As Hastings Borough Council prepares to consider the planning application for the Queensway Gateway road, the purpose of which is to allow the ‘unlocking’ of land (the Hollington Valley Site of Nature Conservation Importance) for yet another ‘business park’, it’s worth taking a close look at what happened with Enviro 21. Why did the miracle of job creation we were promised never happen?
The murky history
Enviro 21 has undergone many mutations since it was first proposed in the early 2000s. What you see now is a site with a huge area of undeveloped space. The promised wind turbine has never been built, and the conference centre and restaurant is very far from busy. In short, whilst the occupiers of the existing buildings are happy with them, the whole site is very far from the thriving eco-community once envisaged.
‘Major international company’ wants the space
A planning application for Enviro 21 was first submitted in 2004. At that point, the application was for a single, five-storey, building. Two years later, no construction having started, permission was sought to slightly amend the original application. At this point, SeaSpace (the regeneration company which was a precursor to SeaChange) claimed that the building was to be occupied by a ‘major international company’.
‘Major international company’ changes its mind
Which company it was, we don’t know, as they subsequently pulled out, leaving no takers for the site. Undeterred, SeaSpace came back some 18 months later with a third planning application for the site. This time, the plan had changed utterly. Instead of the single five-storey building, they now proposed ten separate units, to ‘make provision for a number of smaller tenants with more flexible workspaces’. The total floorspace had been reduced from 16,000 sqm in the original plans, to 9,900 sqm.
First firm in…
Building started, and the first three buildings were ready for occupation in summer of 2010. In April 2011, the Hastings Observer ran a story about the first firm to move into Enviro 21. The director of Poppypac, – an ‘environmentally-conscious manufacturer for the health and beauty industry’ – told the paper that ‘The Enviro 21 scheme mirrors our vision for low-carbon business and we’re excited to be in at the start.’
…finds it a bit lonely
A year later, things weren’t looking so rosy, with Poppypac the only firm to have moved onto the new site. The Observer ran another story, ‘Business park half empty two years after launch’ which quoted the director of Poppypac again. This time, she was less upbeat. ‘We thought this place would become a thriving eco-friendly business park but that seems to have died a death,’ she said.
Blame the recession
John Shaw, director of SeaSpace (and subsequently SeaChange), was quick to blame someone else for the fiasco: ‘The recession has been a factor for the lack of interest so far. We found that the economic climate meant there was more demand for smaller and larger units than the mid-size units on site.’ So not his fault in any way.
If John Shaw is right that the problem is the size of the units, the sensible thing to do might be to use the large area of land at Enviro 21, which was cleared for development but never built on, to build different size units. Was this going to happen?
In June 2010, Sea Space had claimed that ‘Coastal Innovation will build further business units at South Queensway at a later date’. In March 2011, East Sussex County Council referred to what was now being called ‘phase two’ in a report on the ‘evolving economic development landscape’. By then, the total number of jobs to be created had mysteriously gone down to 230, but ESCC remained bullish, saying that ‘strong interest has already been expressed for phase 2′. Where this interest came from, we shall never know, but what is apparent is that it subsequently went the same way as the ‘major international company’. Phase two has never been built.
And the jobs?
The stated purpose of all the endless industrial estates we seem to need locally is to create jobs. Hastings Borough Council and SeaChange appear to believe that if we build the estates, the people offering the jobs will come. It’s a very simplistic view of regeneration and suggests that the only real problem in our town is that there is insufficient space for business. There are, apparently, huge numbers of people desperate to start businesses locally, if only there were a business park they could move into.
‘Up to’ 500 jobs
But does the reality bear out that view? Enviro 21, we were told, would produce up to 500 jobs. Those two little words, ‘up to’ should be noted here: anything from one job to 499 jobs could be, technically, ‘up to’ 500 jobs.
So, how many jobs?
We’ve tried to find out how many jobs have actually been created by Enviro 21, as opposed to being relocated from other areas. In other words, how many jobs are there that would not exist had Enviro 21 not been built? As we soon discovered, nobody wanted to tell us.
Freedom of Information: but nobody has the information
First we tried Essex County Council (as the accountable body for the South East Local Enterprise Partnership, since the project was part-funded by SEEDA, a precursor to SELEP). They didn’t have the information, but said East Sussex County Council would.
We submitted our request to ESCC. No dice: they didn’t have it but suggested the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. We’re still waiting for them, but in the meantime tried Hastings Borough Council. No luck there either, but they said we could get the information from SeaChange.
We’ve contacted SeaChange, who of all people should have the information. However, as a private company they are not bound by the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, and can refuse our request. Our experience of SeaChange is that they’re not exactly forthcoming when it comes to information about their projects, and indeed they have not responded to our request.
Let’s count for ourselves
Since nobody wanted to tell us how many jobs had been created, we thought we’d count for ourselves, by ringing the companies on the site.
There are three units at Enviro 21; one is rented by a local charity as a donation centre, and the other two are rented by manufacturing companies. All of them relocated to Enviro 21 from other business premises in or around Hastings. The two manufacturing companies each created five new jobs when they moved in. The charity donation centre did not create any new jobs. Fourteen people work at the Sussex Exchange, the restaurant and conference centre on the site. So the grand total of new jobs? 24.
Who paid? We did!
Enviro 21 cost, according to who you believe, £11m or £20m. The South East England Development Agency (SEEDA) threw in £9.3m but where the remaining £4m, or £13m, came from, we don’t know – perhaps it didn’t come from anywhere, since most of the planned units have never been built.
Accountability: or not
What it boils down to is this: SeaChange receives huge amounts of public money for ‘regeneration’ projects – the Bexhill Gateway road; Lacuna Place, Priory Square and Havelock Place in Hastings; North Queensway (where a large area of woodland was felled but nothing has ever been built); Enviro 21; the Queensway Gateway road (which SeaChange claims – incredibly – will create up to 1,370 jobs).
They get the money by claiming that the project in question will create hundreds, or even thousands, of jobs. The project goes ahead – but there is no audit, no follow-up, no accountability.
If the jobs don’t materialise (as in the case of Enviro 21), SeaChange can just shrug, blame the economic climate, and move on to the next thing. John Shaw, who has presided over this fiasco, is not called to account for this monumental waste of public money.
This is our money, these are our green spaces. How long are we going to let this destruction continue?