Is it all over for SeaChange’s plans to build a fantastic new business park next to Marline Valley nature reserve? The evidence suggests it’s not looking good. SeaChange was warned that unless it was granted planning permission for North Queensway by November 19, funding would be removed. That possibility now looks like an inevitability.
Later and later
One thing you can be sure of with SeaChange is that any project they take on is likely to be delivered late. Very late in some cases – witness the Queensway Gateway road, which is currently five years late, having been due to be finished in November 2016 (p92) but could end up being a remarkable seven years late by the time it finally opens.
The ill-fated North Queensway project is no exception. The project appears no closer to realisation now than it did when the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP) first funded it nine years ago.
Years of failure
The original plan was to make sites available for local businesses to build their own units. But by 2020, eight years on from the first announcement of funding, no businesses had come forward. The site stood empty, a sorry mess of flytipping and scrub growing back where there had once been ancient woodland before it was cleared by SeaChange.
‘Fast track business solutions’
In October 2020, SeaChange announced its big wheeze: instead of offering empty sites, it would build the units itself, and local businesses would come flocking. Now the project was renamed ‘fast track business solutions for the Hastings manufacturing sector’ – no mention of North Queensway, leading some to speculate that the name had become a little toxic.
One of the conditions of funding was that projects had to be ‘shovel-ready’ and deliverable within 18 months. It seemed like quite an ask, to build 4,000m2 of units within 18 months. But SeaChange, as usual, was bullish.
In the business plan for the project SeaChange claimed (p5) that construction would start in January 2021 using (p6) ‘modern steel frame and cladding construction methods, which allow for high quality buildings to be constructed quickly and efficiently with a 6-7 month build programme’. Construction would be complete, SeaChange said, by October 2021 – a full five months ahead of the time limit.
Late before it even started
But things didn’t go according to plan. Far from starting construction in January 2021, SeaChange didn’t even submit the planning application until April 2021. There followed a long period during which 200 people objected, and various statutory bodies put in their views on the application. Of particular concern was Natural England, who expressed ‘considerable concerns’ (p2) about the impact of the planned development on the fragile habitat of Marline Valley.
Lack of engagement
Natural England complained at length about the lack of engagement from SeaChange, and the fact that they had raised concerns over hydrology and runoff into the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on multiple occasions, only to be ignored by SeaChange. In its submission (p1), Natural England gave a long list of issues which it wanted further information on before it could make a decision as to whether to object to the planning application or not.
SeaChange goes quiet
That was in June 2021, and we expected a quick response from SeaChange – after all, they needed this project to be brought in on time, or the funding would be at risk. But by November 2021, not another word had been heard from SeaChange – at least not publicly.
Meanwhile, SELEP had discussed the project at length in its September 2021 accountability board meeting. The Board heard (p160) that North Queensway was ‘high risk’ for two reasons.
Firstly, ‘East Sussex County Council have reported that the required Third Party Grant Agreement between themselves and Sea Change Sussex, as delivery partner, has not yet been completed. The Grant Agreement has been delayed due to ongoing discussions regarding the terms of the agreement’. This is to do with the funding: SELEP awards the funds to individual projects, but county councils are responsible for passing the funds on. It would seem that East Sussex County Council and SeaChange are perhaps not in agreement about terms.
Planning application stalled
Secondly, the Board heard, planning permission had not yet been granted, there was no date for the application to be considered, and there was a risk that planning permission would not be granted in time to allow the project to be completed within the Getting Building Fund timeframe.
The Board heard that each project funded under the Getting Building Fund was supposed to have used the funding by March 2022, although it was possible that an extension to September 2022 could be granted, subject to certain conditions being met.
However, the report says (point 6.13):
Based on the delivery programme within the Business Case, the planning application will need to be determined in early November 2021 at the latest to ensure that the Project can be delivered by 30 September 2022….It is recommended that if the Grant Agreement has not been completed and planning consent granted by 19 November 2021, the date of the next Board meeting, that the Project is removed from the GBF programme and the funding released for reallocation to alternative projects on the GBF project pipeline.
The SELEP board accepted the recommendation and agreed (p9) that unless planning permission was granted by the time of the board’s next meeting on 19 November, funding would be withdrawn and realloacted to another project.
Planning application not on the agenda
In order for planning consent to be granted by 19 November, the planning application would have to be heard at the Hastings Borough Council monthly planning committee meeting on 10 November. But North Queensway is not on the agenda for that meeting, and the next meeting is not until December.
Unviable without public funding
Does that mean the end of North Queensway? SeaChange has admitted (p17) in the business case that the project is unviable without public funding:
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.
It would appear that – ast least in SeaChange’s incompetent hands – it’s unviable with public funding as well.
The end? Don’t bet on it
What’s going on with North Queensway? Why hasn’t SeaChange responded to Natural England in a timely manner so that the planning application can be considered by November? Was the scale of public dissent and even rumblings of discontent from Conservative councillors too great? And is this the end for the disastrous plan to build a business park next to one of our most fragile and precious habitats?
Given SeaChange’s long history with this site, it seems unlikely that the company will just let it go. If not now, they may raise it, zombie-like, from the grave at a later date, and beg for more public money. And if SeaChange is good at one thing, it’s getting hold of public money. If that happens, we’ll be waiting to see it off once again.