Did Hastings councillors give their officials a blank cheque to finish controversial straw bale project at any cost?
Additional costs being incurred by Hastings Borough Council (HBC) to complete and then to run the new visitor centre in Hastings Country Park are not being released to the public!
After Monday night’s cabinet meeting we emailed HBC’s communications team asking: “Following on from last night’s cabinet can you confirm how much additional funding the cabinet has agreed to give to the Country Park visitor centre project?
“Is there even a limit? It has been suggested that the cabinet may have approved what is effectively a blank cheque and has adopted a ‘complete at any cost’ approach?”
It took more than a day for the communications team to respond and when they did all they would say was: “Apologies for the delayed response but confirmation was needed. This information is currently confidential, so we cannot disclose any further details.”
One Hastings In Focus reader, Phil Casey has called for a public enquiry, he said: “What a complete waste of public money to build a straw building that could have been built at half the price with conventional building materials and be up and running. A public enquiry should be carried out and the people responsible held to account.”
Councillor Rob Lee who leads the opposition Conservative group on HBC says: “What has happened with the visitors centre project exposes to the town some of the shortcomings of it’s local council.
“The project is years overdue and hugely over budget. More worrying than that though is the naivety of the council leadership around this project.
“When it was first proposed the scale and innovation around the project was impressive, but as time has gone on the plans have been reshaped to a shadow of what was first proposed and their has been a lack of courage by Labour to ditch the project before building began.
“The cost of this face-saving exercise will be burdened on the local taxpayer.
“More questions will need to be asked about how the project was managed and how the council exposed itself to such risk in this way.”
On Monday night HBC’s cabinet discussed what’s been going on to further delay construction of the new £770,000 visitor centre.
Before the meeting went in to private session Mike Hepworth, HBC’s Assistant Director Environment and Place reminded the councillors who make up the powerful council cabinet that when the project – first approved in 2014 – is complete: “The people of Hastings will have a brilliant new environmentally sustainable community facility,” Mr Hepworth predicts that it will become a major attraction for people from Kent, Sussex and beyond.
What the public was not allowed to hear though was what the further delays are going to cost the council.
On top of additional costs to finish the building work the council will now have to fit out the interior and cover the running costs, something that until now a group called Groundwork South was going to be doing on the council’s behalf through sourcing of grants.
Mr Hepworth explained that Groundwork South was unable to find the grant funding that they had expected would be available, “despite their best efforts”.
That means no cash to fit out the cafe facility and provide an outside seating area and this is now money that HBC will have to find. But the problems at the visitor centre don’t stop there as Mr Hepworth told councillors: “There is currently no certainty how Groundworks or the council will be able to generate income from operating the centre to offset basic running costs.”
Mr Hepworth said the confidential report gave greater detail about the problems the council had facd and how they had dealt with them and crucially also provided a ‘worst case scenario’ projection on what the likely final cost of the project will be to HBC.
While Mr Hepworth said some delays were due to the Covid-19 pandemic he was clear that the main issue had been the, “…irreconcilable breakdown of the relationship between the principal contractor and the council and between the principal contractor and the artisan sub-contractors.”
A bullish Mr Hepworth reminded councillors this was a, “groundbreaking project to provide Hastings with a state of the art country park visitor centre…”.
We’ve asked the council’s press office to confirm how much additional funding was approved by councillors last night and we are still waiting for a response. We’ll update the story later.