A report recommending the terms of lease and management of the controversial Bale House in Hastings Country park was unanimously approved by Hastings Borough Council’s (HBC) cabinet when it met on Wednesday.
The single storey visitor centre, which took seven years to build and went massively over-budget, eventually costing £1.1million, has been the subject of controversy almost from its conception. But that controversy was glossed over by the cabinet members, whose acknowledgement of it extended only as far as to mention the ‘various setbacks’ suffered along the way.
“I’m really pleased we’re going to be signing the lease,” said HBC environment portfolio holder Councillor Maya Evans’. “It’s going to be a hub for education, for children and adults.”
The financial detail of the agreement the council will sign with The Groundwork South was not revealed with the cabinet excluding the public from the meeting citing ‘commercially sensitive information’. However Murray Davidson, the council’s Environment and Natural Resources Manager explained the proposal was that HBC sign a ten year agreement and pay £20,000 a year for the first three years to cover things like grounds maintenance and refuse collection. Groundwork South, he said, will be responsible for management of staff and catering.
He explained that after three years The Bale House would become ‘cost neutral’ to the council. Hastings In Focus understand that under the terms of the agreement profits generated at The Bale House will remain with Groundwork South, with nothing coming back to the council.
Ms Evans excitedly explained the new visitor centre would be: “…part of a trail of others across East Sussex,” which she said would: “…really develop and enhance our natural environment and eco-tourist offer that we are fast developing. We really want to put ourselves on the map as an eco-tourist resort. It’s going to be great for our economy, [and] great for our reputation.”
“It’s about investment, really, isn’t it?” said Councillor Andy Batsford. “Yes, it has been a long, hard slog to get there, but it will be a real investment in our future, for the children but also for our green economy. Also, it’s an investment in our town.
“The people who have said we shouldn’t be doing this, that we shouldn’t be investing public money into this, this is about investing in our town, to be proud of it, that people come and visit, that people living in our town feel we are moving forward, not just relying on our old, decaying tourist offer.“
Councillor Paul Barnett wanted to focus on: “The potential of what is happening here:”
He explained: “Here we’ve got a setting where we can actually bring to life what tackling climate change actually means to all of us, and one of the ways we can all play our part is not driving there.
“It’s just up the hill from Hastings,” continued Mr Barnett, “If you can’t go by sea, you can go by bus, but even better walk, run or cycle up that hill. I’ve been doing that for a number of years, and it does wonders for your health,” Mr Barnett’s sentiment echoing that of Councillor Judy Rogers earlier in the meeting.
“I’m really, really honoured to be able to propose this,” said Ms Rogers, “And as great as it is for young people to be able to enjoy this–let’s not forget about us adults. Really for me, personally, for these last 18 months, the one thing that has helped my mental health during this horrible period, has been the ability to get out and enjoy the countryside, to engage again with nature, and to be able to walk.
“I’ve walked more miles in the last 18 months than I have for years,” continued Ms Rogers, “And that has really, really helped.
“If you’re having a bad day, I promise you, go up to the country park, have a walk for half an hour or an hour and the bad day will disappear, so I’m really pleased we have a visitor centre that will make that offer even better.”
Cabinet members made no public mention of the controversies that have dogged the build. The mood of those contributing to the discussion, as anyone who watches the video will see, was self-congratulatory, almost jolly.
“I’m really pleased we’re united,” said Council Leader Kim Forward, who thanked Councillor Evans for he comments saying: “…it’s always interesting to understand that we’ve been on the journey.”
The proposal to accept the paper was then put to vote for members of the cabinet, passing unanimously. The public were then excluded from the meeting.