The Bale House, the controversial new Country Park visitor centre that has cost more than £1.1m and taken seven years to come to fruition will open, at last, later this summer.
Described in January by Councillor Andy Batsford as a, “…great public asset for the town,” the building will be up for discussion tomorrow tonight (June 16th) when members of Hastings Borough Council’s (HBC) Labour-only cabinet rubber stamp the finer detail of the contract that will govern how the building is run in the coming years.
A report to cabinet will tell councillors that The Bale House is, “…due to open this Summer, 2021.”
They will hear that council officers have negotiated a ten-year agreement with Groundwork Trust to manage the centre on the council’s behalf: “Authorisation to proceed with a lease and management agreement are required to enable an operator to be appointed, so the new visitor centre can open this Summer,” councillors will be told.
But only part of the draft lease and the draft management agreement will be discussed in public with councillors believing the financial aspects of the deal are ‘commercially sensitive’ and it is recommended they should be discussed in private session.
The Bale House was constructed in partnership with Groundwork South and attracted funds from the European Union under the Interreg scheme that encouraged the use of straw bales for construction. The ten-year lease councillors are being asked to approve includes a commitment to the centre becoming cost neutral to the council after three years.
The building which was touted as a state of the art, environmentally sound project has been beset by delays and escalating costs. The straw bales used for the building were bought in 2015 and lay in storage for three years before they were used and at the start of this year HBC had to commit to pumping a further £340,000 in to the project to see it finished. It wasn’t the first time the council had had to pledge extra cash and the January cash injection brought the cost of the finished building to three times the original estimates.
Cabinet members will be told: “Groundwork accessed significant European funding to match the council’s funds to build the new centre. They were awarded additional grants from Heritage Lottery to invest at Hastings Country Park and have been awarded significant funding through the CHART programme to work with communities around town.
“They are proving to be one of the most significant and successful third sector partners for the council and remain committed to working with the council for the benefit of our local communities.”
Mike Hepworth, HBC’s Assistant Director Environment and Place told councillors in January: “The people of Hastings will have a brilliant new environmentally sustainable community facility,” and he predicted that it will become a major attraction for people from Kent, Sussex and beyond.
But observers have also questioned the assertion that the centre will, in itself, attract people. In March 2015 when the planning committee approved the original plan the report to planning committee members said it was not expected the visitor centre would be a destination in its own right, it said: “Although the visitor centre may attract more footfall than the existing centre, it is not envisaged to be a destination in itself which would attract a significant increase in traffic.”