North Queensway Innovation Park: ‘the first word in bespoke manufacturing premises and a truly world class facility’? Or another empty SeaChange site a stone’s throw from the half-empty ‘exciting new commercial concept’ of Enviro 21?
At Enviro 21 around £9m of public money translated into not the promised 500 jobs but just 24. This rather suggests some lack of business acumen in the company, but undeterred by this fiasco, SeaChange ploughed ahead with their next project.
North Queensway next in the firing line
The North Queensway Innovation Park, just a few yards up Queensway from Enviro 21, is, according to SeaChange, ‘next to a thriving manufacturing zone, close to the A21 to London and just four miles from Hastings town centre’. It is also ‘surrounded by attractive woodland’ (SeaChange fails to say that there was a great deal more of that attractive woodland until recently, when they chopped most of it down, leaving something resembling a bomb site – see pictures below).
In December 2012, the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP) issued a breathless press release: ‘865 jobs could be created in East Sussex thanks to South East LEP’ (note that little word ‘could’). SELEP, it said, was going to give SeaChange £1.5m for North Queensway in order to ‘open up the site and to undertake the initial infrastructure work’. This project, said then-chair John Spence, ‘highlights the appetite for growth’ locally.
Or was it 700?
The ‘appetite for growth’, however, appears to be less than hearty. As with all these projects, job figures seem to vary hugely depending on who you ask and possibly what they had for breakfast. Whilst SELEP was claiming 865 jobs, SeaChange itself was a little more cautious, having suggested in its consultation document (p7) in July 2012 that the figure was actually 700.
Or even 300?
Since then, SeaChange has revised its job figure even further downwards, and is now claiming that the site could create ‘up to 300 jobs’ (note those two little words, ‘up to’). One has to ask, if the developers themselves have so little idea of how many jobs could be created by these crackpot schemes, how are we supposed to have any faith in their predictions? Why can we now expect barely a third of the jobs we were promised when the funding was announced?
The £1.5m loan from SELEP to SeaChange in late 2012 towards the project was to build a junction with Queensway and undertake initial infrastructure work such as drainage and utilities. In addition, SeaChange was granted £5.5m from the government’s Regional Growth Fund for further development of the site. The total cost was projected to be £32m (p12); the remainder of the money would come from ‘funds generated by receipts from sale of development land to owners/occupiers’ (p3).
When? When? When?
SeaChange claims that it ‘undertook a consultation exercise for the scheme in summer 2012, which revealed considerable interest from the local industrial community.’ Earlier that year, East Sussex County Council – securing the £1.5m loan for the project – was told (p5) that North Queensway would ‘fill the void in Hastings’ business infrastructure, addressing a proven local demand for high quality business premises’. According to the environmental statement (p14), ‘first occupation of the scheme could be in 2014′.
With so much demand, and companies knocking at the door, SeaChange was obviously going to have to move fast to get the scheme finished.
Planning permission for the infrastructure works was granted in March 2013, and in the same month, SeaChange announced that work had started. The timetable, according to the brochure, was for site clearance that autumn, followed by construction of the access road and drainage in summer 2014. The plots would be prepared for property development in the second half of 2014 (the units themselves would not be built at that point, as the site was envisaged as one where units would only be built as and when they were wanted, and to the occupier’s specifications).
The work on the site, announced with such excitement, didn’t last long. The junction with Queensway was built but since then, nothing more has happened. No access road, no site infrastructure. Just a 51m road – complete with its own street light and speed sign – which ends rather abruptly in a plummet over the edge of a steep slope. Truly a road to nowhere.
And the environment?
SeaChange, obviously looking far ahead, commissioned an ‘ecology baseline report’ of the site in 2007. The site is contiguous with the Marline Woods SSSI and was therefore likely to be of high ecological importance. The report found that:
- The majority of the woodland on the site was indistinguishable in ecological character to adjoining woodland areas located to the west and north that were designated as both ancient woodland and SSSI;
- Badgers commuted across the site, utilised grassland areas within the site for foraging, and historically had dug setts in woodland within the site;
- Dormice were likely to be present in all areas of semi-natural broadleaved woodland, and in mixed woody and bramble scrub habitats across the
- 43 different species of bird were recorded on the site, with a minimum of 86 breeding territories held by 14 species including the red-listed songthrush;
- The site’s grassland supported ‘exceptional’ breeding populations of both slow-worms and common lizards, and a small population of grass snakes.
The ‘exceptional’ population of reptiles was the subject of a translocation programme (p130) in 2008, in which 1,426 lizards and slow worms were captured and moved 17 miles to a receptor site in the High Weald. A survey the previous year had estimated the total reptile population at 5,600, so quite what the point was of removing a quarter of the population and then doing nothing with the site, is not clear. Translocations where the animals are moved off-site (as opposed to being moved to a different area close by) are not noted for their success: a study of 47 such translocations between 1991-2006 concluded that only 31% were successful.
In its environmental statement (p17), submitted as part of the planning application in 2012, SeaChange notes that ‘Reptiles, which were present in large numbers, have been captured and relocated off site.’ No mention of the approximately 4,000 which were not captured: their fate is unknown.
The environmental statement shows just what a huge impact this development was predicted to have on the habitats of the site:
‘Permanent habitat loss resulting from site clearance within the development plots represents a loss in proportional terms, with predicted impacts affecting semi-natural broadleaved woodland (33% loss within the site boundary), semi-improved grassland (95% loss), dense woody scrub (78.3% loss), broad-leaved plantation (74% loss) and bramble (65% loss).’
The report goes on to state that the residual impact of site clearance will be ‘minor adverse’ because of new planting, but as it stands, what we have is the site clearance but none of the new planting.
According to the environmental statement:
‘Landscape plans include a buffer strip to be retained around the perimeter of the site… This will provide protection to designated habitats as well as allow for vegetation and mature trees to be retained and planted to screen the site and provide a noise and visual impact buffer.’
As is clear from the photographs, the buffer strip exists only on paper. There is no retained woodland to screen the site from the road. The inhabitants of the chalet park were particularly upset that they had been promised that trees around their site would be left standing, but in fact they had virtually all been felled, leaving the once beautiful outlook devastated.
The site clearance eventually took place some six years after the reptile translocation, in spring 2014 (by which time the cleared areas had presumably been re-colonised). This was despite SeaChange’s ‘infrastructure planning application’, which stated that ‘plots will not be cleared in advance of need and/or marketing need’.
Advice from the RSPB and Natural England is that tree felling or hedgerow cutting should always be avoided in the nesting season, from 1 March to 31 July. When we visited the site on 17 March 2014, residents of the nearby chalet park told us that felling had only just been completed, and in fact some of the fellling equipment was still on site. The felling seemed to have been done in a great hurry, with none of the felled trees removed:
Recommendations about dormice ignored
The ecology baseline report, which reports a good population of dormice on the site, states (p32) that:
‘Habitat clearance must be undertaken between mid-September and mid-October. At this time of year dormouse [sic] will be active, and the year’s young will be independent of the parent animals. Timing the works to take place before the end of October should ensure that dormice have sufficient undisturbed time to feed and put on fat reserves prior to the start of the winter hibernation period’
In the event, the site was cleared in March when dormice would still be in hibernation, and it is likely that many did not survive.
Even the Hastings Observer – not known for its critical evaluation of SeaChange projects – had its reservations about this one. In an editorial in October 2010, the Observer wrote:
‘Building bespoke premises for manufacturing businesses according to demand, should mean that at this site at least there will be no empty units, and there is a good chance that many new jobs will be created as the companies expand and move in.
On the other hand, it could be argued that while units lie empty at the nearby Enviro21 park, and indeed office space in the town centre, more effort should be put into filling this first.
It seems like we have been here before – Enviro21 was hailed as state-of-the-art, though two years later it is still not fully occupied.’
Where are the jobs? What happened to the money? Who is accountable?
As with Enviro 21, we feel entitled to ask the questions: why has this project not been completed? What happened to all the public money SeaChange received for it? Why have the 865/700/300 jobs not been created? And most of all, why is Hastings council allowing SeaChange to plough ahead with the destructive Queensway Gateway project, rather than holding its director John Shaw to account for his previous destructive and unsuccessful projects?
We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again: this is our money, these are our green spaces. Local politicians owe it to their constituents to start asking some questions.