Delays in the completion of projects funded by the public sector is something we have come to expect and two flagship projects backed by Hastings Borough Council (HBC) have suffered further delays and will now not be open to the public until at least 2020.
This week Aldi moved to quash growing social media gossip that it had pulled out of an HBC funded project to build it a new store on Bexhill Road. A spokesman for the German chain told Hastings In Focus on Friday: “Preliminary site preparation is underway for our new Bexhill Road store and we plan to open the store in 2020.”
Meanwhile the much discussed, state of the art, environmentally friendly, new visitor centre at Hastings Country Park will not be ready until at least 2020 according to a council spokesman – the straw bales that will be used in the building process for the new visitor centre were bought four years ago and have been in storage ever since.
Rob Lee who leads the Conservative opposition group on HBC is unimpressed saying: “The Country Park visitors centre was an interesting proposition back in 2014. However, as the years have rolled by and the costs have spiralled, it has become clear that there are not enough people qualified or willing to take the construction on.
“The council seemed confident last year that it would be built in 2019, but here we are in mid-April and still no sign of the foundations going in despite agreeing to borrow extra money last year to see the project through.
“The cost to the local council tax payers is £342,000 and with the EU money the total project costs are well over £700,000, not to mention straw bales that the council is having to store in anticipation of it’s fantasy building project actually taking place.”
The cost to the council of the new visitor centre has been an issue between the two political groups on the council all through the project. At more than £700,000 the visitor centre will cost more than £3,500 per square metre to build. According to two local builders contracted by Hastings In Focus they would expect to charge a client anywhere between £1,200 and £1,800 per square metre to construct a building of more conventional materials.
Councillor Andy Batsford told Hastings In Focus that work had already begun ‘off-site’ and that work onsite would start, probably in May while an HBC spokesman would only say that the building should be complete in the Spring of 2020.
As for the situation on Bexhill Road Mr Lee says: “The Bexhill Road scheme appeared to be moving apace when they demolished the car showrooms, since then though things have gone quiet.
“HBC has agreed to borrow millions to build a supermarket for an international chain and then collect rent from them. On closer inspection the scheme looks like a worse deal than originally thought. As well as the big unit that will house the supermarket there will be two smaller units that will house smaller high street business such as a coffee shop or bakery. As the money to build the scheme is borrowed, and will have to be paid back with interest, the margin on the whole scheme is tiny even if one of the two small units is empty the whole scheme loses money.
“The site was due to be finished by now and the supermarket was due to open in March or April this year. The amount of money borrowed for the scheme is around £10 million.”
This week there were mixed messages about what was going on at the Bexhill Road development. In January HBC leader Peter Chowney, in an interview with Hastings In Focus said that Greggs would be leasing one of the smaller units at the site. This week, on social media it was said that Costa would be leasing a unit.
However, an HBC spokesman would not confirm either Greggs or Costa when we spoke to them at the end of the week and even expressed concern at why the proposed Costa deal had become public as she understood that negotiations with the company were still ongoing and that no deal had been signed.
Mr Lee says the Harold Place toilets are another example of HBC’s poor management of property development issues, he says: “The toilets were demolished hastily in spring of last year despite widespread public opposition in the hope that a large amount of grant money would be awarded, transforming the site from toilets into a restaurant. However, the council were too eager to tear down the toilets as the grant money was not forthcoming leaving them (and the town) with a hole in the ground surrounded by unattractive hoarding. The cost of destroying the toilets was over £100,000 of council tax-payers money and, of course, we have lost the use of the town centre loos.”
These latest apparent setbacks to flagship council projects comes as HBC finally goes public with the news that it has bought Lacuna Place in the town centre for around £9.4m. The building will house the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) but we understand that a deal signed by the DWP with the building’s former owners give them preferential rents for at least three years.
HBC has now borrowed around £50m from the Public Works Loan Board in recent years to fund an aggressive programme of property acquisition. HBC is not the only council to do so but alarm bells are starting to ring at high levels of national government about whether councils are taking adequate and advice and properly assessing the risk of taking on such large long term debt.
Housing and Communities Secretary James Brokenshire has said he plans talk to the Treasury about whether “…interventions might be required” with regard to council investments and in January, senior civil servant Dr Jo Farrar admitted the government was worried that local authorities had borrowed too much to invest in commercial property.
The logic behind HBC’s decision to increase its commercial property portfolio is linked to the way that government financial support to local authorities has been eroded in the last decade. Mr Chowney says that cumulatively HBC has lost more than £40m since 2010 and the revenue support grant it got from central government which once stood at £10m per year has dropped to nothing. The £740,000 per annum profit that the council generates from its commercial property portfolio is vital to council finances he says.
Read this story from January by following the link below