For several years, Tariq Khwaja, of TK Associates has been the public face of SeaChange Sussex. He’s been there at every ‘consultation’ and every Bexhill Hastings Link Road ‘construction exhibition’; he is nearly always listed as the ‘spokesman’ for SeaChange in press releases (which he presumably writes); and he generally ensures that anyone who actually works for SeaChange – most notably director John Shaw – is almost entirely invisible, and hence utterly unaccountable.
Tariq’s website makes much of his work for SeaChange (in fact, a large number of the projects used to illustrate his website are related in some way to our dubious local ‘regeneration’ company). One of the ‘projects’ listed is ‘Managing Protests Against Regeneration’ – an interesting spin on the long campaign against the Bexhill Hastings Link Road. Paint your opponents as Luddites, and there’s no need to have any kind of intelligent analysis of what they’re opposed to. It would appear that the hundreds of people who resisted the Link Road simply wanted to ‘stop change in the area’, as opposed to, say, stopping a hugely expensive, environment-destroying, carbon-creating, unnecessary road scheme.
‘They’ve used the media to spread dissent’
The charges against the protesters are put like this:
They’ve waged an organised campaign over several years, attempting to turn public opinion against the regeneration programme and the organisations – and individuals – behind it. They’ve used the media to spread dissent. They’ve lodged several high court challenges to the schemes. And, at the start of the construction of roads and premises, they’ve brought the programme to crisis points by physically obstructing progress – locking themselves to trees and diggers and occupying tunnels dug into the ground.
In response to this, Tariq says, his company has
…helped provide robust commentary to the media, refuting false claims and presenting a strong account of the advantages of the schemes. We’ve stuck to a small number of consistent messages about the big picture – the long-term benefits the regeneration programme will bring.
It’s not clear what ‘false claims’ he’s referring to. Certainly Combe Haven Defenders, one of the key groups behind the resistance to the link road, has been scrupulous in only making claims that could be backed up by evidence. Not so SeaChange Sussex, which over the years has made the most outrageous, and unsupported, claims for the likely numbers of jobs to be created by their so-called ‘regeneration’ projects.
‘Tangible proof of benefits’
It’s important, of course, not just to counter the ‘false claims’ of your opponents, but also to promote a positive message. To this end, Tariq claims that:
…whenever a scheme has produced a result such as occupancy by a good employer, we’ve communicated this as proactively as possible to provide tangible proof of the benefits of the programme.
This would seem to prove what an effective PR agency TK Associates is, given the dearth of positive outcomes from the various ill-conceived SeaChange projects locally. Despite claims of endless jobs to be created, most of the business parks and offices created by SeaChange Sussex (all of them using public money) remain stubbornly vacant.
‘Lone voices standing against progress’
And the PR campaign against opponents of ‘regeneration’ worked – at least according to Tariq:
In the early days, the protesters managed to attract many followers and foster the impression of being environmental protectors commanding a great groundswell of support. But it’s now clear they’re lone voices standing against progress and increasingly at odds with the mainstay of public opinion.
Of course, one could say that nobody knows what the ‘mainstay of public opinion’ might say about all these projects, since the public has never been asked, and TK Associates’ main job for SeaChange would appear to be to keep the failed projects quiet. Despite the tens of millions of pounds of public money thrown at all these projects, many people in and around Hastings still haven’t heard of SeaChange – which is the way they like to keep it.
If you need a testimonial from Peter Jones…
The page ends with a testimonial from the not-always-well-informed Peter Jones, ex-leader of East Sussex County Council, who pushed the Bexhill Hastings Link Road through whilst, bizarrely, accusing protesters of wanting to ‘take away people’s jobs and homes’. His plaudit notes that:
Tariq in particular has advised us on how to deal effectively with highly organised protest groups who opposed the construction of new roads and business premises, enlisting the support of local businesses and other groups to counter the loud and often violent voices of a tiny minority.
Despite the odd wording, which makes it sound as if the protest groups had to enlist the support of local businesses to counter the voices of a tiny minority, it’s good to know that Peter Jones thought the campaign was ‘highly organised’. His hyperbole in referring to ‘violent voices’ is very typical of a man not known for his moderation. Refusing to move out of the way of chainsaws and bulldozers is not an act of violence, whatever Peter Jones might think. Setting that aside, a testimonial from a man who – by many accounts – was not the most likeable person on the county council, and ended up being sacked (in his words) from his next job at the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (perhaps because nobody could work with him), is perhaps not the most glowing endorsement of the work of TK Associates.
At the end of the day, however, it’s good to know that SeaChange Sussex has at least created one job – for their spinner-in-chief, Tariq Khwaja.