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The site for the new visitor centre in mid May.

The site for the new visitor centre in mid May.

Visitor centre behind schedule and over budget

Construction of the new visitor centre in Hastings Country Park is not going well. The project is running well behind schedule and costs have risen substantially. In fact, after looking closely at the relevant regulations as well as the council’s own recent references to the matter, Bernard McGinley concludes that planning permission has lapsed. Photos by Bernard McGinley.

In March 2015, following Cllr Edwards’ celebrated endorsement of ‘drinks on the terrasse’, the planning committee of Hastings Borough Council (HBC) voted to approve the application for a new visitor centre at the Fairlight end of Hastings Country Park. The planning ref was HS/FA/14/01033.

The visitor centre case has often been reported in HOT:  here and here and also hereThe council added its own discreet publicity about energy efficiency (though not thrift).

Rising costs

In October 2014, the HBC Cabinet sought approval for ‘expenditure of up to £250k allocated in the Capital Programme as the council’s contribution to the cost of construction of the new Interpretive Centre’, as the visitor centre is also referred to. This was agreed unanimously. The minutes also recorded:

The council, working in partnership with Groundwork South, aimed to deliver a new visitor centre by spring 2016.

Of Groundwork South, the officers’ report to Cabinet had stated in advance (Agenda Item 8, par 7):

Groundwork’s ambition is to raise around £200,000 to add to the council’s capital receipt for Warren Cottage.

(The aspiration was for £157,000 in Lottery money but only £45,300 was achieved. A Veolia Environmental Trust grant application was apparently unsuccessful.)

HBC Cabinet considered the new visitor centre further in November 2016, when the ‘Interreg’ grant was said (Paragraph 25) to be £272,000. The Council’s receipt of an EU grant (under the Interreg North-West Europe Programme for constructing public buildings from straw) was to help make it happen. This apparently freed funds for use elsewhere in the Country Park —  the reopening of the pathway from East Hill to Ecclesbourne Meadow and the spaces beyond, closed due to the landslips, would have been a particularly popular choise.  

The matter was aired in the Leader of the Council’s report to the local Labour Party in April 2017:

The council and Groundworks (who are partners in the project), were awarded £540k from UPSTRAW, along with a further £350k from the School of Natural Building.  . . . Rather than adopt a scaled-down project, the council decided to apply for EU funding to help finance the scheme. With the funding we’ve now received, there will be plenty to build the visitor centre as originally planned. The council also had set aside money from the sale of Warren Cottage (in the Country Park, formerly used as a rangers’ station) to contribute to the new visitor centre, but this will hopefully now be available for other enhancements in the Country Park.

general view 300The outcome has been different. Since 2017, the visitor centre design has been substantially changed:  scaled-down and worsened. The terrasse was scrapped in a near-Portakabin new alternative in accordance with application HS/FA/17/01018. To bridge these two cases, applications HS/NM/18/00059 and HS/CD/17/01101  were contrived. The result was that an abandonment of ordinary sewerage for a septic tank arrangement was approved as a ‘Non-Material Amendment’. For most onlookers this made no sense, even as a legal fiction.

While the council has spent a lot on legal and administrative costs for its appeal against the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) ruling in the case of a landslip Freedom of Information request, it has not spent on monitoring the landslips, and apparently has no intention of doing so. With no monitoring goes no remedial works. So much for the ringing endorsement in HBC papers of ‘the quality of the natural environment of Hastings Country Park’.

Double your money

Now the cost of the Visitor Centre has increased again to £771,000. No reasons have been given, but this is a long way from the £400,000 stated (Item ES32, Appendix R) in the 2015/16 Budget Report.

The cost of the visitor centre as at end-April 2018 is summarised by the council (in Paragraph 28 of the Cabinet report) as this:

Construction budget
Costs:

Spend to date April 2014 to May 2018                              £86,000
Remaining costs
Construction and fees                      £685,000

[Total                                                                                       £771,000]

Budget for construction:
Spend to date
(Architects fees etc)                                     £86,000
Remaining HBC budget available for construction      
£166,000
Original Interreg budget for construction                     
£226,000 *
Additional Interreg budget offered April 2018              £176,000
HBC match required to secure additional
Interreg funds                                                                     
£117,000

TOTAL   HBC and Interreg budgets                                     £771,000

(*Confusingly the Cabinet paper of November 2016 stated in Paragraph 25 that the original Interreg grant was £272,000.)

Legislative clarity

As well as costs there is the problem of compliance.  The standard principle is that when planning permission has been granted to an application, building work has to begin within three years.  Section 52 of the Town & Country Planning Act 1990 (in sub-sections 2 and 4) is clear about the meaning of ‘material operations’:

(2) . . . development shall be taken to be begun on the earliest date on which any material operation comprised in the development begins to be carried out.

. . .

(4) In subsection (2) “material operation” means—

(a) any work of construction in the course of the erection of a building;
[(aa)
any work of demolition of a building;]
(b)
the digging of a trench which is to contain the foundations, or part of the foundations, of a building;
(c)
the laying of any underground main or pipe to the foundations, or part of the foundations, of a building or to any such trench as is mentioned in paragraph (b);
(d)
any operation in the course of laying out or constructing a road or part of a road;
(e)
any change in the use of any land which constitutes material development.

None of these six definitions applies to the visitor centre. To assert that site work has begun is a procedural abuse. The topsoil has been removed, and a token ‘archæological dig’ done, heavily publicised. Therefore the planning permission of March 2015 lapsed in March 2018.

archeo notice 300

Archeological works are under way.

Further approval sought

HBC is now looking to borrow an extra £117,000 to make up the funding shortfall and meet the Interreg Up-straw Programme’s extra £176,000. Paragraph 29 explains that the extra HBC expenditure will cost £7,281 per year for 30 years and will be funded by cuts to the HBC 2019/20 budget. A lot is being spent on one straw building, although a fraction of the money could have kept the Country Park fully open to the benefit of all visitors.   

On Monday 21 May, HBC will hold a Special Meeting of the Council Cabinet to authorise additional funding for the still-proposed visitor centre in the  Country Park. The meeting is at 6pm at Muriel Matters House. The agenda and officers’ report is here.

As the table above shows, the build cost is now estimated at £771,000. Agenda Item 3 seeks ‘authority to enter into a contract to build the centre’.  This indicates that the planning permission has not been implemented.

The committee report gives further substance to this view.  Paragraph 20 states:

During negotiations, the straw bale specialists explained that preliminary works need to be ordered and commenced as soon as possible for us to have a realistic chance of construction in 2018.

Paragraph 21 is clear:

The consortium have advised that there are four pieces of work that need to start urgently;

1.  Preparing services – Digging the required trenches . . .
2.  Laying foundations – Preparing the ground and laying the foundations.

In paragraph 22 it is stated:

The urgency of these construction deadlines has necessitated organising this special Cabinet meeting to seek approval to proceed with the award of contract and start of the works as a matter of urgency.

The importance of clement weather is emphasised to explain the urgency but this is unconvincing. Paragraph 9 mentions works in February 2018 which it claims kept the planning permission alive but these wintry scrapings do not and can not matter when, three months later, preliminary works have still not begun. See the accompanying  photographs (taken 13 May 2018), and Paragraphs 4 a) to e) above.

Paragraph 23 confirms the matter:

Should Cabinet approve the recommendations, the Project Group will move swiftly to issue the contract and work with the consortium to implement the necessary preliminary works . . .

A trench dug as part of the archeological investigations.

A trench dug as part of the archeological investigations.

The clear meaning of the Council’s own words is that the relevant works have not started. Material operations have not begun. Therefore the planning permission has lapsed, because it was not implemented within the three-year period which ended in March.

The Friends of the Country Park have not been told of these lack of developments. HBC (with their partners Groundwork South and Optivo, as AmicusHorizon has been renamed) have not explained these contradictions.

Could this matter be raised with the Local Government Ombudsman? No, because it would not amount to a personal injustice. The council’s dire record of stewardship in the Country Park is not a matter for further complaint, unless you have deep pockets. The discontent remains, along with the expense and the flouting of planning law. It seems unlikely that Interreg will be receiving an application for landslip monitoring or improvement in TN35 any time soon. For one thing, the council would be loth to explain the situation.

Posted 11:15 Sunday, May 20, 2018 In: Home Ground

7 Comments


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  1. Ms.Doubtfire

    Chris Hurrell has unearthed a nice little piece of information concerning costings for straw buildings. However, may I suggest he send this info directly to the leader of this council, Peter Chowney and for good measure copy in the entire council at members@hastings.gov.uk Surely the entire membership of this council would not ignore this very pertinent issue? or would they? If they don’t come up with some very good answers it just proves that whatever the paid officers may recommend is accepted without question by our elected members.

    Comment by Ms.Doubtfire — Wednesday, May 30, 2018 @ 13:00

  2. Chris Hurrell

    The total estimated build cost for the Hastings Country Park Visitor Centre is £3,847 per sqm. The standard conventional building cost for a single storey building of this size is about £1k per sqm in the South East.

    Other straw building have managed to be built with a cost which is slightly higher per sqm than conventional building costs. Sworders auction rooms are an example of an award winning straw bale building that was built for roughly the same cost per square metre as traditional buildings. http://www.saffronwaldenreporter.co.uk/…/straw-building.

    Why are the visitor centre building costs over 3.5 times higher than a traditional build building?

    Comment by Chris Hurrell — Tuesday, May 29, 2018 @ 14:09

  3. Ms.Doubtfire

    This is an old well used ploy by this council – dig a couple of holes, make a small disturbance here and there on the site – and hey! there you go – development has commenced.
    Time for this trickery to cease.
    This has been applied to the vacant West Hill Road site also. And as I recall to a development in Hawthorn Road.
    There has to be a proper investigation into this very dubious process.
    And as Bolshire states here – how is it that there appears to be insufficient funds for this house of straw when our council is spending millions on commercial investments at a time when commercial investments are looking pretty dicey?
    Why on earth have they spent £8.35 million pounds on the TK Maxx site?
    A retail outlet with little prospect of being anything else if the entire complex folds. The old Focus site is another foolhardly investment. According to records it appears the TK Maxx site was purcased with no lender recorded. Has this council raided our reserves? Pity they didn’t spend a few bob on maintaining our public lavatories – but I guess that is low on their priorities. Poor old Hastings.

    Comment by Ms.Doubtfire — Wednesday, May 23, 2018 @ 08:22

  4. Andy Ammo

    So has building work (as legally defined) begun on the Visitor Centre? Clearly not.

    Will the outturn cost be £771k? Probably not. (Ask this time next year.)

    Is the cost of the strawbuild Visitor Centre less than conventional building cost, once EU grants are taken into account, as the Council asserts? Apparently not.

    Is HBC, as applicant and decider in these matters, showing competence? That’s a good one.

    Comment by Andy Ammo — Tuesday, May 22, 2018 @ 18:06

  5. Chris Hurrell

    If only a fraction of the 771k budget for this project could have been spent on further investigation into the causes of the Ecclesbourne Glen landslip recommended by Coffey. By now we might have an understanding of causes and a programme for remedial works. 37k was required for further investigations but HBC said they could not afford it preferring to spend around 30k preventing the release of a report into the landslip.

    Comment by Chris Hurrell — Monday, May 21, 2018 @ 17:03

  6. Bolshie

    Firstly, you have to remember the council is not a developer or a business entrepreneur who has to spend wisely and make a profit. They just go out cap in hand, as it appears here hoping someone will put a cheque in it.

    What I am rather confused about is how they have laid out some £20 million now in buying Muriel House, the Dunlem Mill/Pets at Home building and now the building on the Bexhill Road where TK Maxx and others are located. Yet they can’t come up with the money for this over budgeted visitors centre. Given how long it has gone on for now, it cannot be that important – can it?

    Comment by Bolshie — Monday, May 21, 2018 @ 16:05

  7. ken davis

    Ah, it seems the same old mistakes are being made!….and where are the commissioning costs in the project budget?
    Cost per square metre would be interesting.

    Comment by ken davis — Sunday, May 20, 2018 @ 21:39

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