Fears over threat to thriving business community

Henry Gastall (left) leaseholder, with business people who rent units at Britannia Enterprise Centre
Henry Gastall (left) leaseholder, with business people who rent units at Britannia Enterprise Centre

A TIGHT-KNIT community of small businesses in the town centre is concerned for its future.

Businesses, tradespeople, and artists who operate from units at the council-owned Britannia Enterprise Centre, in Waterworks Road, are worried that the supportive environment they value will be lost if the current leaseholder is evicted.

Management team Henry Gastall and his daughter Lucy rent units at affordable rates to fledgling businesses, and their flexible rather than profit-driven approach has contributed to a number of success stories.

These include Hastings Brewery, Bell’s Bicycles, Respond Academy, and Gizmo, which all started at the Britannia centre. Henry has managed the site since the late 1990s, but he and Lucy could face eviction if they fail to carry out a long list of repairs by the end of August.

There are currently 46 occupied units at the centre, employing around 100 people in total. The businesses are diverse and include a blacksmith, café, joinery, car wash, an academic publisher, and a high-end HiFi manufacturer among others.

Terry McBride, who runs an academic publishing business from the centre, said: “Britannia is a real community of small businesses, artists and individuals trying to make a livelihood.

“We support each other and are a genuinely socially mixed and sustainable community. Britannia’s management ethos is self confessedly ‘philanthropic’ rather than profit driven. If this area starts to gentrify, and rents start to rise, many of us will be forced out and some of us will be pushed onto the welfare state.”

Business owners say there have been vast improvements over the years, transforming what was a quasi-wasteland into a thriving business community. Henry said: “I have to give this my last gasp physically and financially, because they are all behind us. In some ways it makes me feel really sad because I’m not just fighting for me, I’m fighting for everyone.”

The occupants of the units are convinced that without Henry and Lucy, many businesses may struggle or go under.

Hastings MP Amber Rudd has received 31 individual letters in support of the current management, and said: “Henry and Lucy are inspiring and supporting new ventures in Hastings.

“I have been flooded with letters of praise for them by the businesses and sole traders in the enterprise centre.

“They are exactly what the town needs – business people with a social conscience who are determined to help people succeed.

“While the council has a duty to get the best value for its properties, I would urge them to consider the greater good to the community by having this centre run by Henry and Lucy.”

A Facebook campaign group “Save Britannia Enterprise Centre”, set up by Stephen Weir who operates his custom airbrush art business from one of the units, has attracted more than 150 supporters in the space of two weeks.

One post, from Loadfast Waste Disposal, reads: “Why change something that works so well when everyone is happy.

“We think that HBC should fill all the other vacant sites before tearing apart this little community.

“Henry might not be a suited and booted man, but his heart is in the right place helping all these people achieve their goals.” Leader of Hastings Borough Council, Jeremy Birch, said: “The council has no plans to redevelop the Britannia Enterprise site. We value it as a location for small businesses especially for artisans and crafts people. But we own many properties around the town which we lease out and as the owner we have a duty to the residents of the town to ensure that the terms of these leases are adhered to.

“Really the ball is in now his court to prove that the necessary repairs and improvements required under the lease have been carried out. He can make an application to the court at any time for a new tenancy and show the works he has done. We have invited him and his representative to come and talk to us about the works schedule and the future of the lease.”