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View in late May from end of the Queensway Gateway road as constructed so far across to retail units on the A21.

Sea Change slow off the mark on QGR reporting requirements

A clear start-up date for the Queensway Gateway road remains unavailable after, according to East Sussex County Council (ESCC), Sea Change Sussex failed to keep ESCC fully updated over progress in the project, the accountability board of the South East Local Enterprise Partnership was told last week. Nick Terdre reports.

ESCC said in last Friday’s South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP) meeting that its efforts to report to SELEP on the Queensway Gateway project were hampered by the absence of a written report on the project from Sea Change. The Council’s implication is that Sea Change Sussex, which is funded by public money, has failed to keep ESCC, the body responsible for monitoring its conversion of funds into completed projects, updated on its progress towards delivering the Queensway Gateway Road, as required by the so-called service level agreement between the two sides.

The report to the 15 July meeting of the South East Local Enterprise Partnership’s accountability board stated that, “Recent absence of key project personnel at Sea Change Sussex has impacted on East Sussex County Council’s ability to collate key project and programme updates to produce the regular capital programme quarterly monitoring information for SELEP and to provide a usual written update report in relation to delivery of the Project…

“Given that delivery of the Project has been significantly delayed and is identified as High risk, the lack of provision of a written update is far from ideal and does not comply with the requirements of the Service Level Agreement.”

In a verbal update provided to the meeting, ESCC officer Richard Dawson told the meeting that: “Owing to recent staff absences at SCS, our ability to collate key project and programme updates for this report has been hampered, and so it is intended that a more detailed report is provided to the board in September.”

Although he stressed that work continued on coming to a Section 278 agreement with Highways England on the works needed to install a signalised connection of Queensway Gateway to the A21 via Junction Road, the vague date of autumn 2022 which was given to the board’s previous meeting in May remains the latest forecast for start-up of this temporary scheme.

Sea Change’s response

A different take on the matter is offered by Sea Change. “We were puzzled to hear that comment at the SELEP meeting,” the company told HOT. “A member of our team had indeed been off work for some of June due to illness. But despite this, we provided a detailed report on the status of the project to the County Council and SELEP on 24 June. This was a full three weeks before the meeting and did not fall short of any service level agreement or contractual obligations on Sea Change.

“The summary of that report is that we’ve delivered the vast majority of the road project, with only minor construction work needed to complete the link through to the A21 via a traffic signal junction. We’re frustrated by the on-going delays and keen to get the road open to through traffic as soon as possible – as so many in the community also are – but we’re still waiting for permission to do this from the highway authorities.”

Critical

“It is critical that the full written update mentioned by Richard is provided for consideration at the next board meeting so the board can assess whether the project remains deliverable,” Helen Dyer, Selep’s capital programme manager, told the meeting.

If it is not, the board will consider requiring ESCC to repay the £10m already spent on the project from the government’s Local Growth Fund (LGF).

The start-up date, originally set for December 2016, has been continually pushed back by a few months with every update provided to Selep since 2019. The persistent delays have not apparently troubled board members until recently, when a member of the public, Bernard Brown, began questioning the transparency and reliability of ESCC reports.

The July meeting started with the recital of a series of questions from Brown – read out in his absence – including a request for the board to confirm that two Sea Change LGF projects previously reported by ESCC as being complete were in fact not, although all the funding had been spent. In addition to Queensway Gateway, the other was the North Bexhill Access Road.

After requesting various clarifications vis-a-vis both projects, Brown – whose complaint against former Sea Change director ESCC Cllr Rupert Simmons for breach of confidentiality was recently upheld – concluded by asking: “Is it not the case East Sussex County Council have failed in their duty in this regard? If this information is not readily available for the 15 July meeting does this indicate the monitoring of these projects has been deficient and how will it now be improved?

“Can the Board explain why no update has been given on either of these incomplete projects for the last 6 months?”

An immediate answer was not given, as the questions were considered non-compliant with Selep’s public question policy, but it was agreed that a written response would be published on Selep’s website within 10 working days.

The signalised connection of Queensway Gatway to the A21 via Junction Road, which Sea Change is seeking to implement (image: Sea Change Sussex).

Increased scrutiny

The increased scrutiny of ESCC and Sea Change did not go down well with ESCC leader and board member Cllr Keith Glazier, who commented, “The amount of effort that is going into what now seems to be an exercise of verifying what has and what hasn’t happened, is detracting from that.”

And when one of the other board members also raised concerns about ESCC reporting, Glazier interjected angrily,”Hang on, I’m not having that!” He later apologised for his outburst.

Selep’s Simon Cook, chairing the meeting, told Glazier it would be helpful if ESCC provided an update of the percentage completion of the project in future reports.

A deep-dive investigation into Sea Change’s management of recent projects is currently under way by the Department of Business, Energy and industrial Strategy, which may be one reason for the company’s difficulties inkeeping up with its ESCC reporting requirements, and may also be one of the distractions referred to by Glazier.

Having spent the whole of the £10m government grant provided for the Queensway Gateway road, Sea Change is now committed to sourcing the estimated £2m required for completion of the project itself. It has assured Selep on various occasions that it can do this.

However, having to repay the grant if the project is assessed as undeliverable could prove a hard ask for the company, which also has to find the funds for outstanding work on several other projects on which its government grants have already been spent, including the North Bexhill Access Road.

If Sea Change fails to come up with the funds, ESCC is liable. The company is also liable to repay several outstanding loans from ESCC running into millions of pounds. It is by no means flush with funds, having consistently reported losses over the years, including one of £27,000 in its latest published accounts.

The support which Sea Change has enjoyed over the years from its sponsoring councils has also dminished, with board representatives from Hastings Borough Council and Rother District Council both resigning this year, leaving only one, ESCC’s Cllr Nick Bennett, in place.

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Posted 10:18 Thursday, Jul 21, 2022 In: Home Ground

2 Comments

Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT

  1. DAR

    This farce seems an ideal candidate for exploration by “Private Eye” in its “Rotten Boroughs” section. I want to know why ALL the land required to complete QGR was not acquired BEFORE any road building started.

    Comment by DAR — Thursday, Jul 28, 2022 @ 14:12

  2. Bernard McGinley

    What a poor record Sea Change has, over many years. In 2015 they were in such a hurry that they laid waste to Hollington Valley in the nesting season, which was illegal.
    The jobs promised by Sea Change never happened. The road still hasn’t happened, and the belated need for a compulsory purchase order for the Bartletts car showroom there is ridiculous.
    The Sea Change ‘vision’ was of buildings lasting all of 30 years. Councillors on their board are resigning as central government investigation nears. SELEP and ESCC seem dissatisfied with current Sea Change reporting standards. How the £2m shortfall can be covered remains unclear. The North Queensway Innovation Park debacle awaits resolution.
    As project management this doesn’t impress. HOT and Seachangewatch have said plenty more.
    https://seachangewatch.wordpress.com/

    Comment by Bernard McGinley — Sunday, Jul 24, 2022 @ 21:59

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