Straw Bale Build to Start in August at Inflated Cost

Building of the long planned “Interpretive Centre” at Hastings Country Park is hoped to start in August, according to Cllr Colin Fitzgerald, environment portfolio holder at Hastings Borough Council (HBC): its latest cost projection is a minimum of £770,000. Of this figure, a little over £400,000 will come from an EU environmental grant, secured for the purpose of using straw bales as the main construction material. But this still leaves nearly £370,000 to be paid from HBC resources. The Tory bloc on the Council, led by Cllr Rob Lee, who previously voted in favour of the development, now say they oppose it.

Development of a new visitor centre at the Park has been a “corporate priority” of the council for many years. Initial designs were submitted for public “consultation” at Priory Meadow shopping centre in September 2014 and the location, at the side of the car park on Lower Coastguard Lane, was approved by HBC Cabinet the following month, giving the green light to proceed with tendering of construction works up to a maximum of £250,000. A national firm of community project developers, Groundwork South, were engaged both to build and thereafter to manage it with the aim of providing “an improved visitor experience by highlighting the unique habitats, spectacular scenery and landscape” of the Nature Reserve.

In 2015 plans for a substantial new construction, including colonnade pillars and roof terrace, were unveiled. HBC issued a statement of intent that they would not only “continue to encourage the maximum use of these facilities” but be “generally supportive of planning applications for additional community facilities”. But local amenity groups including Fairlight Preservation Trust and the Friends of Hastings Country Park (FoHCP) were appalled, objecting that it was too large, obtrusive and out of keeping with the landscape it was supposed to enhance. The Park should not be treated as mere decorative backdrop to social functions.

Back to the drawing board, and two years later came a much scaled-down design, total size 225 square metres. Gone was the roof terrace; window sizes were reduced: the effect was described by one objector as “something resembling an oversized portakabin toilet”. But excitingly, in the minds of its proponents at least, the basic construction materials would be straw bales, thus qualifying the project for a major EU eco-grant channelled through Interreg North West Europe in the cause of innovative sustainable design. HBC announced that a total of £890,000 would be shared between themselves, Groundwork South and the School of Natural Building.  The aim of the EU initiative was to “showcase sustainable building projects with reduced carbon footprints”. From Hastings’ point of view it would be “a focus for new interpretation and events at the Country Park” as one of the first public straw bale buildings in the UK. Cllr Fitzgerald commented at the time: “This is absolutely fantastic news for the council”.

The revised scheme was hustled through HBC’s planning process last year with what some sceptics have described as a minimum of scrutiny and an abuse of proper process. But it is now the cost of the project on which attention has re-focussed.  Notwithstanding the jaw-dropping money being put in by Interreg, and the much reduced specifications of the building, it turns out that the overall contribution now required from HBC has risen from £250,000 to around £370,000.

Asked what the actual benefit to the town’s residents will be from the project, Cllr Fitgerald admits that HBC do not anticipate that it will lead to any increase in overall numbers of visitors to the Park. Nor will it create employment: not only will almost all the construction expenditure be paid to external contractors, but it is assumed that Groundwork will manage the centre for the foreseeable future, without subsidy, by relying largely upon unpaid volunteers provided through FoHCP. The focus will be educational, says the councillor, getting school groups to come to the Park to learn about and appreciate their heritage.

“I like the idea of having a visitor centre at the Country Park”, says HBC Tory councillor Rob Lee, “and the Conservatives were supportive of the plans when they first came up at the Council back in 2014. However, the spiralling costs amongst other problems mean it has lost Conservative support now”.

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