The scandal of empty homes in Hastings and St Leonards

Derelict houses, St Leonards. 22/11/11'Old language school, Sedlescombe Road South.
Derelict houses, St Leonards. 22/11/11'Old language school, Sedlescombe Road South.
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NESTLING among the leafy streets of a smart suburb of Leonards there are properties where time has more than passed by.

A brief stroll through Gillsmans Hill reveals the true scale of the problem.

Boarded up like an old seafront prom stall, the grade-two listed Rose Cottage is now a prisoner in its own home.

The 19th century property is just one of a number of homes that have been left to go to wrack and ruin at the taxpayers expense.

There are a number of homes stretching from Sedlescombe Road North back to the Wishing Tree roundabout which form part of a forgotten corridor.

Way back in the 1970s East Sussex County Council snapped up around a dozen homes to pursue a road-widening scheme as part of the plans to build a link road.

But the scheme never arrived and more than 35 years on the buildings stand empty and in serious need of repair.

These include Rose Cottage which is now boarded up with its internal structure in such a bad state of repair the county council has erected white boarding around it.

On the junction of The Green and Gillsmans Hill lies the Victorian brick building called “Ooty” which used to be a doctors surgery. It was abandoned more than 30 years ago.

Scaffolding was erected several years ago but no repair work appears to have been carried out.

But the large rear garden has been cleared so nearby residents can get a full view of the building’s sad demise.

Another nearby eyesore is the sprawling Shelagar Tutorial College, a five bedroom Victorian home which was boarded up and abandoned more than 30 years ago.

John Marlborough, who lives in nearby Chievely Cottages, said: “It’s a disgraceful situation. We have been watching this building just stand there neglected and abandoned for years. Vandals have gone into Rose Cottage and caused damage as they were trying to get into the adjacent car garage.

“Now they send council workmen around to paint these buildings up - but you can’t disguise the fact that they are derelict.

“How can the county council spend so much of taxpayers’ money and just leave them empty for so long?

“Leaving them empty for a year would be bad enough but more than 30 years is totally unacceptable.”

The taxpayer has had to foot the bill for running repairs and scaffolding for several buildings just to make them safe. The bill is estimated to have run into several hundred thousands of pounds.

And with the town facing a shortage of affordable homes, residents and local councillors are furious they have been left empty and neglected.

Across Hastings and St Leonards, there is a plethora of eyesore buildings which have been abandoned or left to the mercy of vandals, squatters and looters.

The council does have an Empty Homes Strategy aiming to compulsory puchase houses that have been empty for more than two years. But the process is costly and even at a rate of 30 a year would take many years to complete.

One local councillor who is trying to tackle the issue head on is Phil Scott. He has called for the county council to take immediate action.

Cllr Scott, who represents Hollington and Wishing Tree at the county council, and Wishing Tree ward at Hastings Borough Council (HBC), said: “It’s an absolute scandal.

“The properties were bought with taxpayers’ money and the county council dragged its feet for far too many years.

“Thankfully the borough council is now taking the lead and has started an empty homes strategy.

“Despite a limited budget it has already started to compulsory purchase some homes this year and has set an annual target.

“It’s a drop in the ocean when it comes to tackling a problem this big but at least it is a starting point.

“The empty homes should have been maintained to an acceptable standard and, where possible, should have been brought back into use for families that desperately need them.

“Until now there has never really been a move to address the matter either by way of the appearance of the buildings or by way of a property disposal programme.

“I am pleased to say that a schedule of works is now in place to at least ensure the properties look more aesthetically pleasing.

“Clearly where there are tenants in some of the properties who, of course, may have been there for many years, they will need to be given the due consideration by the county council.

“For the residents that live in this locality and indeed for others that frequently pass by, I am pleased that the appearance of some the buildings will be improved in the coming months.”

Campbell Robb, chief executive of Shelter, said: “With homelessness rising and millions priced out of the housing market, it is simply wrong that homes stand empty when so many people are desperately in need of a roof over their head. Bringing empty homes back into use could help ease the desperate shortage of housing and we need to explore every possible way in which the existing housing stock can provide homes for people in housing need.”

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• David Baughan, Head of Estates and Corporate Asset Management at the County Council said: “We know that this is a concern to local people and we are working hard to resolve the issue. The Council compulsory purchased a total of seven properties for possible road and junction improvements and of those three are currently vacant. The other properties have tenants and one is part-occupied by a business. The scheme is now under review and once completed we will then consider if we still need the properties and if not they will be sold. Since 2006, we’ve spent a total of £63,500 on maintenance although this has been partly offset by income from rent received from our tenants.”