Local residents are ‘excited’ about the prospect of the new state-of-the-art environmentally friendly straw bale built visitor centre planned for Hastings Country Park.
That was the message from Councillor Andy Batsford when Hastings Borough Council’s (HBC) cabinet members met on Monday night and were asked to give the go-ahead for work on the visitor centre to finally get underway.
Council leader Peter Chowney said the deal being proposed was within budget and represented a great deal for the council. He told members there was no way the council could develop a visitor centre on that site more cost effectively.
When the radical plans for a straw bale built visitor centre were first mooted in 2014 HBC allocated £250,000 for the project. The nature of the environmentally friendly project meant the council was able to attract significant grant funding including cash from a European Union (EU) project called ‘Up-Straw’ which was specifically designed to encourage the use of straw bales in building projects.
But three year’s of delays meant that in May HBC had to commit a further £117,000 to the project as costs escalated but at Monday night’s meeting councillors were told the preferred bidders, SIA Design and Build, had submitted a tender for £660,000. The cabinet voted six votes in favour and two against to award the contract which will mean prefabrication work will start off-site during the winter with works on site starting next spring. Councillors heard the hope was that the new centre would be complete within a year.
HBC has already bought the straw bales that will be used to construct the new visitor centre, they have been in storage since 2015.
SIA Design and Build was described to councillors as: “A partnership lead be a principal contractor with extensive experience in sustainable buildings. A number of straw bale companies… form the partnership.”
In a report from Murray Davidson councillors were told that the project had been beset by ‘difficulty’ but he explained that a conventional building would have cost, in total, much the same to construct but would not have attracted the grant funding that the proposed building has been able to secure because of the nature of its construction.
Councillors also heard negotiations were underway with a company called Groundwork South with a view to awarding them a ten year lease to operate the visitor centre once it was complete and that lease would include responsibility for maintenance and repair over the first ten years of the building’s life.
Opposition group leader Rob Lee had his doubts over the project though and questioned whether the council could really afford to pay for the project at this time. He noted that because of the unconventional nature of the build quite a lot of money had been earmarked as ‘contingency’ and said that was a concern.
But Mr Chowney reassured the meeting that if the proposed contract with Groundwork South is awarded then the centre will cost HBC nothing more for the next ten years. And he was at pains to point out that because of the grants the project has been able to attract it is a more cost effective option for the council than the construction of a more conventional style building.
Addressing issues of the delays Mr Chowney told the meeting that as things stood there were not many tradesmen able to undertake a project of this kind. He said one of the reasons why the EU was making grants available was to encourage this kind of building and to develop skills and understanding of the techniques required.
He said: “There is no one out there who builds straw bale buildings of this size, which is why we had to go down the route of a consortium of artisans. Hopefully in the future, as a result of the Up Straw grants, there will be more of this kind of building going on.”
When put to the vote the six Labour group members on HBC’s cabinet voted in favour of the project while the two Conservative councillors voted against.
- Useful links
- Find out more about the EU’s Up Straw project
- Find out more about Groundwork South