House of straw! Will country park visitor centre ever be built?

Ambitious plans to build a state-of-the-art environmentally friendly visitor centre at Hastings Country Park is turning in to a major headache for Hastings Borough Council (HBC) as they struggle to find a contractor who can actually build its planned house of straw.

The idea to create a visitor centre built from straw bales was initially approved by the council’s planning committee more than three and a half years ago. This week there was still signage at the site of the proposed new centre proudly announcing the council’s hope that building work would start in the summer of 2018 – so far nothing has happened.

Hastings Country Park Signage
This week signage was still proclaiming that work on the new centre would start in the summer of 2018.

This week a council spokesman told Hastings In Focus that the latest plan for the development of the site had fallen through and the whole project was out to tender once again.

The spokesman said: “So far as the country park visitor centre is concerned we had anticipated we would be working with a consortium of straw bale builders but were unable to finalise negotiations in an acceptable time.

“We have retendered the project and a report is going to our cabinet on December 3rd to outline the results of the tender process and seek authority to contract with a specialist sustainable build contractor.

“The building will still be built from straw bales and be a low carbon sustainable build.”

He added that the council would remove the existing signage.

Rob Lee, leader of the Conservative group on HBC says his group was originally supportive of the plan when it was first put forward in 2014 but now he believes that enough is enough and it’s time for a rethink, he says: “The project is clearly, hopelessly flawed. Spiralling costs and endless delays have meant that four years after being proposed it is still not being built. It’s time to ditch this failure.”

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The site of the proposed ‘house of straw’.

Mr Lee expressed his concern that the new visitor centre could cost £3,400 per square metre to build making it, he claimed, “one of the most expensive buildings in the town.”

It was back in March 2015 that HBC’s Planning Committee gave the go-ahead for the construction of a new visitor Centre at the Country Park. At the time, Colin Fitzgerald, lead councillor for the environment said: “A key feature of the new visitor centre is that much of the building will be constructed using straw bales. This has been chosen as a sustainable and energy efficient way of creating the building. European Commission funding has been secured from the Interreg North West Europe programme to help fund the centre.”

HBC is still listed on the The Interreg North West Europe website as a partner organisation under its ‘UP STRAW Urban and Public Buildings in Straw’ initiative.

Plans for the visitors centre were back in front of a specially convened HBC cabinet meeting at the end of May and that meeting acknowledged the building was a difficult design but there was a proposal to reboot the project and get it back on track which included the council borrowing an additional £117,000 on top of the £250,000 that had already been earmarked for the project and along with grant funding secured from the EU brought the whole cost of the visitor centre to £770,000.

In April 2017 Labour leader of HBC Peter Chowney reported how the funding for the project had been put together: “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.”

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The site has been excavated and archaeological finds have been removed.

But in May the HBC cabinet meeting did discuss scaling down the project, councillors were told by Mike Hepworth, HBC’s Assistant Director, Environment and Place: “Since the start of this challenging project in 2014 when the original budget and procurement process were approved, there have been two unsuccessful rounds of procurement facilitated by the East Sussex Procurement Hub, and we have successfully negotiated substantial additional EU grant funding. As a result we have had to extend the project timeline. Cabinet approval is now required to increase the budget and authorise a different method of appointing contractors to build the centre.”

Preparation to allow the building work to go ahead  has included removing a layer of topsoil from the area of land the proposed building will cover. The topsoil that has been removed has been left on site for re-use later during the project. Archaeologists are also due to be on site throughout the development to help identify any artefacts or finds relating to the park’s wealth of history so that these can be recorded and conserved as appropriate.

So far the project has been out to tender twice without success, bids were between £200 – 300k over budget and the potential contractors failed to address how they would tackle the specialist nature of straw bale construction.

In October 2017 the corporate project group of HBC looked at why the tenders had not been successful, and concluded that traditional building companies did not have the expertise to deal with the specialist nature of the construction.

Mr Hepworth’s report to cabinet said: “Traditional construction companies are unfamiliar with straw bale construction, priced this as a risk and inflated their tender prices.

“It was also concluded that straw bale construction is a niche market with small scale artisan builders who have no experience in public procurement. The public procurement process was therefore not suited to attract small scale specialist straw bale builders.”

At the cabinet meeting on December 3rd councillors will be given the latest update on the tendering process and find out if the ambitious project is any closer to becoming a reality.

 

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