Council votes funds for feasibility study

The Labour-controlled cabinet of Hastings Borough Council (HBC) voted on Monday evening to pursue a feasibility study for the development of a combined sporting and cultural centre in the White Rock area off Bohemia Road. The long term idea is to develop the area, branded as the Bohemia Quarter, as a distinct leisure and cultural ‘destination’. It is to be surrounded by new housing, one or more hotels and ‘revitalised’ gardens and other public spaces, but with a large leisure facility and performance venue at its heart. The first stage will be to spend up to £100,000 in commissioning feasibility studies that will determine its viability. 

The council’s Marketing and Major Projects Manager, Kevin Boorman, told cabinet members that both the Arts Council and Sport England were enthusiastic in their support.  The Arts Council has already offered a £10,000 grant towards this first stage and is “keen to become a partner in the project”. Officers of Sport England are “exploring external funding opportunities to contribute towards the cost”. HBC has budgeted up to £19,000 in the forthcoming year 2018/19 for an “approved growth item”. It would look for other external funders to cover at least part of the remaining shortfall, but in the alternative would implement cuts elsewhere in order to pursue this project.

Councillors in the Labour majority spoke in rhapsodic terms of the development potential. Cllr Kim Forward told her colleagues that it was “ a really exciting opportunity to think in creative terms”. Cllr Judy Rogers wanted to “integrate leisure with arts and music” in a way that would engage people of all ages “in an area of high deprivation…A small investment would bring massive return”. Cllr Andy Batsford claimed that Hastings already has a good track record in providing leisure facilities, now it could be “super-charged”.  

Leader of the council Peter Chowney endorsed the vision of a “combined multi-cultural performance venue and leisure centre”.  Summerfields and the White Rock Theatre were “not going to see us through much longer”. Doing nothing about it was not an option.

Conservative opposition councillor Rob Lee agreed that the council officers had put forward “an exciting piece of work’’ that could “transform” the local and neighbouring wards of the town. He also admitted that existing leisure facilities were “coming to the end of their best years”. But in his view the council simply could not afford it. There was no money in next year’s budget to raise the balance of the £100,000 required, and no immediate prospect of finding it. What about combining with Rother District Council council to develop a mutually serviceable leisure centre?

Cllr Chowney chided Cllr Lee’s objection as “short-sighted” Actually he had floated the idea of a combined leisure centre with Rother previously. “They weren’t interested”. But “…spend this money now, and we’ll get it back in the future”, he declared. “The idea is that it will be self-financing, with the potential to develop an income stream in the future”.

The motion to proceed with the feasibility study was duly carried, with the Labour majority outvoting Tory councillors Lee and Andy Patmore. A consultant should be appointed within the next two months, to report with a proposal and outline business case for the centre by September.

West Marina
Earlier in the evening the cabinet had debated a petition submitted by the West Marina group of residents in response to the council’s notice of intended disposal of the former bathing pool site there (see HIP Issue 120). The council chamber was packed with around 70 of the group’s supporters, and their chair Virginia Vilela was given five minutes to address the councillors with their objections – principally that the council was disposing of the site to private developers without any proper consultation with the local community, and that the process had not been open or transparent.

In response Cllr Chowney insisted that development of the site was in accordance with the local plan, adopted in 2015, that earmarked it “for housing and leisure use”.  The intention is to make it a ‘destination’ point (clearly the buzzword of the evening) “spreading tourists and visitors along the seafront”. The precise terms of the deal had to be kept confidential until the approved developers County Gate/Sunley had signed up to a leasehold purchase. There would be a wide consultation at the planning stage.

The council then voted to proceed, only Cllr Patmore opposing.

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