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.
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.
“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.”