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High Weald House, part of Sea Change Sussex’s Bexhill Enterprise Park South development (photo: Sea Change Sussex).

Sea Change hit by resignations of council board members

Troubled times for Sea Change Sussex persist with the resignation of two of the three council representatives on its board. Rother’s Cllr Kevin Dixon presents a very different picture of the company from what it offers itself. Nick Terdre reports.

Last week saw the resignation of Cllr Paul Barnett, Hastings Borough Council’s representative on the Sea Change Sussex board. A statement is expected from the council this week, and Barnett told HOT he would report  on his involvement with the economic development company at the next meeting of the full council, which is scheduled for 13 April. He had only been a board member since mid-October.

Barnett’s withdrawal was preceded by that of the Rother District Council representative, Cllr Kevin Dixon, in mid February. “Having been on the Board for over two years I have felt that the reputational damage to myself and to the Council of being associated with SeaChange is just too great,” he told Rother’s last full council meeting.

“The lack of progress on key projects and the constant disagreements with the three local authorities mean that, in my opinion, the Company is not achieving its aims.”

Under the board’s voting structure, the three council representatives have a combined vote of 19.9%. “Therefore the local authorities have virtually no influence or control over the Company,” Dixon said.

Queensway Gateway Road – still no way through.

Among the projects he mentioned which have failed to progress as intended are the Queensway Gateway Road and North Queensway Business Park. There were also issues with housebuilding linked to the North East Bexhill Gateway Road and North Bexhill Access Road, he said, while “The Bexhill Enterprise Park North has been a continual battle between the Developers, SeaChange, Rother District Council Officers and our Planning Committee…”

Constant conflict

Concluding that “The reality is that SeaChange is in constant conflict with all three Authorities – and the regeneration aims and objectives of all parties are being severely compromised as a result,” Dixon proposed that no new director for RDC be appointed “…until such a time as that person is able to represent the best interests of the company, without compromising the values of this Council.”

A Sea Change spokesman contested Cllr Dixon’s position, saying, “We’re disappointed that Rother District Council has decided not to appoint a replacement director to our board for the time being, and we disagree with the points raised by Cllr Dixon.”

The company was “fully committed to regeneration in the Bexhill, Hastings and Eastbourne area and have a good track record of delivering projects – often despite hurdles posed by the planning and regulatory processes.”

In addition to developing the Glovers House and High Weald House offices in Bexhill, Sea Change had “successfully attracted private sector investment to Bexhill, with a private developer set to create 84,000 sq ft of industrial premises on the Bexhill Enterprise Park North, which will be able to support up to 500 jobs.”

Unanimous vote

“When the company was originally established, all three local authorities voted unanimously – in line with government guidance – to take a 19.9% collective share,” the spokesman said. “This decision was designed to ensure Sea Change Sussex would not be a local authority-influenced company and would have the ability to make its own decisions and raise its own funding.”

Disagreement between Sea Change and Rother emerged over the company’s detailed application for developing Bexhill Enterprise Park North, leading to refusal by the planning committee on the grounds that the proposal failed to meet the standards and requirements laid down by the council’s relevant supplementary planning document and other planning policies. But the decision was overturned on appeal, leaving the council with a hefty bill for legal costs, thought to be some £200,000.

With divergent ideas between the two sides about the role of local authorities, this may be the time for a rethink – the model of a company financed by public money but lacking public accountability has attracted increasing criticism in the wider community.

The voting structure also appears outdated, with 19.9% of voting rights reserved for a representative of the education sector, reflecting the company’s former involvement with the University of Brighton. The board member in question is Susan McHugh, who formerly held several positions at the University of Brighton and is now retired, whose voting power is equal to that of the three local authorities combined.

Real power

The real power – a 50% voting share – is held by Hastings, Bexhill and East Sussex Business Association Ltd, a group of local businesses according to the Sea Change spokesman. While it appears not to have its own online presence, the association is closely aligned with Sea Change itself, sharing the same address and three of its four directors with the company.

Meanwhile Sea Change has made little progress on the two projects which have recently attracted most criticism. Having lost a £3.5m grant from the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (Selep) for its proposal to build industrial units on the North Queensway Business Park, it remains engaged in seeking planning permission as a prerequisite for a future application for Selep funding.

But the latest attempts to gain Natural England’s agreement to its proposals for limiting damage to wildlife and ecology in the Marline Woods next to the business park have not convinced. After the company submitted detailed responses to Natural England’s criticisms in November, the government agency replied in January that  it still lacked sufficient information to assess the proposals.

On the Queensway Gateway Road, originally due in operation in 2016, the focus is currently on putting in place the signalised connection, previously known as the temporary solution, to link Junction Road to the A21. Approval of designs from National Highways was expected in March or April, Selep’s accountability board was told in February.

While the connection could be constructed by mid year at the earliest, a Section 278 legal agreement is also needed between Sea Change, National Highways and East Sussex County Council, but there was disagreement about what the terms should be. Other measures such as traffic regulations orders also need to be in place before the connection can come into operation.

Once in operation, the signalised connection will be monitored for six months to provide evidence as to whether it could become the permanent solution given the Sea Change’s continuing failure to negotiate the land acquisition  required for the original permanent solution. If it is decided to go down this route, a Change Request could be made to Selep in February 2023.

How the signalised connection of the Queensway Gateway Road to the A21 will work (image: Sea Change Sussex).

 

This article was amended by Nick Terdre on 24 March 2022, to correct the fact that the member of the Sea Change board representing the educational sector is Susan McHugh and not the late Prof Julian Crampton.

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Posted 18:11 Wednesday, Mar 23, 2022 In: Home Ground

6 Comments

Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT

  1. Nick Terdre

    HBC issued the following statement on Monday 28 March:

    “Cllr Paul Barnett has resigned as a Director of Seachange, but the council remains a member of the Company alongside Rother District Council and East Sussex County Council. The decision to reappoint a director will be discussed at the Annual Council in May.

    “Due to reviews now ongoing into the Company with regard to funding received by the Company for its projects within our local enterprise partnership, the Council and Cllr Barnett will not be making any further comment at this time.”

    Comment by Nick Terdre — Monday, Mar 28, 2022 @ 14:04

  2. Vitruvius

    If two of the three Local Authority representatives have resigned from the Seachange board, is the company now properly constituted and able to continue?

    Comment by Vitruvius — Saturday, Mar 26, 2022 @ 11:57

  3. Russell Hall

    The East Sussex County Council SeaChange director Cllr Nick Bennett replied on Tuesday that he will not be resigning from the SeaChange board when asked if he would be doing so by a Hastings councillor.

    Cllr Bennett was also asked if he remains a director of SeaChange what actions would he take to reform SeaChange so that it is more publicly accountable. Cllr Bennett failed to address the issue.

    The webcast of the exchange can be watched here: https://eastsussex.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/659654/start_time/7220000?force_language_code=en_GB

    Comment by Russell Hall — Thursday, Mar 24, 2022 @ 12:10

  4. ken davis

    The inefficient management and obscure operation of Seachange has been a farce for a long time now and an open inquiry into its workings is badly needed.
    How on earth you can make such a basic mistake of not actually legally controlling a piece of land over which you plan a critical link road is amazing mis-management before we look at all their other mistakes.
    A more fundamental error though sits with our two local planning authorities acting with Seachange wherein we have badly needed housing planned on flood areas while commercial buildings are built up the hill at low density!

    Comment by ken davis — Thursday, Mar 24, 2022 @ 09:58

  5. Cameronfoye

    Julian Cramptons obituary; please apologise for this sloppy reporting!

    https://www.brighton.ac.uk/about-us/news-and-events/news/2019/06-28-tributes-paid-to-former-university-of-brighton-vice-chancellor.aspx

    Comment by Cameronfoye — Thursday, Mar 24, 2022 @ 05:45

  6. Cameronfoye

    I hope the rest if your reporting is better researched than that on Julian Crampton a tremendous force for good in Hastings and East Sussex who tragically died over 2 years ago. Apology please !

    Comment by Cameronfoye — Wednesday, Mar 23, 2022 @ 23:28

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