The Town Hall formed the civic front, with Aquila House as the base for most services.

Moving On

On 7 July 2014, HBC’s Cabinet resolved unanimously (Item 18) that:

1) Cabinet acknowledge that the freeholder’s proposals for the refurbishment of Aquila House provide an opportunity to drive organisational change. The changes will support the transition to more flexible working practices, improved productivity and efficiency, more focus on co-ordination of service delivery and a further development of the one Council philosophy

2) Cabinet approve the increase of £200,000 in the budget allocation in the capital programme for office accommodation work

3) the IT reserve be increased by £50,000 to support more flexible working and improved efficiency

4) the invest-to-save proposal (£250,000) to support the transition to a one Council philosophy be supported.

(The one Council philosophy seeks to improve flexibility and efficiency to support service delivery in response to the medium and long term financial pressures faced by the Council.)

Registration Office Hastings  Photo Jon Collins

Register Office Hastings Photo Jon Collins

In July 2015, HBC decided that the Register Office and Summerfields Business Centre buildings (both tucked away near the Law Courts in Bohemia) should be sold off to a housing association – AmicusHorizon – for 30 units. HBC own the land, but the Register Office is an East Sussex County Council (ESCC) function. The Council paper mentioned that speed was crucial and, in effect, that vacant possession was needed by Christmas. The reasons for the great haste were however unexplained.  The Council paper of 22 July 2015 states:

16. Were Council minded to progress, the timetable for the project is very tight:

a. In order to achieve the sale to Amicus, vacant possession of the Summerfields site is needed by January 2016

b. The Register Office would need to move from its current location and be operational from late December 2015

c. There is a window of opportunity to undertake fit out works by the existing contractor in autumn 2015 if the works are scheduled shortly. The costings for furniture, room construction etc. is available as they have been tendered for the existing works – this could expedite the process and enable occupation of the 1st floor by early 2016

30. Local people’s views — the urgency of the programme and need for rapid decision making will not allow for public consultation on this issue.

The urgency, by implication, is the housing association’s – and is not explained. The Charter of 1588 from Elizabeth I that gave Hastings a Corporation and self–government did not provide for such a situation.

Other background is relevant. For about two years, Hastings Library – the Brassey Institute in Claremont – was imminently to be refurbished by ESCC, and the Register Office moved in alongside. An ESCC brochure announced:

This development aims to increase the amount of space available to the public by opening up areas that have not been accessible for many years.

The design includes reinstating original features and repairing the historical fabric of this Grade 2 listed building.  We will be reinstating an original rooflight over the first floor, allowing greater natural light into the building.

The lifts to service the new combined building will be located in number 12 Claremont enabling the original spaces within the Brassey to be opened up again.

Parliamentary publicity

On 8 July 2013, our local MP, Amber Rudd, asked a question of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in the House of Commons. Hansard reported (Column 18):

Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye) (Con):  It is good news that East Sussex County Council has begun a £6 million investment in Hastings library, bringing in the new children’s library, bringing the registrar down into the library and buying the new building next door. Does that not show that a well-run County Council, such as Conservative-led East Sussex County Council under Councillor Keith Glazier, can achieve investment in vital libraries where it needs to?

Mr Pickles: I had the opportunity to meet Keith not so long ago. It is clear to me that East Sussex County Council is revitalising a part of the country that has been neglected for such a long time, and it should be congratulated on that.

But the neglect was not over.  Eventually the Register Office proposal was dropped without much explanation – and there is no sign of any work on the Library.  Now the Register Office is to be put into Hastings Town Hall under a 10-year lease to ESCC.

Hastings Town Hall

The Town Hall, a Victorian-Gothic confection, is a Grade II listed building, built about 1880  in Early English style.  Certainly some of its facilities are in need of modernisation or renewal, but before that there should be clarification about use and purpose.

As a consequence of various Council papers (none found which explain the basis for the urgency), the plan now is that if the Register Office comes to the Town Hall, most of the HBC functions can go to Aquila House.  The Community Contact Centre (the old Tourist Information Office) is to be retained in the Town Hall, for the time being anyway.

If most of the Town Hall is vacated, who will occupy it?  ‘Marketed for rental’, possibly it will become shops and a wine bar: a posh retail annexe to Priory Meadow.  For reasons of pageant – to impress the French Ambassador, say – there will probably be the optional right to ceremonial use by HBC several times each year.  Concerns persist about the security issues in mixing commercial and civic use.  Can the building’s windows, fixtures and other features and collection of pictures and other historic artifacts, built up by Mayors and Jurats and many others down the centuries, be kept secure? In theory ‘yes’ — and so, Hastings Borough Council is to leave its Town Hall.

Who owns the new Town Hall?

The lack of information and discussion about this move is striking. HBC will not explain itself (or publish commercial information). Reportedly, the freeholders of Aquila House are paying £1.3 million to make repairs including a leaking roof and windows.

To some it is peculiar that the Council’s lease on the building is 15 years. Modern facilities are important, welcome and necessary, but the Council owns the Town Hall and does not own Aquila House.

Who does own Aquila House? Ashbourne Cedar Property Ltd is a company founded in 2005 and incorporated in the British Virgin Islands (with offices in the Isle of Man). The important details of such companies are essentially not findable, yet it seems that ESCC and HBC are collaborating on new arrangements that would channel monies to this unknown company and its directors. What is to be Hastings’ new Town Hall is owned anonymously offshore. This is quite a problem hereabouts:  Priory Meadow shopping centre is foreign-registered, and so too, notoriously, was the old Pier.

The corporate Assistant Company Secretary of Ashbourne Cedar Property Ltd, (owned by Ashbourne Commercial Property Ltd), was Anglo Irish Corporate Services, owned by Anglo Irish Bank (defunct since 2011), whose outrageous practices cost the Irish government billions of euros. Some senior figures were jailed. As for directorships of Ashbourne Cedar Property Limited, there are overlaps with Ashbourne Beech Property Ltd, Ashbourne No 1 Ltd, Ashbourne No 2 Ltd, Ashbourne Property Ltd, Ashbourne Property No.2 Ltd and many others.

Aquila House under wraps Photo Jon Collins

Aquila House under wraps Photo Jon Collins

Management reform and municipal musical chairs

This major restructuring of Hastings civic operations has given rise to very little explanation and no debate. Even the numbers go largely unstated in the proposals, beyond a few in paragraphs 18 – 25 in the Council paper of 22 July (Item 8), though we are Pooterishly assured that the furniture will be coming to the new place.

Unverifiable crumbs such as ‘opportunities for income generation by sub-letting unused office space in Aquila House’ are occasionally given.  Flexibility, though desirable, comes at a price.  The matter was the subject of a pertinent letter (by a former Mayor) in the local dead-tree newspaper.

If Aquila House becomes the new Council focal-point, complete with Council Chamber, it is unlikely to display the framed photographs that were there when the public enquiries counter was open, on the first floor. These pictures showed the buildings that once stood on its site – on the town-centre side of Pelham Crescent – and were a good reminder of how impressive old Hastings could be.

At its meeting of 22 July 2015, the Council discussed the scheme, including the requirement that Summerfields be sold off and vacated by Christmas. Members were invited

to agree to lease space within Hastings Town Hall to accommodate the East Sussex County Council Register Office. A refurbished space within Aquila House would accommodate a fully accessible Council Chamber, Committee Rooms, Mayor’s Parlour and Member facilities in order for the Council to transfer its democratic and civic functions from the Town Hall.

Following the relocation of the Register Office from its present location, the Council would be able to achieve a capital receipt from the sale of land at Summerfields to Amicus Horizon for a social housing scheme.  The Council would also receive additional income from the lease of space in Hastings Town Hall to East Sussex County Council.

Financial details were withheld as confidential however, because ‘the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information’. Who can say otherwise?

At the same meeting (Item 7), it was resolved (by 23 votes to 2) that:

1) Council delegate authority to the Director of Corporate Services and Governance, in consultation with the Leader of the Council and the Leader of the Opposition, to:

a) Agree Heads of terms with East Sussex County Council for the lease of space in the Town Hall for 10 years

b) Design and implement a programme of refurbishment to accommodate the civic functions within Aquila House and any other accommodation works as required to facilitate the move, to a maximum cost of £200,000;

c) Renegotiate the existing Aquila House internal refurbishment work contract to undertake the works, rather than tender the additional works on the grounds of expediency and urgency

2) That the Council agrees to the replacement of the existing microphone system, and the purchase of new audio visual equipment at an estimated cost of £50,000.

So although the HBC Press Release of 23 March 2015 spoke of the freeholders paying £1.3 million in the refurbishment (previously  £1.9 million in July 2014, according to an HBC Cabinet paper (p178)), no mention was made of what the Council knew from 2014 it would pay: a quarter of a million pounds spent on a temporary building instead of the Town Hall, in addition to the making of rental payments to an anonymous company registered in the Caribbean. The effort to renegotiate is laudable (but unclear), while the basis for the ‘expediency and urgency’ goes unexplained, that prevents public consultation.

It is also puzzling that facilities are to be transferred to Aquila House (including the Members’ Room) and yet the Members’ IT /Work Room in the Town Hall is being retained. (Why?, I wonder. Is this in order to provide cheap access for commercial users, on links paid for by the public purse?)

All change

Change is the only constant. From Sidley to Lydd, including the Country Park, land in East Sussex is in play as never before. Development proceeds apace. ‘Units’ press in everywhere — Summerfields, the Archery Ground, Ironlatch Avenue, Speckled Wood, The Ridge.  A cautionary detail is that Linton Gardens is not a space of ‘town wide significance’, according to Policy EN8 c) on Open Spaces of The Hastings Planning Strategy 2011 – 2028, formally adopted on 19 February 2014.

What will be left of Hastings and St Leonards?

The more the Borough and County Councils stress their commitment to transparency and civic fulfilment, the more there is a need to wonder. What connects the meandering Register Office, a land deal at Summerfields, reuse of Hastings Town Hall and the British Virgin Islands? Why is this deal and relocation being done so fast, and apparently for the convenience of a housing association?  That this is ‘an opportunity to relocate the council’s civic and democratic functions to an efficient, modern, flexible working environment in Aquila House’ is unobjectionable — but I believe it is not the whole story.

Paragraph 30 of the Council paper of 22 July 2015 (Item 8) becomes steadily less satisfactory – and credible – as it unspools:

30. Local people’s views — the urgency of the programme and need for rapid decision making will not allow for public consultation on this issue.  However officers are of course sensitive to the attachment people in the own have to buildings. An alternative viewpoint is that many more local people will have cause to use parts of the Town Hall that are not readily accessible now if this proposal is progressed. The agreement for Council to continue to use the Council Chamber for pre-planned full Council meetings may assist with people’s readiness to try new working arrangements.

But they cannot be tried without being committed to — and paid for. Surely such a major issue should be discussed and the public consulted?

Posted 11:24 Thursday, Aug 20, 2015 In: Home Ground

4 Comments

Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT

  1. Quintus

    The basis for the hurry to make all this happen MUST be explained. Then the pros and cons for the participants can be explained.
    Is Hastings Borough Council doing a favour for East Sussex County Council? Is it for AmicusHorizon? Is it for the property company in the Caribbean?

    Planning application HS/LB/15/00692 – to adapt the Town Hall so that it becomes a Register Office – is not acceptable. It is a breach of a number of the Council’s planning policies, such as FA3, Strategy for Hastings Town Centre:
    k) maintain the distinctiveness of the area in terms of architecture, townscape and FUNCTION [emphasis added].

    Policy EN1 declares ‘As heritage assets are irreplaceable, any harm or loss will require clear and convincing justification.’.

    So what is going on?

    Comment by Quintus — Sunday, Aug 23, 2015 @ 19:25

  2. Heritage

    As the writer correctly questions. Why this rapid urgency and speed to get it all tied up by December. Is this a ploy to circumnavigate any public consultation?
    Any sadly as said, the bulk of the borough residents will not be reading the Hottie to know what is really going on here. And of course there is no chance of getting such a detailed insight such as this from the Observer. They will just report on it when its all done.

    Comment by Heritage — Sunday, Aug 23, 2015 @ 15:28

  3. pam brown

    I have asked myself what ‘we’ would have done if such a situation had risen when the Lib Dems were running the Council in the late 90s.
    I am sure we would have delved into all the dark corners of what is involved. This looks more and more like a knee jerk response to the ESCC problem with re-siting the registry Office.
    If all else had failed, most certainly we would have called a ‘much publicised’ public meeting and let people have their say.

    Comment by pam brown — Sunday, Aug 23, 2015 @ 09:06

  4. patricia

    What does our elected MP Amber Rudd have to say about this shameful situation? Surely she can see what is happening here? It is very doubtful if many residents know about these proposals – and there is now a planning application lodged to refurbish the town hall – Planning Application No. HS/LB/15/00692 – they certainly haven’t wasted any time in pushing this unacceptable proposal through – and reference off shore companies – the writer of this excellent article has omitted the Jedrwood Gallery which is also an off shore company….it beggars belief that this council would be party to such goings on – Aquila House rental being paid by public monies to a company who pays no tax in this country? It gets worse by the hour here. But – how many know about all this? time to make this public – leaflets/posters/banners perhaps? This online paper is excellent for raising issues of concern to all Hastings residents but the fact remains that the majority of people will not be looking at the Hottie to find out the scandalous situation here…something more prominent needs organising for this latest disaster.

    Comment by patricia — Saturday, Aug 22, 2015 @ 19:26

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