LETTER: Cautionary tale of business choices

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A tweet caught my eye recently - ‘Insurance group has 800 vacancies that cannot be filled’ says a newspaper headline. The article explained that Saga Group had moved to Hastings in 2010, buying One Priory Square for the home of their insurance business. Why did they choose Hastings and not Horsham which is already home to insurance companies?

I looked into the story further. Hastings has been an area of deprivation, with high unemployment and in need of regeneration. It has one of the highest proportions of out-of-work benefits claims and lowest wages in the South East.

A long running project started by SEEDA, now continued by the South East Local Enterprise Partnership, led to investment in the town. Saga Group is based in Folkestone in Kent, just along the coast from Hastings. So setting up an office in Hastings must have seemed like a good idea on paper.

The ‘800 vacancies’ is slightly misleading; there is expected to be a total of 800 jobs and some of these have been filled. The business is a call centre, but the 800 jobs would be spread across IT, human resources and on-site catering, as well as customer service.

However, according to Lord Brett McLean, vice chairman of East Sussex Federation of Small Businesses, many of these jobs remain unfilled due to a lack of suitable candidates in the area and a skills gap.

The reason for the caution is that one of the reasons given for building in North Horsham is so that we can have 500,000 square feet of business space. Perhaps this would have appealed to the Saga Group as it is close to other insurance companies, although it is a long trek from Folkestone.

However, Horsham has very low unemployment, and Saga would have found it even harder to fill those vacancies here than it does in Hastings. Costs would have been higher, both for the building and for the staff.

There is no pool of people readily available to take on jobs with on target earnings of £19k per year as that will not pay for Horsham’s high housing costs.

HDC, which is hoping that Liberty Property Trust will develop a business park in North Horsham, might like to take note.

FRANCES HAIGH

District councillor for Horsham Park ward and leader of Horsham District Council Lib Dem group, North Street, Horsham