Select Committee on Communities and Local Government Committee Second Report



Dr Phyllis Starkey MP (Chair)

Lyn Brown MP

Dr John Pugh MP

Robin Deane (Performance Director, 1066 Housing Association)

Clive Galbraith (Co-chair of the Local Strategic Partnership)

John Hodges (Co-chair of the Local Strategic Partnership)

Tim Hulme (Director of Projects, Hastings New College)

Steve Manwaring (Director, Hastings Voluntary Action)

Graham Marley (Ten Sixty Six Enterprise)

Cllr Matthew Lock (lead member regeneration at Hastings Borough Council, and East Sussex County Council transport lead)

Roy Mawford (Chief Executive, Hastings Borough Council)

Cheryl Miller (Chief Executive, East Sussex County Council)

Michael Nix (Partnership Director, Hastings and Rother Learning and Skills Council)

Cllr Peter Pragnell (Leader of Hastings Borough Council)

Cllr Simon Radford-Kirby (economic development projects, East Sussex County Council)

John Shaw (Director, Sea Space (local regeneration company))

Luke Springthorpe (Chair, Young Persons' Council)

Steve Swan (National Sales and Development Manager, Tomorrow's People)

Owen Thompson (Chair, Local Strategic Partnership equalities group)

The Chair opened the meeting by thanking local stakeholders for attending, and outlined the main themes of the Committee's inquiry.

Cllr Pragnell welcomed the Committee on behalf of the participants. He stated that having recently become council leader, he and his group intended to maintain the cross-party commitment to regenerating Hastings, a prime example of which was the university centre in which we were having the meeting. But it had taken the town 40 to 60 years to decline, and regeneration would be a long-term process. He said that the key issue facing the town was education and training with a view to improving the skills base in order to attract employers. An early key plank of that programme would be the development of a major college on the old station site.

Mr Mawford said Hastings had, 50 years ago, been the third tourist resort in the country behind Blackpool and Bournemouth, but that over-reliance on tourism was part of the reason for subsequent decline. None the less, although education was, indeed, the key issue in reviving Hastings, tourism remained the second most important issue. Transport was the third major need: Hastings connections with Kent and beyond were vital to bring wages, house prices and employment levels up.

Ms Miller said Hastings differed significantly from other coastal towns in the strength of the partnerships forged between the various strands of local government and development agencies. This had arisen from the Government's rejection of a bypass plan, leading to the creation of a 10-year, five-point plan for the area.

Mr Shaw outlined the vision for Hastings contained in those five points: 1) Urban renaissance. 2) Educational excellence. 3) Business and enterprise initiatives aimed at existing businesses, expansion and links to educational institutions. 4) Improving IT use in business, particularly broadband. 5) Improved transport connections, both road and rail.

He added that Hastings' employment demography gave the town unique problems:

  • 41% is public sector;
  • 13% manufacturing (which is above the regional average);
  • 22% is in distribution, retailing and hospitality (below the 29% regional average);
  • 8% is in financial services (well below the 22% regional average).

This profile highlighted the lack of high-skilled employment opportunities in the area. In addition, the employment rate was 70%, against a national 80% average, and educational qualifications also fell below national averages.

Finally, Hastings suffered from low-quality housing stock as a result of poor conversion of former tourist resort properties. In the 1950s, the town had 50,000 bed nights, with accommodation to match. Now the figure was nearer 900 bed nights, with the accommodation converted into flats or HMOs.

Mr Hodges said Hastings's problems stretched back 150 rather than just 50 years. The town had always had transient populations moving through and had been at the fringe of everything and the centre of nothing. The former tourist hotels had now become transient accommodation for refugees, with a high concentration of Kosovans. But the town needed to remember it had a 180 degree hinterland, with the view in the direction of the other 180 degrees across the channel.

Mr Deane talked about the neighbourhood renewal focus on social housing. The neighbourhood renewal unit, in particular, had a strongly urban focus, rather than dealing with specifically coastal concerns. HMOs were a common issue facing coastal towns.

Mr Hulme also said the town had significant similarities with Margate and Folkestone as former coastal resorts. The new college in Hastings was focused on improving skills among the young, with 1,200 full-time and 10,000 part-time students. Employers seeking workers had reported that basic reading and writing skills in the area were often poor - in some instances, school leavers had the literacy levels of 10-year-olds. For the college, that raised the difficulty that students of the right age were often a long way from being able to undertake further education.

Mr Mawford added that the town had an unusual population profile: more young and older people than average, with consequently fewer in the middle age range.

Cllr Radford-Kirby said that Hastings suffered, as the whole of East Sussex did, from accessibility problems. This was nothing new: 14th century east Sussex peasants had been unable to join the Peasants' Revolt for lack of usable roads.

He highlighted significant local employment issues, such as the seasonality of employment and the number of low-paid jobs - "not what you'd want if you had a choice".

Cllr Pragnell, in response to questions, stressed that tourism was not the No. 1 industry in the town, and had not been since at least the 1970s. Although educational attainment was rising, the town still had high levels of people suffering mental health problems.

Mr Marley said there were two key issues: skill levels and 'employability' among younger people; and transport, with 85% of the area's businesses and micro-businesses operating within a 10-mile radius because they simply couldn't get out any further.

Mr Swann, national sales and development manager of Tomorrow's People, pleaded with the Committee not to forget disadvantaged people and the work of the third sector. He said that Single Regeneration Budget funding for his group would end in March and that the Learning and Skills Council was providing only 10 months' funding for educational provision. Sustainable long-term funding for the third sector was a priority.

Mr Thompson, chair of the local strategic partnership equalities group, said that Hastings was a multicultural town. It had become a dispersal area for asylum seekers, but without sufficient government support for that burden in an already deprived area. The town had coped, but needed more help.

Cllr Pragnell added that the number of asylum seekers being housed in the town was falling off, and that dispersal was being handled better with people being housed at different locations throughout the area: at one point previously, "torturers and tortured" had been housed in the same former hotel, leading to the obvious trouble between different groups.

Cllr Matthew Lock said, on educational needs and skills levels, that he had been shocked to read a survey saying most employers in the area would prefer to employ an ex-prisoner than a school-leaver on the grounds that the former were more reliable.

Cllr Radford-Kirby said that there had not been enough money to deal with dispersal of asylum seekers in Hastings, perhaps because the area suffered from the incorrect perception that the south-east is rich.

Ms Miller noted that the black and minority ethnic population of the area was only 3% of the total.

Mr Thompson added that that population had previously been negligible: when he arrived in Hastings 40 years ago, his was the only dark face he ever saw.

Cllr Pragnell added, though, that there are now between 70 and 90 ethnic groups within the area.

Ms Miller said that a response to the changing population was required from the area's education authority, and that increasing legal constraints on how the travellers population should be dealt with raised issues.

She agreed with Mr Radford-Kirby that Hastings might be seen as prosperous because it was in the south-east, while it in fact had the same GDP as Merseyside or Humberside.

She, too, stressed connectivity problems — it takes as long to go from Hastings to London as from London to Yorkshire.

She, too, said improved tourism will not alone regenerate the town: better employment opportunities are the route to economic improvement, while changing the town's image as somewhere people retire to is also essential.

She also explained the need to change the town's demographic profile, stressing that Hastings had among the highest proportions of elderly people in the country.

Mr Manwaring, said although Hastings was a small place it had a vibrant voluntary sector with more than 400 organisations at work. But local action sometimes happened in spite of rather than because of national programmes. He called for neighbourhood renewal assistance to help get self-starting local schemes under way.

Cllr Lock, in response to questioning on whether the role of tourism was not being undervalued, said that Hastings was looking forwards not backwards.

Cllr Pragnell added that the town had a past and was proud of it — the recent 940th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Hastings, for example. Links were being forged with Bayeux, Calvados and Caen on the basis of that shared past, but Hastings was not primarily a seaside resort and tourism alone would not be enough to lift out of decline a town that was the 39th most deprived borough among 350.

Mr Hedges said, however, that 2,000 people had taken part in the Battle of Hastings re-enactment recently, with 10,000 in the area and spending money for the event. He said many of Hastings's problems were self-inflicted, with inept councils not investing properly.

Mr Springthorpe said there were 25,000 young people in the area. His main interest was in the social side of regeneration, with a major need for a youth building offering educational and recreational opportunities. Otherwise, drinking was a local problem because young people had few places to go but pubs, especially in the winter months.

He said local buses could do better at serving people's needs rather than sticking to set routes: for example, they could focus on places young people might leave in significant numbers late at night.

Older people in the town perceived a pandemic of youngsters out drinking on the streets, a perception that could be partly addressed by creating a centre for the younger population.

Like Cllr Lock, he was appalled by the survey reporting that employers were more likely to employ ex-prisoners than young people, and he felt that owed something to perceptions created by the media about young people's habits and educational levels.

He believed that most young people would want to leave the town when it came to seeking jobs. There simply were not enough high-end jobs, with Brighton and London much more attractive. Low-skilled jobs were available, but the town badly needed a high-skilled labour force so that jobs would be created in the area.

He also said that while schools surrounding Hastings were of good quality, standards within the town's schools were low.

It fairly easy to obtain "soft" drugs — cannabis and ecstasy in particular. Some cocaine was also available. He believed that these drugs came to the town from London.

Mr Thompson praised the youth council for working with older people in the town on common problems.

Mr Mawford, questioned about perceptions of the town created by the media, said the local media were generally supportive, but that national media stories, particularly in the Daily Mail, had been deeply unhelpful.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 7 March 2007