Plans for a major regeneration project in Hailsham are to move ahead to the next stage after discussion by Wealden council leaders.
At a meeting on Wednesday (January 30), Wealden District Council’s cabinet discussed plans for a major redevelopment in the area surrounding the Vicarage Field Shopping Centre.
While still at an early stage, the project is expected to include improvements to the shopping area, new council offices, a seven-storey multi-storey car park and 280 homes.
Council leader Bob Standley said: “What we have got in front of us is very much an early stage. It is not the final plan. It is indicative and we are obviously very open to input from all sources.
“This is a big project, I’m not sure of the total capital but we are talking millions of pounds to do this.”
Cllr Standley also spoke about how the project – which the council says likely to cost around £100m and take at least five years to complete – could be funded further down the line.
According a report on the proposals, the council considering three options for the wider development: selling off the site to a developer; funding the full project itself; or moving ahead as part of a joint venture.
Cllr Standley said he believed it was unlikely the council would fund the entire project itself, in part because of the time and expertise it would require.
However, he said he wouldn’t want to see the site sold off either, saying the council would hand over too much control to developers by doing do.
Cllr Standley said: “I’m not over keen on that. What tends to happen with those is the good bits get engineered out for the profit of the developer and we lose control. It is so important we get this right.
“A joint venture of some kind – and there are a number – would seem to be the obvious way forward, but that has not been decided.
“There is a sponsor board that has been working on this so far and there is a lot more work to be done.”
As the project moves into its next phase, the council is expected to begin early public consultation on the plans in the near future as well as carry out more detailed studies into how the development could move forward.
A desire for public consultation was stressed by Claire Dowling, the council’s portfolio holder for public health and community safety, who highlighted the community response to recent improvement work in Uckfield.
Cllr Dowling said: “Learning from Uckfield’s experience [I want] to stress the importance of engaging with the public at a very very early stage and that engagement continuing throughout – whether that is in the form of websites, frequently asked questions.
“Uckfield went through this whole process. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Learn from what we have done.”
Cllr Dowling also highlighted that designs are still at an early stage and that an artist’s impression of the proposals may be far from the final appearance of the site.
Cabinet members also heard from Hailsham mayor Nigel Coltman, who also represents Hailsham North and Central on Wealden District Council.
Cllr Coltman said: “I want to applaud the council and the cabinet for a very adventurous scheme. I think it will bring great things to Hailsham.
“My one concern is that the retailers in Hailsham are just recovering from a very extensive rebuild of all the roads around the centre. If this was to start within a year then I think a lot of them would give up.
“I really want you to take into account the concerns of the traders that have survived and are continuing to survive.”
Cllr Coltman also raised concerns about traffic in the town and the density of housing proposed but welcomed the inclusion of a multi-storey car park.
In response, Cllr Standley said building work would not begin for some time but that the council was committed to supporting small businesses in the town centre.
He said: “This is high level but we need to keep those shops, because town centres are going to be about niche retailers rather than big retailers.
“Hailsham is noted for those shops and we need to make sure we manage that through this process.”
The development is proposed for both the Vicarage Field Shopping Centre – which the council bought for £12.35m in 2017 – and land on the opposite side of Vicarage Lane, including the current council offices and leisure centre.
A large part of the proposed development also includes several of Hailsham’s free car parks, although it is expected the spaces lost would be consolidated into a single multi-storey car park. The council says it is too early to say whether charges will be introduced.
The final proposals would also include new facilities for the Freedom Leisure Centre, Hailsham Club and Charles Hunt Centre, which all fall within the development area.
New civic offices would also be built to replace the council offices in Vicarage Lane. These could potentially act as offices for a range of public sector bodies, including emergency services and both the town council and district council.
The civic offices could also include a library, according to council documents.
Electric car charging points and green energy generation are also intended to be part of the proposals.