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Bottom-up development (Bud) in the Ore Valley: a new approach to regeneration.

Heart of Hastings feels the loss

Having helped secure £2m for the Heritage Action Zone project, Heart of Hastings is now involved in implementing the project, as well as playing an active role in the community response to the coronavirus crisis. But it continues to feel the loss of what would have been its flagship project, leading a community effort to build a housing estate full of affordable homes in the Ore Valley. This dream was shattered when the owner of the site, Sea Space, decided last year to sell it to a private developer. Nick Terdre reports.

The project prepared by Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust called for 80 dwellings on the site of the former Broomgrove power station in the Ore Valley, involving the local community in job creation and training. The houses, most of which would have been made available at affordable rents or mortgages, would have been built to high eco-standards and powered by renewable energy.

All this, along with the time, effort and money which HoH put into developing their plans – £200,000 plus, as well as more than 10,000 hours of community time and effort – has now gone by the board with Sea Space’s decision to sell the site to the private developer Gemselect.

For James Leathers, executive director of HoH, the rejection of its “exciting, innovative and viable scheme” to develop the Ore Valley site was “a painful slap in the face to all the years of community effort and investment in our inclusive, socially just vision of regeneration.”

Russell Tame, managing director of Bioregional Homes, HoH’s partner in the project, said that its proposals “represent best value for the community and the environment: and best of all, they are absolutely deliverable on a challenging site.”

The Community Land Trust model, under which 16,000 homes are being delivered across the country, was, Tame said, “a proven and successful one. We are disappointed that Sea Space can’t see the benefits that bottom-up, community-led development can bring to an area, especially one in such need as Ore Valley and Hastings.”

Leathers questions how Sea Space justifies its claim that Gemselect’s scheme “represented the best balance of value, commercial strengths and community benefits.” The other regeneration company had undertaken to assess the proposals submitted, including from Gemselect and HoH, not solely on price but in terms of four other factors: community benefit, site specific matters, financial strength and deliverability.

“Many questions remain that we, and the community, believe must be answered given that Sea Space is a regeneration company largely, if not wholly, funded by the public purse,” he said.

As Sea Space, and its successor Sea Change Sussex, embody a different vision of regeneration – what might be called the top-down approach, as opposed to HoH’s bottom-up philosophy – this was perhaps hardly surprising. For Sea Space’s account of how the bids were handled, see box at the end of this article.

HoH’s deckchair AGM on the Ore Valley site in 2018: not a suit in sight.

Promise broken

In Leathers’ opinion, a promise to HoH and to the people of Ore has been broken, both by Sea Space and HBC. The site was acquired by Sea Space for house-building in 2008 as part of the Millennium Communities initiative, which was expressly intended to benefit the Ore Valley.

The housing project was stymied by the financial crash, but although house prices subsequently recovered, Sea Space made no move to resurrect it. The company is now dormant and its successor Sea Change Sussex has a different focus, on building industrial parks, offices and roads.

But the commitment to the people of Ore would willingly have been taken on by HoH. It was the CLT which took up the matter of the undeveloped Ore Valley site with Sea Space, and in so doing prompted the council to propose that the land might be transferred to it by Sea Space, at no cost, for the implementation of a housing scheme.

The council was likewise concerned that, despite the undertakings of the Millennium Communities initiative, the site had lain unused for so many years. It was also being pushed by the government to encourage community-based house-building.

In 2016, under a licence from Sea Space, official name Hastings and Bexhill Renaissance Ltd (HBRL), the council took charge of the site and allowed HoH to make use of it. It drew up plans to acquire the site from Sea Space and transfer it to HoH, along with £700,000 in receipts from the sale of other land in Ore acquired by Sea Space for the purpose of the Millennium Communities project.

Meeting of HoH’s bottom-up team and various dogs.

“The HBRL Board has agreed these principles and authority is now sought to take this forward, subject to satisfactory outcome of due diligence work,” said a report to Cabinet in July 2017, also noting that “Heart of Hastings has a business plan developed from its work in Ore Valley and this should be assessed as a potential option for the future.” In addition to due diligence, the report called for a study of options to be made.

It also noted that “Government is seeking to encourage not only house building per se, but both community-led housing developments and self-build housing” – activities right up HoH’s street but not associated with Sea Space. Encouragement from Whitehall included money from the Community Housing Fund (CHF) – £244,000 had been made available to the council, and “£50,000 of this has been committed to support early development work by the Heart of Hastings.”

The proposal was unanimously approved by Cabinet, as was a motion that a further £50,000 of the Community Housing Fund allocation be set aside for use by the council in assisting with the development of the Ore Valley site. The director of Operational Services and the assistant director of Financial Services and Revenues were authorised, in consultation with the deputy leader, Cllr Kim Forward, to take the matter forward.

At this time representatives of all four local parties – Labour, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Greens – had signed a pledge to support HoH’s project.

Pledges to support HoH’s efforts to develop the Ore Valley site signed by, from left, Andrea Needham (Green Party), Chris Lewcock (Liberal Democrats), Peter Chowney (Labour) and Rob Lee (Conservatives).

Tantalising prospect

With the tantalising prospect of bringing its community-based approach to a significant housing development, HoH got to work, spending some £200,000, including the £50,000 from the CHF, in preparatory work, not least investigating ways of dealing with the contamination left by the power station which stood on the site until the 1970s, as well as opening up the site for community events arranged both by itself and local groups.

The report on options requested by the Cabinet was commissioned from Adams Integra, which examined the viability of proposals from HoH, Gemselect and a housing association.

It identified what it saw as some weaknesses in HoH’s approach, notably its lack of track record in developing a housing project, which prompted HoH to find itself an experienced partner and registered provider which shared its values – Bioregional. The CLT also strengthened its board with professional expertise, as the report suggested.

ZEDfactory’s innovative house design, to which some changes were made to meet criticisms made in the Adams Integra report.

Questions were also raised whether the innovative house designs by ZEDfactory which HoH proposed to use would get the necessary warranties – but these were dealt with by changes made by Bioregional.

“There was constructive criticism in the report,” said Leathers. “We addressed all these concerns.”

The Adams Integra report was not intended for the public domain – it took HoH a Freedom of Information request to get hold of it, and that in redacted form. While it was generally positive towards HoH’s proposal, and as mentioned offered various options for allaying concerns about its lack of experience, its section on risk assessment was redacted, and HoH was not informed of the findings.

That raises an intriguing question: was it this that prompted a rethink in the council? Or was it something thrown up by the due diligence?

Whatever the reason, it seems the council got cold feet over the possibility of HoH proving unable to implement the project, potentially leaving it, the council, with a large liability. At some point in 2018 a decision appears to have been taken to scrap the proposal, although without taking the matter to the Cabinet – odd, as the Cabinet had given its approval for the proposal to be examined in more detail and might have been expected to be interested in the outcome, whether positive or negative.

Had it been common knowledge that the proposal had been dropped by the council, it might not have caused surprise when in early 2019 Sea Space announced that it would market the site and sell it to the bidder it considered to be offering the best proposal. HoH itself had only recently found out through informal contacts that the council had dropped its proposal – it never officially informed.

Meanwhile the £700,000 intended to benefit Ore also remained with Sea Space, and has been subsumed into Sea Change’s coffers, to be spent on its current projects, none of which is in Ore.

The Wobblies play the Ore Valley site in 2017.

Had the Cabinet been informed of the decision not to proceed, they might at least have decided to make full use of the Adams Integra report by making its valuable independent assessment of HoH’s approach to community house-building available to HoH and the community in general.

Redaction of confidential information would have been necessary, but the council’s refusal to release the report until presented with an FoI does not sit well with its claimed commitment to transparency.

Funding question

Could HoH have raised the funding for the Ore Valley project? Leathers is not in any doubt. “One way or another we secured £750,000 without owning the land.” That includes a £450,000 grant from the Big Lottery towards activities on the site, paying wages and so on.

“Had we got the land, we would have been into a new realm of fund-raising,” he said. It would have been realistic to look for £3-5m from the government’s Community Housing Fund (CHF), including money for decontamination.

He also thinks up to £500,000 could have been raised from a community investment offer towards training, which would have had the additional benefit of being eligible for social investment tax relief. With its offer of training, a large quota of affordable housing and community involvement, the project would have been attractive to social investors. There was also good potential for achieving funding – £500,000, possibly as much as £1m – from charitable funds towards workshops.

Aside from Ore Valley, HoH has a good track record in raising funds, Leathers said. Last year it fronted a successful bid for £2m funding to create a Heritage Action Zone in the America Ground. “A good example of how partners can work strategically together and secure funding for Hastings.

“To sum up, we were in a pretty good position to talk of raising £3-5m funding for an 80-home development,” he said.

The CHF offered a total pot of £160m – to Leathers’ knowledge, with the exception of an amount secured by White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures for the Observer building, and the one-off allocation of £244,000 to the council, this opportunity has passed Hastings – and Ore Valley – by. The deadline for applications was December, and it now remains to be seen whether the government will renew it.

So that was that for HoH and the Ore Valley project. It is now up to GemSelect, whose principal responsibilities are to its shareholders, to ensure that the site is developed to the benefit of Ore Valley, even if the affordable housing quota is limited to the 25% set by council policy. (The company has suggested that it might be more.)

If the council had gone ahead with its proposal to transfer the land to HoH, transformation of the site could already have been under way. “Had the council kept to their timetable in the Cabinet report we might have hoped for a positive decision in about March 2018,” Leathers said.

“We would have had adequate time to make a very convincing bid to Homes England for the Community Housing Fund, we would be working with Bioregional, we would be spending secured funding on investigations in the site and probably beginning the remediation processes, and we would have got the planning application in.

“We got funding to do the Organisation Workshop in the Observer Building, so we can be fairly sure we would have got funding to do one on the site, which we would have hoped to do this summer.”

And barring any serious setbacks, and the upheavals caused by the coronavirus, HoH could reasonably confidently have hoped to have houses ready for occupation by 2022. It all could have been very different.

The Ore Valley site was vacated by HoH last year.

Sea Space defends its decision

Criticised for selling its ownership of the Ore Valley site to Gemselect, Sea Space has defended its action.

A spokesman told HOT that its decision to market the site was not due to the need to raise funds to cover cost overruns on Sea Change projects, but was “driven by the desire to find the best company to develop the site appropriately and provide housing for the local community, as well as to generate proceeds we could reinvest into regeneration in the local area”.

Although the company granted a temporary licence to Hastings Borough Council through which Heart of Hastings was enabled to develop community-led proposals, it was the council which subsequently decided not to proceed with those, he said.

All the bids were subjected to the same due diligence. “The only party not to comply fully with the tender instructions was the Heart of Hastings, but this didn’t change the way we evaluated its offer.”

Gemselect’s scheme was chosen as the Sea Space board considered that it represented the best balance of value, commercial strengths and community benefits. “The Gemselect scheme offered many similar community benefits to other schemes put forward, such as extensive use of local labour and willingness to engage with community groups, plus a willingness to pay fair value for the site which could be reinvested in local regeneration,” the spokesman said.

In addition, “Gemselect demonstrated that funding was in place to undertake the project, whereas some other parties acknowledged they’d need to find millions before being in a position to develop.”

Sea Space had not received any requests for further feedback from HoH but would certainly provide it if asked.

With respect to the £700,000 accruing from the sale of Sea Space land elsewhere in Ore, which the council proposed should go to HoH to benefit the Ore community, the spokesman said, “Sea Space never proposed to make any money available to the Heart of Hastings. Money accruing from Ore Valley land sales has been earmarked for projects in Hastings.”

He confirmed that Sea Space purchased rather than was gifted the Ore Valley site.

In late April the sale of the site to Gemselect was still in progress.

 

Posted 14:23 Wednesday, Apr 29, 2020 In: Home Ground

3 Comments

Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT

  1. Bolshie

    Excellent coverage Nick of a very shabby situation. And two good comments too.
    For those reading this and not aware Sea Change / Sea Space has always had HBC Labour council influences. Both front names for limited companies the latter known as East Sussex Energy Infrastructure & Development Ltd – Sea Space. Cllr Chowney was a director of it. Now Cllr Forward is a director. Along with names you wonder who they are.
    My point being it does not look good for me where you have Sea Space you always have HBC or the shadow of it. Councillors involved in local limited companies that are connected to the very council they are part of has what I suggest a bad odour.
    Rumour has it correct me if I am wrong, Sea Space needed the money to complete that Gateway Highway. Something fraught with cost overruns. Hence the deal with Gemselect

    Comment by Bolshie — Saturday, May 9, 2020 @ 16:27

  2. Bernard McGinley

    Thanks for a fine article about a dismal situation. At the very least HBC should explain themselves and their board-level involvement in both SeaChange and SeaSpace.

    An apology and explanation to HoH CLT is also in order, followed by an explanation of why HBC Cabinet apparently lost its role or interest in this matter and it became a {shhh!!} secret, once they’d decided not to proceed. This is no way for any Council to carry on, and brings local democracy (and its shinyfaced associates, openness and transparency) into disrepute.

    By coincidence, 25% affordable housing is exactly the quota alleged for the Bathing Pool site proposed redevelopment. Watch it come down.

    HBC is right however to be worried about a large liability. It’s in their credibility.

    Comment by Bernard McGinley — Sunday, May 3, 2020 @ 14:55

  3. Michael Madden

    Another excellent article by Nick terdre,

    showing the methods that Hastings Borough Council has employed in this case: i.e. claiming to show “due diligence” and “due process”, yet only paying lip-service to such things – and also operating in partnership with publicly-funded companies that are unnaccountable.

    It is so familiar. They continue to force concerned parties to resort to FOIs, and even then they only receive the requested documents in redacted form. This shows that the council would rather not be “open and transparent” (as they claim to be) in reality but only in appearence.

    Anyone who has ever dared to dig a little under the surface facade of local democracy, has found themselves stymied by the same techniques. The council has practically made it into an artform, and costantly spend more time on finding and employing legal loopholes than on delivering positive outcomes within admittedly difficult restraints. It could and should be so different.

    This is why there are so many campaigns in Hastings, to try and stop the council from taking more and more things away from common ownership and public enjoyment. And this is also why so many local taxpayers are right not to trust their council to deliver positive outcomes with their taxes.

    And yet this is the council (composed largely of Labour councillors) that declares itself to be: “For the many, not the few”.

    Comment by Michael Madden — Thursday, Apr 30, 2020 @ 10:21

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