What’s going on behind closed doors? ‘Urgent’ decision needed on funding the house of straw

Rows between the specialists building the new straw-bale visitor centre in Hastings Country Park have stalled the project and will add significantly to the cost.

And on Monday night, Hastings Borough Council’s (HBC) Labour only cabinet will be told they must make an ‘urgent decision’ and issue what is effectively a blank cheque to cover those additional costs, even though council officers are unable to tell them what those costs are going to be.

But the public and press will be excluded from the nitty-gritty of the discussion which could be committing the council to hundred of thousands of pounds of additional spending.

Huff and Puff Construction are the main contractors on the project.

HBC’s Assistant Director Environment and Place, Mike Hepworth, has submitted two reports for consideration by the cabinet, in the first he says: “Subject to the normal challenges faced by all construction projects, such as adverse weather, the build progressed reasonably well until early 2020, when it became apparent that the relationship between the principal contractor and the artisan sub-contractors had significantly deteriorated. This resulted in works stalling shortly before the first Covid-19 lockdown.”

He then explains that the second part of his report, to be dealt with in private session, will provide details of this relationship breakdown, and what the council had to do as a result of it – and crucially what the additional costs will be.

Inability to secure the grants that were crucial to the funding of the project has also been an issue. In his report Mr Hepworth explains there has been a: “…significant reduction in the availability of UK grant funding for assistance with operating community centres such as this.

The new centre is an impressive building – but perhaps for its cost it should be.

“Despite a very good track record of obtaining grant funding in the past for similar projects, Groundworks South, our partners… have been unable to access the sort of financial support they would ordinarily expect and this has made it difficult for them to commit to a long term relationship with the council. However, they continue to play an important part in the development of this facility, and it is hoped that a long term arrangement will be possible.”

Councillors will hear that a decision on hoped-for additional funding from the European Union that was expected in September will now not be decided until sometime early next year.

Mr Hepworth says: “… the new country park visitor centre is an important part of the council’s strategy to help Hastings become carbon neutral by 2030. It is predicted that the project will overspend, and that the council will also need to subsidise the operating costs of the centre in the short term.”

He adds: “… it is now predicted that the final project costs will exceed the approved budget. Officers have been waiting for information that would clarify the additional project spend to date, and that which is predicted through to completion. For example, the pending decision from the EU regarding a potential additional allocation of £108,000 grant. There are also other variables which may positively affect the final project costs, but it is not possible to give certainty of these at this point.”

The idea to create an eco-friendly visitor centre built from straw bales was initially approved by the council’s planning committee in 2014. In 2018 plans for the visitors centre were back in front of a specially convened HBC cabinet meeting that acknowledged the building was a difficult design but there was a proposal to reboot the project and get it back on track which included the council borrowing an additional £117,000 on top of the £250,000 that had already been earmarked for the project and along with grant funding secured from the EU brought the whole cost of the visitor centre to £770,000.

HBC and its then partners Groundworks were awarded grants from an EU funding source called UPSTRAW, along with cash from the School of Natural Building. There had been an option at this time to scale back the scope of the project but rather than do this HBC decided to apply for further EU funding to help finance the scheme. The total proposed cost of the visitor centre stood at £770,000. That made the 225 square metres building one of the most expensive new-build projects in the town at a whopping £3,400 per square metre. 

Councillor Rob Lee, who as leader of the Conservative group on the council no longer has a seat in cabinet so will not be party to Monday’s private discussions said today: “This is another example of another Labour calamity in Hastings.

“It’s another example of a project that has run on and on, over budget and over schedule. It is becoming quite clear that the leadership at HBC has lost its grip on reality by pursuing this foolish project whatever the cost. The people of Hastings and St Leonards really do deserve better than this.”

Should the public be able to listen to the councillor’s discussions on this issue on Monday night? Or is it right to keep spending decisions private? Tell us what you think in the comment section below.

11 thoughts on “What’s going on behind closed doors? ‘Urgent’ decision needed on funding the house of straw

  1. It would only seem democratic for all the details to be available. However, it is always party political. The Tories will just go for the Labour council …

  2. It was a high risk option to go for this design which has many merits, but to begin before all the grants were in place was folly. I am consistently disappointed by the lack of transparency in the way the council conducts itself. It rarely feels like they want to work with the community.

  3. It would be illegal for the council to disclose the financial details publicly, as it would breach the confidentiality of the contractors involved.

    Why isn’t this mentioned in the article?

    It feels like you’re implying a cover-up, either that’s intentional on your part to make the council look bad (in which case I’d say that’s fairly bad form on your part) or you’re unaware of this fact which shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the function of a council (in which case you appear inept to report on these sort of issues).

    1. The council can disclose the financial details and indeed should, what they cannot disclose is commercially sensitive information. The cost of the works is not and as it is rate and rent payers money there is no law to not publish this

  4. Yes of course the public should be able to listen to councillors’ discussions on this issue because: 1. the councillors are there to represent the public (Hastings taxpayers’ interests, and 2. The counil always says that it is “open and transparent” and actually invites us to “hold (them) to account”..

    1. The Labour-majority on HBC may say it wants transparency Michael, but there are many instances of them hiding behind ‘commercial reasons’ or failing to answer FoI requests adequately or, for example, at the last full council meeting ensuring a full and proper debate on the Old Bathing Pool site’s petition was censored (against their own constitution). One such example could be construed as an error, but there are far too many for this to be the case. We want open government!

  5. Is this yet another example of poor project management (mis-management) by HBC, with the ratepayers picking up the tab? With local government trying to run essential services on a shoestring these cost overruns hit twice as hard because another budget item will be cut as a result!

  6. Here we are six years and a staggering £770,00 spent on a visitors centre that still needs more dosh thrown at it.
    I spell total incompetence yet again with resonance of the Millets building fiasco.
    Here we appear to have councillors who have no working experience in development and fail to accept costs like this is coming from taxpayers. If they were in private enterprise, I have to say bankruptcy would be in order.
    As for the mention of “Transparency” with HBC. Here is something talked about many times but very rarely practiced by these councillors. And of course when you get ridiculous situations such as this Visitors Centre with the history, length of time and costs forget about “transparency.”

  7. It appears to me this is a farce and again an issue of incompetent project mananagement on the councils part, HBC should own up to the fact that they have failed in managing yet another project which should never have been allowed to take so long and cost the vast sums it has, it is without doubt incomprehensible that this has been allowed to happen and councillors should be sorting this out for residents and get answers from the officers responsible, it does indeed seem like a cover up of the failure of officers to get the job done and ooeness is essential

  8. Excuse me for commenting again but in reference to Geof Gage’s comment. I quite agree with him. However, this illustrious project was heavily promoted by Cllr Chowney years ago about the virtues of it being an Eco wonder for the borough. And then it came to light HBC could not find anyone who could build a “Straw Structure.”
    My point being it is not just officers who are to blame it also sits with the Councillors too.
    What with this fiasco, Millets and the shopping spree to purchase properties around the area, it would appear these things are beyond their capabilities.
    Throwing public money around like this suggests this council should probably be put under “Special Measures” and monitored.

  9. Are there too many chiefs and not enough Indians?

    How can this be carbon neutral when so many windbag politicians have expended so much hot air and wasted so much ratepayers money on this quango project? Since 2014? For a glorified hut? These people don’t live in the real world do they?

    How about for every £20,000 overrun one politician is fired. I’m sure that the project will be finished in time at a reasonable cost when their jobs are on the line.

    And why isn’t there just one single project manager running this?

    With regards to locking the public out of a meeting discussing the debacle, which uses the public’s money, isn’t it astounding that these people aren’t held to public scrutiny? I was under the impression that they worked for us. Is this not so?

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