A new contractor has been appointed to build the long-awaited Hastings Country Park Visitors Centre after a meeting this week.
At a meeting of Hastings Borough Council’s cabinet on Monday (December 3), council leaders agreed to award SIA Design and Build a £660,000 contract to build an eco-friendly straw-built visitor centre within the country park.
The council says the finished centre will be part-funded by an EU grant.
Recommending that cabinet approve the bid, Cllr Judy Rogers (Castle) said: “It has taken a little while to get to this stage but at least everything has been laid out with due diligence and carried out in a proper and transparent manner.
“I’m glad that the tendering process has been successful and it is on budget. Once we have agreed the commission then work can begin off-site on the pre-fabrication.
“I think it will be really good now to get this sorted, built and in place as soon as possible so we can take advantage of it.”
Before making a decision councillors heard how the contract had been put back out for tender as the previous bidder – a consortium of specialist contractors and artisan builders – had been unable to make the necessary legal arrangements.
The original contractor, councillors heard, had submitted a second bid but was not successful.
Councillors also heard that the council was hoping to secure a 10-year repairing lease, meaning the tenant will be responsible for covering the costs of repairs and maintenance.
While the project had support of Labour group members, opposition to the project was raised by Conservative councillors.
Cllr Rob Lee (Maze Hill), leader of the council’s Conservative group, said: “When I was first elected in 2014… I enthusiastically wanted to support the scheme. Why wouldn’t I back then? It was a new and exciting scheme with grant money available.
“Since then however – four years later – the costs have spiralled, the years have gone by and it is still not constructed.
“The fact is, I think, everybody would like us to have a nice visitor centre in the country park. I don’t think that is really up for debate. The problem is now we can’t really afford it.
“The reality of this project is that was as an authority can’t afford to build straw houses let alone live in them.“
Cllr Lee also said he feared the centre may end up being built out of conventional materials and that he was unhappy with the money-making cafe going to the council’s tenant.
However Cllr Lee’s arguments were disputed by council leader Peter Chowney (Tressell – Lab.)
Cllr Chowney said: “For us this seems like a pretty good deal. Assuming this 10-year lease is approved, then we get 10 years with no maintenance liabilities at all for this building .
“We also get a very large EU grant which – to give you a clue that it can only be used on straw buildings – is called Up-Straw. You can’t use it for the building of any other type of building. It has to be straw.
“As it is we are paying less here than we would for any kind of conventional visitor centre. What we are paying wouldn’t get us anything we could use as a visitors centre.”
Following a short debate cabinet members agreed to award the contract as recommended, with five votes in favour and two against.
Huw Oxburgh , Local Democracy Reporting Service