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Council ‘vision’ threatens White Rock Gardens

Members and officers of Hastings Borough Council (HBC) have a ‘vision’ of disposing of the green spaces that are the glory of St Leonards & Hastings.  Central government meanwhile is proclaiming the merits of garden towns. Bernard McGinley wonders what’s going on, and how much space is at risk.

On Monday 6 January at 6pm there is to be a meeting of  the HBC Cabinet,  the nine councillors that form ‘the main decision-making committee of the council’.  Agenda item 4 is to consider the Bohemia Masterplan Leisure and Culturea report led by Continuum Sport and Leisure (a consultancy with Lottery Community Fund links).  As an interim measure, the Cabinet are recommended:

1  To agree in principle to provide a new leisure centre and leisure water, and primary entertainment centre . . .

2  £100 000 be set aside to commission detailed site and topographical surveys of the land, to inform and de-risk the next stage of the work . . . 

3  A report be brought back to cabinet in autumn 2020 reporting on the outcome of the site surveys, recommending a location for the new leisure and entertainment centre, with provision for an arts centre . . . 

Bohemia is the residential area up Bohemia Road, past Horntye. (The Bohemia Village Voice flourished there.)  Lower Bohemia, from Salisbury Road south to White Rock Gardens, Falaise Road and St Margaret’s Road, is not residential and is the subject of the present plans. Its openness is part of its vulnerability, and developmental proposals have already been discussed in HOT here and here.

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Fitness Centre, overlooking Clambers and the ‘Battle Zone’.

White Rock Gardens

A replacement for the White Rock Theatre and better sports facilities and a better hinterland to the Pier are not objectionable. White Rock Gardens has long been neglected by the Council however. No external signs indicate that it is a public resource.

The noticeboard just off the top off White Rock Road explains (under its graffiti) that the Gardens have been in public ownership for over a century to prevent development. The higher bowling greens are now abandoned, and the putting green, and the tennis posts and nets were removed some years ago. A skateboard rink was put in, then another one beside it. Both are now covered in graffiti, under floodlights

In its suave technocratic (and redacted) way, the Masterplan promises jam tomorrow: 

The enhanced outdoor sports facilities and the potential development of a new public square is [sic] also a notable improvement on the current poor status of the outdoor space for leisure and culture and a key factor in the overall regeneration of Bohemia. 

Never mind that it’s not Bohemia. This ‘new public space’ is being made from existing space. Its coach park qualities are not explained, nor how parking for 300 cars on the Gardens is to be provided (section 7.7.3) (even as existing underground spaces remain unused). As for the ‘poor status’ of the space, the reasons for that include HBC’s persistent neglect. Plenty of people still enjoy the green space and use it, and west of Falaise Road and the Pier is the most densely populated ward in East Sussex.

We have been this way before, many times, as cases such as Azur (on the seafront), Undercliff, and the Country Park Visitor Centre show. The Archery Ground was lost and HBC later pointed out the poor quality of the College building they had put there. 

There is also the Pier, a companion-piece to the new White Rock. The Pier achieved national recognition as winner of the RIBA Stirling Prize 2017. Since 2018 it has had no protection from the Council to maintain its reputation as something exceptional and worth travelling to see. Enforcement action has repeatedly been ducked.

However, the multipart Hastings Town Centre and Bohemia Area Action Plan (AAP) of July 2018 burbles about treatment of the Pier:

Development proposals will need to be of a high design quality in keeping with the historic character and appearance of the Grade 11 [sic] listed Hastings Pier, the Conservation Area and other features of heritage importance.

Do sheds and cheap signage and kitsch animals qualify? How much money are HBC paying to consultants who don’t know where Bohemia is, or what a catalyst is (section 7.4.2), or their i.e. from their e.g. (section 7.5.7)? (Since June, consultants costs have overshot by over 5½%, or 11% annualised (Cabinet report, para 1).)

With repeated history such as this, the Council’s proposal of 

significantly improving on the town’s current leisure and cultural offer

seems very tired and unpersuasive. The Cabinet paper mentions

creating a high quality cultural and leisure destination with a strong sense of place and good connections . . . 

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Green spaces are there, for now

The Council through its consultants can talk the talk, but can it deliver? Can it be trusted with prime assets? The evidence of local history suggests not. White Rock Gardens and its adjoining sites in Bohemia Road ought not to be lost so readily, on the basis of relentless Polyannaish prattle about quality and design and high standards and vision and vibrancy and pocket parks.  

The green spaces of St Leonards and Hastings are an instance of what central government proclaims in its recently rediscovered garden town principles, such as:

13 h. Green space – generous, accessible, and good quality green and blue infrastructure that promotes health, wellbeing, and quality of life, and considers opportunities to deliver environmental gains such as biodiversity net gain and enhancements to natural capital. 

So why build over it? Why no discussion of what could be developed and what shouldn’t be?

The Masterplan‘s Options A to E range in cost from £25m to £88m respectively (no inflation assumed). A is found inadvisable and E unaffordable. Option C (£72m) is the preferred one, to replace Summerfields Leisure Centre, Falaise Fitness Centre and the White Rock Theatre with 

enhanced leisure and leisure waters, and primary entertainment centre, but with the option of adding an arts centre if capital and revenue funding can be obtained.

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Indoor bowls building, on the south edge of the Oval.

Housing would be begun in 2026 or later. However the use of space is not properly considered, nor are there any serious alternatives to the let’s-build scenarios. The Bohemia Masterplan is primarily about the costings of the five options (Section 7).  Some other material looks like retrofitted window-dressing, and ‘improved access’ means more car parking and less greenery.

Paper policies

Council planning policies go unmentioned. Usually they’re so high-minded as to be impressive. Policies EN1 and  EN7, and also HN1 (from the Development Management Plan), are commendable yet also mostly platitudinous. Who could object to 

good performance against nationally recognised best practice guidance on development in relation to heritage assets, including building in context setting and views, architectural quality and local distinctiveness.

A new White Rock Theatre would be welcome, but at what price in space and amenity loss?

Integrate = Enhance?

The methodology is not as dispassionate as it purports to be. The strategic case evaluation framework (Figure 7.2) illustrates the proposed dispossession: ‘Integrate and Enhance open space’ gets a 10% weighting, while ‘Affordability’ gets twice that, and ‘Long term financial sustainability’ 15% (the difference unexplained).  ‘Increase participation in sport and culture promoting healthier and more engaged lives’ also gets 20%.

Para 7.4.2 evaluates the options and mentions, unpersuasively,

The extent to which the option integrates and enhances the open space across Bohemia. 

But this is not explained (or evaluated): the implication is that the integration trumps what’s left of the open space, and that that’s enhancement. The focus is always on a better tomorrow and not on what is to be lost, which could still be a desirable exchange.

As the AAP put it vaguely in its para 7.3.5:

Cultural uses and new residential development alongside the sports uses may be acceptable as part of a comprehensive mixed use development scheme. 

The Oval, a major space in White Rock Gardens, is unmentioned in the Bohemia Masterplan, as though it (or its uses) did not matter. (Figure 6.2 shows it marked as ‘Development Site’.) The Masterplan says nothing about the sizable convent that adjoins White Rock Gardens, at present in sporting use. (The Cabinet paper meanwhile talks of ‘good connections with the wider area’ (para 4).) The possibility of a landbridge to the museum from White Rock Gardens – a frequent suggestion – is unmentioned, as is the future of Clambers playground. Whether this is a lack of joined-up thinking by people who don’t know where Bohemia is, or wilful vagueness, is not clear. Who is paying for all these professional reports, and why? 

The report White Rock Park & Bohemia by White Arkitekter (July 2017) is mentioned obliquely (at section 4.3). This report led on to the multipart Area Action Plan (AAP) (July 2018), complete with details that seem persistently to miss the point about its proposals and the appeal of White Rock Gardens: 

Objective 3:   Promote Hastings as a destination of choice

Objective 5:   Safeguard and improve the town’s heritage and natural environment

7.40 An area of high quality apartments is proposed on the site of The Oval to be developed in conjunction with the sports centre building on the concept of healthy living and providing residents with access to a wealth of leisure facilities and green spaces. 

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This is not nibble development – aerial view of how White Rock and Lower Bohemia may look in a transformed future (from ‘White Rock & Bohemia,’ p21).

By ‘a wealth’ is meant much less green space than there is now. The ‘vision’ in the White Rock Park & Bohemia plan is this as shown in the illustration alongside.

The AAP consultation was discussed in HOT. Additionally there is the Council’s notorious ‘DFL Ghetto’ report by Wessex Economics in April 2018.



Having laid waste one side of Bohemia Road, from Horntye to the museum (none of it much admired), the Council is now addressing the other for its entertainment complex and leisure centre, with housing on the old Summerfields site.  

Stakeholders were consulted. In section 5.1 of the Masterplan it is explained who they were: the Borough Council, the County Council, Sport England, Arts Council England, Freedom Leisure [aka Falaise Fitness Centre], HQ Theatres [aka Qdos].  Local sports organisations get mentioned but ordinary townspeople hardly feature.

The Masterplan mentions (in section 8) how  

the provision of a new Leisure Centre and entertainment venue, alongside significant enhancements to the open space and opportunities for community activity at the site, can be a deliverable aspiration . . .

While land use proposals remain so vague, this is dangerously platitudinous. As Sam Goldwyn once said, ‘we need some new clichés’.  The offer (in sections 6.1,  7.3.4 and 7.7.3) of a

Public open space and events area

belies the existence of extensive public open space already there.  The presumption of its disposability is both costly and insulting. As the local population increases we need more playing fields not less. The threatened loss of the Convent open spaces, like the recent loss of Harrow Lane Recreation Ground and encroachment on Summerfields Woods is foolish without further discussion. (Meanwhile more of Summerfields Woods is becoming a police car park (planning ref HS/FA/19/00524), while the redevelopment and expansion of the Bohemia Road Travelodge is another issue.)

pic6 350The four main reports (White Rock Park & Bohemia, the Area Action Plan, the Bohemia Masterplan and the ‘DFL Ghetto’) should be expected to interlock to a degree yet they do not. This is odd. There is no provisional settling of accounts between debits and credits, gains and losses. What housing is in prospect for the swimming-pool site and car park (and beyond)? What possibilities are there for the old White Rock Theatre site?  

‘Stewardship’ goes unmentioned, but repeatedly the Bohemia Masterplan asserts ‘enhancement’ or its possibility.  If the White Rock Gardens area is truly enhanced by these proposals, it has not been shown. As before, HBC are not to be trusted with the assets of Lower Bohemia. Like its consultants, it neither knows nor understands the spaces that it is dealing with.

Among other duplications, paragraphs on p8 are repeated verbatim on p38. Twice it is asserted: 

Engaging a wide range of partner organisations that can potentially support aspects of the capital development, as well as the delivery of quality opportunities, will be of great benefit to the leisure and cultural landscape. 

Really? Whose “quality opportunities” are meant? Nowhere is there a mention of the actual landscape that so far has served St Leonards and Hastings so well.     

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Posted 09:17 Saturday, Jan 4, 2020 In: Home Ground


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  1. David

    Ps , I wanted to add that as well as noticing my spelling mistake I have also seen a post on You tube regarding the concerns for the The Holy child convent and white rock gardens pointing out the plans for demolishing the east wing.
    In a world where so many people seem to be “ like moving forward “ the gentleman who posted his concerns has a different view the comment and photos received “0 , like “replies …. I suppose that he would be accused of having a far too romantic view and of being unrealistic to the public demand whilst living in the past . Let’s hope that English heritage save what’s left of the convent and White Rock Gardens .. Even VH might be sensitive to the architectural heritage .

    Comment by David — Tuesday, Mar 30, 2021 @ 08:02

  2. David kent

    How sad ! I remember how attractive White Rock Gardens used to be ……. now another example of decline .Graffiti and rubbish everywhere ;Hose down anyone guilty of graffiti, it’s as ugly as fly tipping. I suppose that is part of the plan , so that sooner or later money will cross the right palm to allow Toytown houses to be built there . Of course the residents may need large parking spaces as they will probably have 4×4 vehicles larger than than their houses . How elegant the future is looking for Hastings .Perhaps the new herd of originally provincial grandiose bourgeoise can step in and show us how they can add to the gentrification of the area . They can then show all of there friends on Facebook how to save areas from overdevelopment.

    Comment by David kent — Sunday, Mar 21, 2021 @ 16:46

  3. Pam Brown

    Good to see the well justified concern about the development of White Rock Grdens. We would do well to remember the strong public opposition to a previous attempt to build on this site.
    In the late 1990s, when the newly elected Lib Dem council halted construction of a complex which included a swimming pool and ‘associated amusement facilities’, it was in response to the predominance of the latter resulting in a reduction in swimming facilities.
    Subsequently, English Heritage referred to the 3 Green Fingers – East Hill, West Hill and the
    White Rock Gardens. We need to recognise each of these valuable assets and make sure the previous
    mistakes are not repeated.

    Comment by Pam Brown — Thursday, Jan 9, 2020 @ 12:18

  4. Chris Lewcock

    Further to my earlier note I am now advised as follows “I am pleased to confirm that Horntye played a full role in the consultation process, indeed the chair of the Horntye trustees sat on the same table as our lead consultant at the sports consultation event. They clearly should have been included in the list of consultees in the Continuum report, and we have already pointed out the omission to Continuum. The Bohemia Walled Garden group were not involved in the detailed discussion on the facilities mix, as this was a targeted discussion with sporting and cultural organisations. If cabinet agree to proceed with the survey work at its meeting tonight then we will embark on a wider consultation programme which will include all of those groups with an interest in the wider area, including the walled garden group.”

    Comment by Chris Lewcock — Tuesday, Jan 7, 2020 @ 15:40

  5. Bolshie

    Yes as you say Bernard, there was no need to be a psychic for the decision made last night. A one sided political party committee where it was quite evident there would not be any objectors from the Labour side. Another one sided committee decision where the issue of “democracy” is relevant.
    These major developments should, from my perspective, be subject to a local referendum. There has been no constructive public debate or consultation on a project that will change the face of the area involved forever.
    Apart from the above there is the major issue of the costs of course. Where is the money coming from and can you really expect what this is predicted to cost going to be accurate.
    Look at the current situation with the Gateway road where the costs have run way over the estimates with another Labour influenced quango SeaSpace trying to find the extra funding to complete it.
    What business and development acumen and experience do these councillors have? Answers on the back of a postage stamp please.

    Comment by Bolshie — Tuesday, Jan 7, 2020 @ 09:42

  6. Penny

    Is the lack of understanding about the value of open spaces, combined with the Council’s love of tacky consultants and developers, down to their erstwhile city thinking? Can they all be DFLs gleefully rubbing their hands at the bargains they got buying cheap properties here having sold their London houses?
    I long for a time when the local authority addresses the real issues we have here like homelessness, lack of affordable housing, poor education, dirty streets, and overall poverty. There are things they could learn from other seaside towns renovating their assets from the bottom up.
    On a minor scale, spending money on “a water feature” opposite THE SEA, a pretty impressive water feature in itself, epitomises a lack of understanding which is almost laughable.
    Building on flood-planes? Why do they think no-one did it before? Because it’s a very bad idea. Private Eye could have an entire edition on Rotten Boroughs based on Hastings.
    Come on HBC, let’s have some open democracy and less ludicrous unthought-out diktats from above. I’ve yet to spot a jot of socialism in any plans to date. The only benefactors are consultancy firms and developers . . . not the people or character of our beloved town.

    Comment by Penny — Tuesday, Jan 7, 2020 @ 09:04

  7. Bernard McGinley

    UPDATE: 6 January

    As expected, HBC Cabinet voted 7-2 on party lines to commission a new report on how to treat White Rock Gardens and Lower Bohemia. Cllr Forward proposed, and Cllr Batsford seconded the motion.

    She emphasised the need for a new leisure centre and a primary entertainment centre (with better facilities than the White Rock Theatre). He insisted that the £72 million would be money well spent, and that £65,000 (as the marginal cost of the new report) made it ‘common sense investment’. A ‘bold vision’ for ‘a positive vibrant town’ was commended. (The £65k is from reserves, with another £35k from ‘existing budgets’.)

    The Opposition, led by Cllr Lee, pointed to the impending expense of the project, at a time when HBC staffing levels were under threat of review. He said the Council could not afford this.

    Cllr Rogers endorsed ‘the feelgood factor’ and ‘a great great opportunity’ for residents and visitors alike.

    Questions of space and greenery loss – potentially acceptable (or not) – were nowhere mentioned. Optimism was the keynote: the lessons of the future, not the past.

    To his credit, Cllr Fitzgerald was averse to the use of the word ‘vision’.

    Interest now shifts to the new report in the autumn of 2020.

    Comment by Bernard McGinley — Monday, Jan 6, 2020 @ 21:09

  8. Sarah Beeching

    A very detailed article – thank you. It’s all very disturbing and reminiscent of the loss of our amazing Lido, and the surely criminal way in which the pier was taken from the people and given to a non-eco friendly businessman whose only concern is private profit. So, please can you keep us posted about what we, the individual residents of Hastings, can do to ensure that, this time, the council’s decisions give priority to the welfare of our town’s people and environment. Thank you.

    Comment by Sarah Beeching — Monday, Jan 6, 2020 @ 15:03

  9. DAR

    Batsford and the Labour-dominated HBC cabinet only care about (often fictional) “jobs”, and housing/development at any cost. The “cost” nearly always seems to involve virgin “green spaces” because it’s what developers drool over – especially when they are large. And this council could be an advertisement for “how to acquire playing fields for development in 5 easy stages”: 1. Run down facilities. 2. Say no-one uses the green space because the facilities are run down. 3. Set up a public consultation – and then ignore it if it attracts too many objections. 4. Pass planning permission in committee. 5. Sell land to cheap-jack developer.

    Comment by DAR — Monday, Jan 6, 2020 @ 12:34

  10. Bolshie

    Excellent analytical and well researched article Bernard. I have to agree with Michael Madden’s issue concerning “Democracy” here. Once again public comments have been consigned to the Peanut Gallery. This project is similar to the Bathing Pool site where again the residents of the borough will have no say in what gets built there. And don’t forget the solar panel plan for the Country Park.
    Any green space in the borough is under a constant threat of elimination where this council rarely considers the importance of it.
    I note Bernard has mentioned the Undercliff site. What a disaster here where despite a history of land instability and several objections relating to its past the planning committee passed the application. Here we are today and the site is now classified as Bona Vacantia and owned by the Crown.
    Losing the Archery Ground was an horrendous decision by the then Hastings Corporation. Who pulled off a Compulsory Purchase Order to destroy it and build a carbuncle of a college site there. Now being ruined even more with todays development. There claim back in the 60’s to grab the gardens in the CPO exercise stated there was no other land in the entire borough suitable for a college.
    More recently the HBC had their eye for an apartment development on council owned Robsack Meadow a sensitive bio-diverse site adjacent to ancient woodlands. Another example of their failure to respect a prime natural asset. However, some good old people power and a seven year fight finally thwarted HBC to destroy it.
    I see in the costs of this grandiose plan is currently “guessed at” £72m. How many of these projects operated under the auspices of any government authority end up being that figure or less? I can see this is going to be a similar situation as the HS2 project. Nowhere near this figure.
    My last question and not covered is how much has this report – consultancy cost the tax payer so far. Should I file an FOI to glean that information?

    Comment by Bolshie — Monday, Jan 6, 2020 @ 10:55

  11. Chris Lewcock

    Well done Bernard. Worth pointing out that the AAP for the area (Action Area Plan) which would have provided a proper planning context for these proposals was aborted after the statutory public consultation exercise was carried out. This garnered 700 plus responses which would undoubtedly have made some relevant comments on what is now proposed. However, the responses have never been published. We are told that they will be rolled forward to be considered as the Local Plan (for the whole Borough) is reviewed. I am assured by Councillor Batsford that they will be listened to. That’s going to be a bit late to have any impact on the decision in principle which is in front of the Cabinet! I’m currently waiting some information from the Council on whether or not they consulted the Horntye Centre, the YMCA or the Walled Garden on these ideas.

    Comment by Chris Lewcock — Sunday, Jan 5, 2020 @ 21:31

  12. Michael Madden

    A very good and comprehensive article. What it shows – for the umpteenth time – is this council’s complete absence of understanding of what two words mean – democracy and quality. They don’t seem to care about the first and have no understanding of the second – so the result is always inferior. They are wrecking Hastings. They happily demolish the quality of what exists in their possession (which they have failed to maintain), and replace it with something less Green and of lower quality. Why? Simply because they see everything as an accounts sheet. All that matters to them is to trumpet their next masterplan in glowing terms, as if everyone is such a mug that they can’t see through it by now. There is a sense of urgency to demolish, and by the time the wrecking teams go in and the damge is done, it’s too late. Oh well – onto the next ‘masterplan’. They don’t even understand that word, which implies that there is a ‘master’ in charge. The idea that this council and its contractors can deliver a better replacement building than the existing White Rock Theatre is simply laughable. This council has no masters and certainly doesn’t sub-contract any. They have proven time and time again that they are keen to fit in with Tory guidelines. This, from a council that claims to be “socialist” (or at least has done during Corbyn’s time as Party leader). In fact, it’s not even democratic. They have no democratic mandate whatsoever for doing this. The alternative to following Tory policies and then blaming the Tories is to ask the people and thereby prove that they give a tiny damn about the word they so freely use and yet take the utmost pains to avoid – democracy.

    Comment by Michael Madden — Saturday, Jan 4, 2020 @ 12:39

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