SeaChange is finally under scrutiny

IssueOctober - November 2022
Comment by Andrea Needham

SeaChange Sussex is a private not-for-profit company which has received tens of millions of pounds of public money to ‘regenerate’ Hastings in East Sussex. Andrea Needham has been monitoring it through Seachangewatch.

I’ve been plugging away trying to expose SeaChange for many years now. And, finally, it feels as if I’m not on my own.

For years, I read minutes of meetings, put in Freedom of Information requests, wrote blogposts, and posted them on my website. I sent out press releases, which were sometimes picked up by the local paper but very often ignored. I could see from the stats on my website that I didn’t have a huge readership. If I mentioned SeaChange in conversation, I would usually be met with a blank look and would have to go into the whole ‘It’s a regeneration company, it sucks up public money and produces nothing’ spiel.

Seven years on from my first blogpost (about a SeaChange business park which promised 500 jobs but created just 24), I can say that SeaChange is – finally – on the agenda locally.

Our local ‘newspaper’, the Hastings Observer, is next to useless in terms of actual journalism. If I’m lucky, they’ll reproduce a press release I’ve sent them, but usually with any criticism of SeaChange removed – even though I never say anything about the company that I can’t back up.

In recent years, the paper has been taken over by media conglomerates multiple times. Each time, the number of actual journalists has fallen, so the paper is now mostly adverts, crime news and trivia. No chance of any investigative journalism there.

However, we also have a couple of independent media outlets in the town, one print and one online. Over the last couple of years, they have picked up the SeaChange story.

The Hastings Independent – in print – has run a number of pieces on the failings of the company. I read the first few through gritted teeth. They had taken a lot of information off my website – information which I had found through laborious hours of reading extremely dull minutes of meetings or by putting in Freedom of Information requests – and reproduced it as if it was their research, without any mention of Seachangewatch.

I contacted the paper and requested that I be properly credited, which they now usually do.

The online magazine, Hastings Online Times (HOT), has also run a number of SeaChange stories – but properly researched, with credit where credit is due.

In the last couple of years, in fact, HOT has often beaten me to a particularly interesting piece of information about the company – and that’s fine, the more the merrier when it comes to exposing SeaChange.

And I find that, when I mention SeaChange now, most people know what I’m talking about, so this extra media exposure has clearly been effective in bringing the misdeeds of the company to public notice.

Over the past year in particular, there has definitely been an upsurge in interest about – and questioning of – SeaChange.

Last March, the Rother district councillor who sits on the SeaChange board resigned, saying: ‘Having been on the board for over two years, I have felt that the reputational damage to myself and to the council of being associated with SeaChange is just too great.’

He cited the lack of progress on key projects and, in particular, the fact that SeaChange always blamed someone else for its failures – it was the fault of the county council, the highways authority, the district council. Anyone, in fact, apart from the company itself.

A couple of weeks later, the Hastings council representative to the board also resigned. Neither of the councillors has been replaced, leaving just one council – East Sussex county council – represented on the SeaChange board.

These two resignations represent a very serious loss of trust in the company and are bound to have an impact when SeaChange is being considered for future projects.

Meanwhile, it has recently been announced that the department of business, energy and industrial strategy is undertaking a ‘deep dive’ into SeaChange’s recent projects, which can only be a good thing.

SeaChange is clearly feeling under pressure. Every time they give a comment to a media outlet, they are very much on the defensive. The chief executive, John Shaw, has been asked to come to the Hastings council’s scrutiny committee to be questioned about SeaChange projects, and has refused.

It’s clear that scrutiny is the very last thing John Shaw wants.

Over the past year, I’ve also received several phone calls from people who don’t want to give me their names, but who are alleging that there is corruption at the heart of the company. If this is true, I would be less than surprised.

For a company to be sucking up so much public money and then to have so little to show for it – apart from mass destruction of our green spaces – suggests either corruption or staggering mismanagement.

Either way, when the axe finally falls on SeaChange – as I am sure it will, perhaps sooner rather than later – I will feel happy that Seachangewatch played an important part in bringing the company down. Take that, John Shaw!