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White Rock Baths, this area was last used as an ice-rink

The White Rock Baths. This area was last used as an ice rink in the 1990s

Wanted: innovative ideas to use another Hastings wasted space!

Last Wednesday, Nick Sangster, the Council Officer in charge of the Coastal Users Group (CUG) organised a visit to the dis-used White Rock Baths for members of the CUG and other interested parties. Hastings Borough Council are looking for a tenant to take on this challenging but exciting space. Erica Smith attended, and spoke to Philip Oakley – a man who likes the challenge of re-inventing unloved spaces.

White Rock BathsBack in December 2010, I attended a meeting of the White Rock Business Association where plans for the White Rock Baths were discussed. Three tenders had been put to the Council, and one was chosen by the businesses and community representatives as the preferred option. With support from an HBC managed Area Based Grant, there was going to be a cafe and cycle hire facility set up by local developers. Nearly three years and a pump failure later, the White Rock Baths are still unused.

White Rock BathsThe visit last Wednesday revealed how enormous the space is. There are obviously engineering challenges that come with a below sea-level building on the seafront, but I was surprised that the spaces did not smell worse or appear obviously damp. Ten years ago, a feasibility study for turning the area into car parking said it would not be financially viable. So what other uses could this enormous man-made cavern be put to? I asked Philip Oakley, who has converted the Admiral Benbow pub in London Road why this space attracts him.

Former Admiral Benbow pub, 2 London Road, St LeonardsES: As a designer/full time dreamer, what attracted you to Hastings – and what interests you about the White Rock Baths in particular?
PO: I came to St Leonards because space is cheap. The White Rock Baths is a lot of space, and space inspires people.

ES: How do you feel about a lot of the recent new-build and conversion projects in Hastings?
PO: The Jerwood is excellent. A bit like the Olympics, it had its doubters, and people were ready to knock it but I can’t believe anyone would really like to go back to the days of the coach park. It offers Hastings best opportunity to attract new visitors and investment.

There’s lots of other interesting work going on, I really love what Bryan and Lorna Dyke have done at the old Printworks in Claremont, Alastair Hendy has created an amazing place in the High Street and George Street is looking really interesting these days. For some reason new builds, other than the Jerwood, haven’t shown the same creativity.

ES: What about Hastings and St Leonard’s public buildings?
PO: As a rule of thumb, the greater the Council’s involvement in projects the worse the outcome. The White Rock Theatre receives £500,000 subsidy a year, the White Rock Baths are empty, St Mary in the Castle will potentially be empty in the very near future. Bad deals and bad management. Together with the Pier and Lido it’s a terrible track record that is disguised with constant talked up proposals that never happen. When you are the second most deprived sea-side Town in England you really need to ask yourself on a weekly basis why are we making these mistakes and how can we get things right. Like all Council’s though it’s just about covering each other’s backsides.

ES: Am I detecting you don’t like Councils?
PO: I once worked at Blackpool Council’s Illuminations Department. It was a dream job that was a nightmare. I like to achieve things.

ES: Where do you get your inspiration for buildings and development projects?
PO: I get my inspiration from people rather than projects. When I worked in Blackpool people always saw regeneration being about buildings but it has to start with people, the buildings come later when you realise what you need as against what you want. I have been really inspired recently by the Moveable Feast project in Western Road in St Leonards. It shows how quickly you can achieve something fantastic when the right people are involved. Start small and grow. Congratulations to everyone involved there.

ES: What do you think would be a good way to put the White Rock Baths to a new use?
PO: Firstly everyone should realise that it belongs to them, as it’s part of the Foreshore, and money from the Foreshore car parks and other revenue streams should be spent on maintaining the White Rock Baths for the same reason. The reason why it’s in disrepair is because money was diverted away from the Foreshore for years, hence a recent intervention by the Charity Commission.

Forget about any commercial use for this building because it wasn’t designed for that purpose. I think it should be about fun and community use. Projects that I have been involved with such as the Temple Works in Leeds and Shunt in London are great examples of what can be done with similar type structures. There’s an army of brilliant people in the Town who could achieve something amazing given this space and the opportunity. Equally there are many young and disadvantaged people that need inspiration and a focal point to get them going.

ES: What about other empty buildings in the town?
There needs to be a serious review of how the major buildings in Hastings are being managed. St Mary’s is an amazing building but very soon could be empty, when someone was doing a good job keeping it open. Why push someone out when it could leave Hastings with yet another empty public building? The idea was to achieve best value for the people of Hastings by putting it out to tender but it’s probably going to have the opposite effect. Hastings Council haven’t shot themselves in the foot, they’ve shot us all in the balls.

The Observer Building is a massive undertaking. There’s been millions of pounds spent on architects, plans, buying and selling it. Until Hastings is desperate for more commercial or residential space then the sums to do it will never add up.

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Posted 11:46 Wednesday, Aug 15, 2012 In: Home Ground

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