Traders were given about three weeks notice of the auction when they received a letter from the building’s trustees.
The letter said Queens Arcade would be sold in an online auction which ends next Wednesday (March 24). The guideline price is £325,000 to £350,000 plus fees.
Most of the businesses in the Arcade are family-run and have been in the town for decades, but owners are now concerned about their futures under new landlords.
Paul Saxby, the owner of Arcade Fisheries which has been in Queens Arcade since 1937, said all businesses received a letter in the post about ten days ago informing them of the upcoming auction. This included shops that have been forced to close due to the current national lockdown.
“If they hadn’t been checking their post, they might not have known about it,” said Mr Saxby, who has owned Arcade Fisheries for 20 years, after buying out the family business from his dad who worked there from the age of 16 until retirement.
“I don’t really know what to say. The Arcade is a beautiful building with amazing architecture. Television was invented in the arcade thanks to John Logie Baird in 1924.
“What we would love is trustees who care for the building and its history, and want to keep it open for the people of Hastings.
“At the moment, everyone is concerned. They are all family businesses in there. It’s the uncertainty – not just for me but for all the people employed in there. It feels like we’ve been knocked out by Mike Tyson.
“Our biggest fear is some developer comes in and decides to knock it to the ground, but I personally doubt it.”
Gary Fellows, who has owned Arcade Butchers for the past 21 years, shared Mr Saxby’s concerns.
He said: “I had planned to own the business for another 15 years but if they up the rent then I won’t be able to afford it. Unfortunately trade is not so good at the moment and the building has fallen into a bit of disrepair.
“The building looks a bit run down because it hasn’t been properly cared for. I do what I can to make the shop look nice but the Arcade looks run down. Unfortunately Hastings isn’t a thriving town at the moment.”
Mr Fellows said the businesses were ‘not given enough time’ to prepare their own bid for the Arcade, which would have required the support of Hastings Borough Council.
He fears an increase in rent would force most businesses out of the Arcade, including his own.
The building, which was built in 1882, is owned by the Went Tree Trust, who have trustees from Heringtons Solicitors.
Heringtons said: “Heringtons Solicitors have acted for the Went Tree Trustees since the firm merged with Menneer Shuttleworth in 2014. Solicitors from Heringtons and its predecessor firms have been involved with the Trust since its inception.
“The Trust has been in existence since 1927 and is regulated by the Charity Commission. In 2015 Sally Kinsey, a partner in this firm, was appointed as one of the Trustees in place of former solicitors on their retirement. Heringtons is regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
“Efforts were made to find members of the public to become trustees and advertisements were placed. Two lay trustees were appointed in 2019. Where there is any risk of a conflict of interest arising between this firm and the Trust, advice has been taken by the Trustees from independent solicitors in accordance with SRA guidelines.”
According to the Trust’s charity commission page, Went Tree Trust’s average income for each of the past five years has been about £63,000 while its average yearly costs over that time have been approximately £100,000.
It was in 1924 in the Queens Arcade that Scottish engineer John Logie Baird gave his first public demonstration of television at the site. Many of those early experiments were carried out at his workshop above No 8 in the Arcade.
To this day, there is a plaque, unveiled in 1929, which marks that occasion.
It was 13 years after John Logie Baird’s discovery that Arcade Fisheries was established, in 1937. Mr Saxby’s father worked there from the age of 16 right up until he retired at the age of 65, and was only ever away from the business during his years of national service.
Twenty years ago, Mr Saxby took on the business from his father and now employs his two sons and brother-in-law.
“I have grown up with the Arcade,” said Mr Saxby. “I love it, it’s a part of me. As a three or four-year-old I would go down with dad and paint the shop. I want my sons to carry it on after me.
“I’d love someone to take it on and care for it. Trustees are meant to take care of a building. That’s what happened over the years but work is just not getting done. If the building needs a lick of paint, or a tile is cracked, trustees of the past would just do it. That’s the type of trustees we need now.”
Mr Fellows agreed: “Someone could buy it and make sure the money is properly spent. That’s what it needs. But that would probably include an increase in rent. I don’t mind a little increase but I can’t afford a big increase. I’d be forced out and have to look for somewhere else in Hastings and that won’t be so easy.
“We tried to have a meeting with the landlords and the council about this a few years ago and at the time we were told that the building couldn’t be sold. I have no idea where the money has been spent.
“The town could lose me.”
In a statement, the current trustees said: “The trustees of the Went Tree trust as private owners are putting Queens Arcade up for sale by auction. This is necessary to secure the charity’s financial future so as to support the charitable aims of the trust which are (a) Provision of grants to those people of Hastings who wish to emigrate to Commonwealth countries (the Emigration Fund) (b) Provision of grants for the purchase of artefacts for the Hastings Museum (the Museum Fund). The trust has been unable to make any charitable payments since 2017 due to the day to day requirements of running the Arcade.
“As required by the Charity Commission rules, the trustees have taken advice from a local Chartered Surveyor as to the value of the Arcade and how to achieve the best financial outcome for the trust. The advice received was to sell through auction. These discussions have been ongoing for months but the final decision could only be made once the Charity Commission requirements had been met. The trust does not have the funds nor access to investment to continue running the Arcade. A new owner, possibly one or more of the present shopkeepers, is more likely to be able to restore the Arcade and harness the entrepreneurial spirit needed to bring it back to life to the ultimate benefit of the wonderful shops that trade within the Arcade and the shoppers who, in ordinary times, love doing so.
“The change of private ownership will not affect the shop leaseholders’ legal rights. A delay in the auction would incur additional costs and would jeopardise the trust’s future.
“The trustees are very much looking forward to investing the net sale proceeds wisely and to being able to make charitable distributions in the future. There is a need for the Scheme of Arrangement to be modernised given that its aims are not entirely in tune with modern thinking. The superb Hastings Museum is a beneficiary and, when freed of the responsibility of managing the Arcade, the trustees look forward to working closely with the Museum to help achieve its aims for the benefit of the town.”