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Party positions polarised in West St Leonards

As the local election campaign enters its final phase, Chris Connelley takes the political temperature in West St Leonards, where two major planning issues are polarising party positions.

If Old Hastings is looking to be the tightest race in this year’s local elections, then West St Leonards is generating the most heat. With two major Hastings Borough Council developments in the pipeline, at the old bathing pool site near the seafront and on playing fields at Bulverhythe, this boundary ward with neighbouring Rother, traditionally one of the most marginal, is getting hot under its collar. And if the Save Bulverhythe Recreation Ground posters gracing almost every window on stretches of Bexhill Road are anything to go by, locals are not happy with what is being considered for them.

In the last set of elections, in 2018, both seats were taken by the Conservatives, one of whom, Karl Beaney, is up for re-election in this year’s contest, delayed by twelve months due to Covid. With a majority last time of just over 50 votes, he says he is taking nothing for granted, but will be aware that public anger with the Labour-led council over both development proposals and its handling of community consultation will likely play to his advantage.

Hastings born and bred, softly spoken local business man Karl, who runs his own graphic design business, uses most of our conversation to focus on the lack of detail and transparency underlying Labour’s plans.

On the bathing pool site, he picks up on the ambiguity on what is actually meant by a leisure destination, and the small space allocated for it as part of the overall build, while suggesting that the high volume apartments blocks likely to dominate the site if the scheme goes ahead will  pave the way for expensive flats and airbnbs, rather than the sort of accommodation needed in West St Leonards, which he says is crying out for “affordable housing for low income local families”.

Mixed-use development

Asked to outline his vision, he talks of a mixed- use development operating as a community hub, name checking water sports, wellbeing activity and cycle hire facilities as anchor services. He refers me to Brighton Sea Lanes development and the Shoreham Box Park as examples of what is happening elsewhere, and reinforces the need for the Council to better engage with the local community and develop a stronger vision for the town.

Karl Beaney on Bulverhythe Rec.

Across the road, at Bulverhythe Recreation Ground, he questions the wisdom of building 190 homes on a leisure facility and country park that is also a flood plain, noting the escalating costs of £1.2 million and rising incurred by the Council on consultants and pre-planning work to even prepare the case. In his view, this site is simply not viable for housing and “should be left as it is”, with any investment concentrated on enhancing the Combe Valley Countryside Park as a green lung in one of the most air-polluted parts of the borough.

All of which puts him poles apart from his main rival, Labour’s John Cannan, an affable former County Council procurement manager turned Seaview support worker standing for election for the first time. A lifelong Labour voter, he only joined the party in 2017, impressed by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. He became heavily involved in the general election campaigns of that year and 2019, and, having  got a taste for the cut and thrust of politics, jazz fan John put his name forward to stand as a candidate in the ward where he lives.

Good discussions

Notwithstanding the controversy around the bathing pool and Bulverhythe developments, John goes into the election actively supporting both. As he puts it, “if you vote for me you are going  to get it,” and “my job is to try and convince people it is the best way to go.” That said, he admits it has not always been an easy sell on the doorstep, diplomatically acknowledging he has had  some “good discussions”, whilst maintaining  that there is still a “fair bit of Labour support” on Bexhill Road.

Asked to justify the developments in the face of so much concern, he stresses the ready availability of Council-owned land in the ward, the need to do something with the long unused bathing pool site and the possibility to address the acute need for social housing on the playing fields.

He talks up the presence of a ‘leisure destination’ in West St Leonards as a chance to regenerate a long forgotten part of the borough, but is light on the detail of what this means, telling me that the developer promises to consult locally when the deal is done.

Challenged as to whether this is the wrong way round, he emphasises that the Council is strapped for cash and that without private investment, nothing would happen.

He is even more passionate about the need for housing on the Bulverhythe site, claiming that “there are lots of positives building there”. Though the obvious headliner is a significant number of new homes, he also references new football pitches and investment in the Combe Valley Park using part of the money secured from Homes England.

On the issue of flooding, for many the greatest risk, he tells me that the council are working with the Environment Agency on a mitigation plan, that he is hoping the site is re-zoned and that it should be able to withstand a once-in-a-hundred-year flood incident.

John Cannan

Over the course of an hour’s conversation, John holds the party line, dutifully defending his Cabinet colleague with responsibility for Housing, Cllr Andrew Batsford, as “enthusiastic” and rebutting allegations of invisibility on the part of Council Leader, Kim Forward, as a manifestation of her “quieter” approach.

He repeatedly states that he wants to stress the positives, noting the increased profile for the area and the recent investment in the Council-owned retail park along Bexhill Road that has brought Aldi, Greggs and Costa to West St Leonards as signs of its changing profile and fortunes. Privately, though, he will know that he is out of step with many local voters’ views on the two big development schemes and politely declined to predict the outcome of Thursday’s vote.

Not listening

Although West St Leonards is traditionally a two-way Conservative/ Labour marginal, the Liberal Democrats and Green Party are also standing in the ward. Patent agent Stewart Rayment, representing the former, comments, “There are two major issues facing West St. Leonards – Labour’s proposal to build houses on the Bulverhythe Recreation Ground and the old Bathing Pool site. In neither instance are Labour listening to the local community, nor making decisions with their eyes open.

Stewart Rayment

“The Liberal Democrats have opposed the Bulverhythe scheme from the outset. The site is prone to flooding. Even Labour’s sometime shadow environment minister said that he would press ministers on the issue of building homes on flood plains, in the wake of Storms Ciara and Dennis last year. He might have spoken to Hastings Labour directly”.

With regard to the old Bathing Pool site, Rayment notes that a number of community-led initiatives were shoved to one side by Labour. “Many of these were viable and had public support and where that is the case they have my support. By focusing solely on the old bathing pool site, Labour ignores the wider development of that area as well as the views of the local community. Labour’s proposals are totally out of keeping with the site, and ignore the problems associated with it.”

Jane Packman

With Green Party efforts focused on Old Hastings ward, where they are rumoured to be neck-and-neck with Labour, and hoping to gain their first seat on Hastings Borough Council, they are running a decidedly low-key campaign in West St Leonards.

Their candidate is Jane Packman, who runs a community arts company, who commented, “I am excited by this opportunity to represent West St Leonards at a time when proposed developments may upset lots of people in the area.”

 

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Posted 20:49 Monday, May 3, 2021 In: Politics

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