The original betrayal happened in 1974 when the Local Government Act stripped Rye of its previous “self-governing” council, reducing the town hall to the status of a parish council. Advised to beware of the consequences of “responsibility without power”, the new town council gave away unconditionally the active assets of the town – with their future income – gifted to the new Rother District Council (RDC).
Battle suffered the same fate and both towns became cash cows for the burghers of Bexhill, who were by far the majority on this new RDC. There has followed 40 years of intermittent decline and neglect, a failure of both planning and housekeeping – mirrored by similar tribal neglect from the county council in Lewes.
The latest example of failure is all too obvious on the way down Deadmans Lane: a pedestrian pavement for new houses under construction that ends abruptly in a dark tunnel of encroaching trees, leaving no room for a car and a person to pass one another (another example of unsharable space, common enough in Rye).
In this case the local highway authority in Lewes approved plans for the Deadmans Lane development without consideration of elementary health and safety. East Sussex County Council (ESCC) and Rother should have insisted that they, together with the owner/builder/developer, negotiate with other landowners to establish, at the developer’s cost, a sidewalk the full length of the lane. This omission leaves the East Sussex highway authority (with our taxpayers’ money) morally, maybe legally, liable for any future accident in the busy lane.
Other street or traffic failures are ongoing: another resident in hospital from a fall on ill-maintained streets and pavements; motorists with damaged tyres and suspensions from potholes; and a general dilapidation in Rye’s infrastructure and appearance – appearance also blighted for years by the planning failures of our twin authorities.
Dare we mention the supermarket fiasco: a buffoonery, a farce, a farrago of failure for both county and district council officers and politicians? A large former school site, derelict for nearly 20 years, is all but sold to Tesco, when East Sussex allows Sainsbury’s to gazump its rival.
An enraged Tesco then proceeds to buy the ransom strip and Rother, in its tortuous and frankly undemocratic procedures, succeeds in granting simultaneous permissions for a supermarket to both Sainsbury’s and Tesco. The rest of the story we know all too well.
Less acknowledged in all of this ignominy is the failure of East Sussex to plan adequately for future educational needs. The admirable new junior school is already oversubscribed with no room for expansion. How can serious professionals plan and build a new school only to find they’re immediately in need of emergency mobile classrooms?
The town desperately needs to repossess the lower school site from Sainsbury’s and return it to the original purpose of education. But who’s going to initiate that process (and produce the funds) in the present climate of not knowing who is actually responsible for future school development, the local authority or the Department in London? Another tribal whoops-a-daisy?
It should be stressed that if Rye’s Neighbourhood Plan is voted into being next year, many of these failures will become more difficult to impose upon our poor town. Nevertheless, we have to ask at what point do systematic and systemic failure become endemic and brazen betrayal? Is it just after that moment once every four years when our democratic representatives ask us to trust them again with the future?
Together, East Sussex and Rother have given us the down-at-heel, “bomb-site”, pot-holed town about which residents and visitors so often complain – comparing Rye unfavourably with other historic sites in the UK, or similar hilltop towns in France, Italy or Spain. Two authorities, two “high tables” of super-paid senior executives, two hierarchies of administration, twin expense accounts and fees/salaries for councillors, two separate scenarios of failure or inadequacy.
In the light of such betrayal should we not require a new central government to merge county and district/borough councils into unitary authorities, within which towns such as Rye and Battle could be granted greater hands-on autonomy in planning and the day-to-day upkeep of their infrastructure, fabric and quality of life?
John Howlett is an author and scriptwriter who lives in Rye / Photo: Tony Nunn.