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What’s in the Town Deal plan? Only a select few know.

Town Deal investment plan shielded from the public

Hastings’ Town Deal investment plan – which could net the town £25m – has to be submitted by the end of January. In the face of scant communication with the public, however, concerns have emerged about how the process has been managed, if the guidelines have been adhered to and whether the deal will prove, as intended, beneficial to the whole borough. Nick Terdre reports.

It’s squeaky bum time for Hastings’ Town Investment Plan – the key to unlocking £25m in government funding – which is due to be submitted on 28 January. Or perhaps it isn’t – perhaps everything is well ordered and under control and just a few loose ends need to be tied up before the plan is pinged off to Whitehall.

According to the minutes of the last meeting of the Town Deal board on 14 December, it’s all going swimmingly. “The key message from the session was that Hastings’ submission is in very good shape,” they state. “The Towns Hub [government point of contact and advice for Town Deal boards] is confident that Hastings has a robust project prioritisation and assessment system, has followed the required steps and has a strong consultative process in place.”

The plan is due to be approved by the board on 21 January, and Hastings is pitching for £28.5m – though greater than the sum on offer, this is permitted as long as the board is prepared for extra levels of scrutiny. If the plan fails to pass muster, the town is allowed one additional submission.

The Town Deal represents a great opportunity for Hastings to acquire much needed investment funds. It is one of 101 towns selected by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) for a share of the £3.6bn Towns Fund for helping to kickstart regeneration. Only capital projects qualify.

In the dark

Unfortunately the people of Hastings know very little about the plan which is shortly to be approved because of the board’s and the council’s apparent reluctance to inform them. Specifics are missing from board reports and minutes, and in the case of the December meeting, no reports were made available, despite government guidelines that they should “be published on the Lead Council’s website in advance of the meeting (within 5 clear working days).”

This was due to issues of commercial confidentiality, an officer explained. However, it is normal procedure for the council to flag up matters calling for confidentiality in the agenda for a meeting, as well as in the reports. This was not the case here,  nor do the minutes make mention of any discussion or decision that could not be made public due to confidentiality considerations.

 The lesson appears to have been learnt. however, as the agenda for Thursday’s meeting, though posted somewhat late, has ‘Confidential’ stamped all over it.

In setting out the terms for the Town Deal, the ministry made it abundantly clear that local people and communities should be involved all the way. According to the prospectus: “It is vital that towns engage with communities to find out directly from the public what they love about their place and how they want to see it grow…

“Communities are more likely to work to implement solutions, and be able to take advantage of the economic opportunities resulting from government investment if they [are] engaged early and throughout the process of designing and delivering the Town Investment Plan.”

Transparency

It also stressed the importance of transparency. “We ask the Lead Council to be ‘open by default’ with their Town Deal Boards, Town Investment Plan and outline business cases, while acknowledging that commercially sensitive information will need to be protected.”

Other key elements of the Town Deal process are also missing. According to the prospectus, “The Lead Council should publish the Town Deal Board’s governance structure and ways of working, such as a statement for how the board will engage stakeholders and agree decisions over time. Lead Councils should set out how capacity funding will be spent…”

There is however no published governance structure and no guide as to how the capacity funding of £173,029 – intended to cover the costs of the Town Deal process – is, or was, to be spent.

Nor is there a vision, unless it is also confidential, although one was supposed to be agreed early to provide direction for the board’s work. In a “visioning exercise” at the March meeting, two provisional vision statements were agreed:

  • A healthy, vibrant and quirky seaside town that people love to visit, live and work in
  • A town where everyone says, “We can make it in Hastings”

The minutes of the March meeting also state that, “Over the coming weeks, the board will continue to work on developing the vision for the town in consultation with, and incorporating feedback from, the people of Hastings.”However, although the issue features in the reports to the next meeting, in June, according to the minutes it was not discussed  nor any decision made.

All “in due course”

When HOT asked the council where to find the governance structure, information about the capacity funding spend and the vision statement, and for a list of projects submitted, it was referred to the Town Deal pages on the HBC website – but this information is not to be found there. HOT was also told: “…the town deal bid is about to be submitted, and will be made public in due course.”

The reticence of the board and the council contrasts markedly with the enthusiastic response of local people and communities to the board’s call for “expressions of interest,” which led to 155 project proposals being submitted.

This may well be testimony to a deep well of creativity in the town, but it’s hard to say in the absence of a list of proposals. The Town Deal webpages do however reveal that 155 expressions of interests were submitted. Of these 70 involved active transport/public realm ideas, across the borough and outside the borough, 40 concerned town centre sites and building use ideas, and 10 St Leonards and west of borough proposals.

After passing through a project prioritisation process, seven unidentified grouped projects were approved for inclusion in the Town Investment Plan. This appears to be in line with the board’s decision “to try to focus towns fund investment on a small number of big ambitious projects.”

The Science on Sea proposal was rejected in a closed process (photo: Chris Lewcock).

Chris Lewcock, who fronted the proposal for a Science on Sea project based on the redundant St Leonards church, has made repeated efforts to find out why the proposal was rejected without even the opportunity to present it to board members.

Formal complaints

He was so disenchanted with the picture that emerged that he sent two formal complaints to the ministry citing minimal engagement with the wider community, the lack of a vision, an unbalanced and geographically narrow representation on the board, insufficient basic information for the board to support decision-making and a lack of transparency.

There are occasional signs that not all board members are happy with the way business is being conducted. According to the minutes of the November meeting, “…concern was expressed by some board members regarding the level of engagement available to the board with the projects coming forward and that this had not been the best possible process.”

With respect to projects recommended for inclusion in the Town Investment Plan, the minutes state: “Two members were unable to support the proposals at this time.” In neither case are the reasons for concern made clear.

One thing that puzzled Lewcock when told that the Science on Sea project had been rejected was to be told by a council officer that it had been “assessed as not directly meeting the Town Deal criteria set out by the government in its guidance.” More specifically, the proposal was “located out of town” and there was a “strong preference” on the part of the ministry for projects focusing on Hastings town centre, gateway or key employment sites.

As Lewcock pointed out, “Early in the process MHCLG agreed the Borough Council request that the town boundary for the Deal should be the Borough boundary – the whole boundary. The submission site is clearly within that boundary.”

Town centre focus?

The minutes of the June meeting cite co-chair Carole Dixon to the effect that according to further guidance just received, “focus should be on the town centre, but will include other areas.” However, while not ignoring town centres, the guidance does not insist on a particular emphasis on it. At one point it says: “We are leaving the flexibility for towns to prioritise investment across the town – for example, in gateway areas, key education or employment sites. We would like to understand your plan for the town centre…”

Seven recently approved town plans offer plentiful examples of other focuses.

The lower alley off Claremont, location for one of four town centre projects awarded £1m in accelerated funding (photo: Russell Jacobs).

Other proposals, including ones from West Marina and Bulverhythe residents, were similarly sent notices of rejection without any opportunity to present their projects. This will presumably turn out to be the general fate of proposals located outside the town centre area.

A foretaste of what is in the investment plan may be the four projects comprising the board’s bid for accelerated funding of £1m offered by the government in July to compensate for the delays and disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Because of the haste with which the round was conducted, only projects at an advanced stage of readiness could be considered, but all the projects now approved are located in and around the town centre – in the Source Park, East Sussex College Station Plaza building, the seafront/town centre car parks and the lower alley alongside Claremont.

Despite the thumbs’-up from the Town Hub, there may still be some awkward moments for the board. Having been developed in a public information vacuum, how will the plan meet tests such as this one (from the further guidance)?: “…we want towns to demonstrate the buy-in they have secured with the community…it can and should build on existing partnerships, consultation and mobilisation in the local community.”

But assuming it is approved, the time may finally come when the general public can be apprised of what has been agreed on its behalf – in other words, the usual fait accompli.

 

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Posted 17:55 Monday, Jan 18, 2021 In: Local Economy

8 Comments

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  1. Elaine Cuthbertson

    Sickening. These “grandees” are just putting two fingers up to the people who vote for them and who pay for them as they relentlessly destroy our town.

    Comment by Elaine Cuthbertson — Monday, Jan 25, 2021 @ 13:56

  2. Passing By

    Why am I not surprised
    Recognised quite a few names of the usual shameless
    fingers in every pie brigade
    on the Towndeal board

    Comment by Passing By — Sunday, Jan 24, 2021 @ 12:58

  3. Nick Terdre

    Bolshie asks a pertinent question – who is on the board and how did they get there. According to the guidance, the board, which is convened by the lead council, HBC, must include representatives of other tiers of local government, the MP, local business and investors, the local enterprise partnership and communities. It may also include representatives of the local Business Improvement District if it exists (it does), Job Centre Plus and ‘anchor institutions’ such as educational institutions, hospitals, sports teams and cultural/creative bodies.

    As currently constituted, the board comprises 22 members, including several who were invited to join along the way. The full list can be seen on the HBC website (https://www.hastings.gov.uk/regeneration/towndeal/board/).

    Comment by Nick Terdre — Friday, Jan 22, 2021 @ 16:45

  4. Bea

    I seem to recall Jeremy Birch promising complete transparency from this Council not that long ago. What happened to that. I wonder?
    This kind of secrecy does not look good, and suggests that only the usual suspects would get any money. What a crying shame that the proposed Science Centre was turned down (on the wrong grounds). We could do with a bit of innovation. Think again, Team. You are much less likely to get a share of the cash if you carry on like this.

    Comment by Bea — Friday, Jan 22, 2021 @ 11:28

  5. Bryan Fisher

    This is sadly yet another example of the lack of transparency emanating from Hastings Borough Council, who appointed ‘the usual suspects’ at short notice onto the Town Deal Board. It is not enough to be fair and honest with projects & funds – bodies such as HBC and its Town Deal Board need to be seen to be so! The article mentions Chris Lewcock’s attempts to establish why the Science-on-Sea’ project was denied at least a fair representation; but those responsible for the Bulverhythe project have recently submitted a letter of complaint, and the West Marina project have not only complained in a formal letter but not even had the courtesy of a reply! Where is the open and transparent working we all want?

    Comment by Bryan Fisher — Thursday, Jan 21, 2021 @ 17:37

  6. Bolshie

    Well I have to say Nigel Inwood could not have said it more accurately touching on the issues of “secrecy” and the failure of transparency.
    The failure here to involve public input does surely suggest this cabal writing the application has it’s own agenda. However, HBC do have a reputation of keeping the public out of things too often.
    One example that springs to mind is the Bathing Pool site. Correct me if I am wrong but sometime back the council said they would listen to what residents of the borough would like to see on this site. And so SOBS came up with a very constructive plan. What has happened to that.
    Another you could say is the million pound Straw Folly called a visitors centre.
    As Nigel has pointed out there is a serious lack of transparency, obfuscation, scepital issues and concealment
    And just who is on this board and how were they appointed?

    Comment by Bolshie — Wednesday, Jan 20, 2021 @ 16:47

  7. Nigel Inwood

    There is a coincidence, today, in the number 25 million. Today, Donald Trump has pardoned his former associate Steve Bannon (without that gentleman’s case yet being tried). BBC reports the allegation as being that Bannon benefitted personally, by $1 million, out of $25 million raised to ‘Build the Wall’.

    The point is not that anyone necessarily has the slightest intention of doing anything wrong here in Hastings (of course). The point is that use of public funds must be open and transparent. Keeping public affairs secret is a strong indicator of having something to hide.

    This town is full of people who know the way the world works when it comes to public funds and projects. They know – from personal experience – about the commissions, consultancy fees, and gifts that oil the wheels of industry and politics – often both at once, worldwide.

    Hastings Council has been known, for far too long now, to keep matters secret that should be open and transparent. In some property and finance matters, deceit has been self-evident in writing. Those who try to do anything about it might as well ‘tell it to the marines’. There has been no regulator, no policing, and no effective freedom in the wider local press.

    The situation cannot continue much longer. It should put all good honest councillors and senior officials into a difficult position: one where the only honest thing to do is resign. In Liverpool, the mayor and some other officials were arrested, recently, in relation to suspect property deals. How long will it be before Sussex Police has to take a good look at Hastings Council?

    Comment by Nigel Inwood — Wednesday, Jan 20, 2021 @ 12:55

  8. philip oakley

    Interesting feature which raises many questions.

    Hastings got rid of it’s Chief Executive many years ago which I believe, possibly deliberately, created a kind of power vacuum giving Councillors and others too much power and influence at the expense over an overall vision. The Council has achieved a lot of funding over the last decade or two but it’s hard to see a great deal of success. I would say the opportunities have been largely wasted.

    A Council, or any organisation, needs a good CEO at the top to make the key decisions and create some kind of vision for the Town as a whole. Instead it is very unclear who runs Hastings Council and how any decision is arrived at. I’ve been here over 10 years and I don’t see what the Council’s objectives are. What is it trying to achieve? What is the mission statement? Or is this another round of funding for the same old people to apply for?

    Comment by philip oakley — Tuesday, Jan 19, 2021 @ 16:12

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