SeaChange has failed for eight years to develop the North Queensway Innovation Park – and now it’s got another £3.5m of public money for the project.
In December 2012, SeaChange received a £1.5m loan from the Growing Places Fund to ‘open up the site and to undertake the initial infrastructure work needed to support the development’. The fund was administered by the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP), which claimed that the site had ‘the potential of creating 865 jobs’ (emphasis added).
Around the same time, SeaChange was also awarded £5.5m from the government’s Regional Growth Fund towards the North Queensway project. SeaChange claimed the money would ‘deliver up to 300 private sector jobs’ (a far cry from the 700 jobs (p6) which they had predicted just three months earlier in their public consultation document). However, SeaChange subsequently withdrew the application, and the funding was not paid. We don’t know why SeaChange turned down this money.
Eight years on, and with nothing to show for the £1.5m other than a road into the site, SeaChange has been awarded a further £3.5m in grant funding from SELEP to build 4,000m2 of business units on the site. This, it is claimed, will create 75 jobs [p11]. So we’ve gone from 865, to 700, to 300, and now just 75: but to create those 75 jobs is going to cost an extra £3.5m. Value for money? You decide.
The money comes from the government’s Getting Building Fund, for ‘shovel-ready infrastructure projects’ . SELEP was given a total of £85m to spend on projects in the region, and allocated a total of £11m to East Sussex. That means that SeaChange’s £3.5m constitutes almost a third of the East Sussex total.
Which project? Whose project?
It’s noticeable that SELEP is a little coy about naming SeaChange and North Queensway. The project is described as as ‘fast track business solutions for the Hastings manufacturing sector’, with no indication of what or where the project is. There is no such coyness about the other projects, which are all named and located.
Why so shifty? We can only imagine it’s because this site has been such a disaster to date, and SELEP and SeaChange were hoping this new funding might fly under the radar of local critics. However, it’s not too hard to discover that this is another SeaChange project. At SELEP’s accountability board meeting in October 2020, the board was presented with the business case for each of the projects applying for Getting Building fund money. Look at the case for the ‘fast track business solutions for the Hastings manufacturing sector’ and what do you see? Sure enough, the site is North Queensway (p3), and the developer is SeaChange (p4). So that little bit of subterfuge didn’t really work.
And yet more opacity…
In a further display of opacity, the amount of money that SeaChange is going to put into the project is redacted every time it appears in the business case – which is quite amusing given that SELEP’s announcement about the fund makes it very clear that SeaChange’s contribution is £1m. It should be noted that this contribution is referred to in the business case (p4) as ‘private sector funding’. In fact, although SeaChange is a private company (and therefore almost totally unaccountable), all of its funding ultimately comes from the public purse. You can call it private funding, but that doesn’t make it so.
The Getting Building Fund is described as being for ‘shovel-ready capital projects which can be delivered within 18 months’. One might think, 18 months? Really? The site has been vacant for eight years, and SeaChange can build 4,000m2 of units in 18 months? But SeaChange is confident it can do it in even less time than that. In its business case (p5) it states that construction will begin in January 2021, and the project will be complete in October 2021. Quite how that’s going to happen given that the planning application hadn’t even been submitted at the end of January, is unclear. But SeaChange has a history of being months, or even years late with its projects, so we chouldn’t hold our breath for this one.
Gun to the head?
In the business case, SeaChange admits (p17) that without the £3.5m funding, North Queensway would fail:
Despite a significant and pressing need for new production space in Hastings, the Queensway North site has been marketed for 6 years and no private sector developers have come forwards in that time. In addition, a total of 43 enquiries have been received from occupiers, but none have been able to secure bank finance for progressing a project on the site ….In the absence of any other form of public sector investment support, without the GBF it is considered that the project would be highly unlikely to be developed in the foreseeable future.
In other words, give us this money or the £1.5m already invested in this site has been wasted. Whether this new wheeze of SeaChange’s will turn out to be a great job creation scheme, or a case of throwing good money after bad, only time will tell.