The earth’s moved in Hastings Country Park

Four years after it was first given the go-ahead and four years after Hastings Borough Council (HBC) spent out on buying the straw bales to build it, it looks like work on the new environmentally friendly visitor centre at Hastings Country Park has finally begun.

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One of the builder’s vans on-site this week.

Vans belonging to the specialist straw bale building companies have been on site and earthworks have begun to prepare the foundations for building work to begin.

Earlier this week Peter Chowney, leader of HBC, said the new centre would be worth the wait and pointed out that work on the timber frame had already been going on off site.

The new visitor centre is being partly funded through a European Union ‘Up–Straw’ grant and by the time it is complete it will have cost more than £700,000 to build.

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One of the information signs that have been put up around the site.

Plans to build the state-of-the-art environmentally friendly visitor centre had turned in to a major headache for HBC as it struggled to find a specialist contractor who could actually build its planned house of straw.

Eventually, after research into the world of straw bale construction, a consortium of ‘artisan’ straw bale builders was formed. That consortium is headed by SIA Design and Build and the specialist straw bale companies are called Green and Castle, Red Kite and Huff and Puff Construction.

Construction is likely to take several months, Mr Chowney says: “When finished, we’ll have a brand new visitor centre for the Country Park that will also be a showcase for straw bale construction. It’s been a long and slow process to get it started, and at times it looked like it might not be possible, but I’m glad we stuck with it.”

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Even now plans for the scheme are still being refined.

The building will be close to carbon-neutral and it is intended to install solar panels on it to generate its own electricity. It will also have its own mini-treatment plant for effluent, which means it doesn’t have to be connected to the sewerage system. However the decision to install a sewerage treatment system requires an amendment to the planning permission.

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 from ‘Up-Straw’ which was specifically designed to encourage the use of straw bales in building projects.

But three year’s of delays has meant HBC having to commit a further £117,000 to the project as costs escalated. According to Councillor Andy Batsford local residents are ‘excited’ about the prospect of the new centre.

But Hastings In Focus reader Christopher Hurrell commented earlier this week: “Project costs have doubled and the cost per square metre is double that of a conventional building. The standard conventional building cost for a single storey building of this size is about £1,000 per square metre in the South East and the build cost to HBC for the visitor centre is about £2,000 per square metre.

“HBC claims that higher costs and delays are caused by the lack of available expertise in straw building. However, there are commercial straw buildings out there that have not suffered these problems. The Sworder and Sons auction building is an example of an award winning straw bale building that was built for roughly the same cost per square metre as traditional buildings.”

One other reader suggested the project was an, ‘ego trip’ for councillors.

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Plant and machinery is now on site.

When it’s completed, the visitor centre will be run and maintained by Groundworks Trust, an environmental charity who already work with HBC on a number of projects in the Country Park.

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4 thoughts on “The earth’s moved in Hastings Country Park

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  1. There is a large degree of confusion concerning foul drainage at the visitor centre. Foul drainage has yo-yoed between discharge to the sewers and discharge via septic tank into the Country Park.

    The original planning application proposed a septic tank which discharged into the Country Park. Natural England objected in the original application to the use of a septic tank in the strongest of terms:

    “Foul Sewage – Details of the equipment to be used and of the intended location. The septic tank referred to application documents would normally discharge to a shallow drainage field and would, therefore, required assessment as to whether an Environmental Permit would be required from the Environment Agency. Any such
    discharge may also have a negative impact on the nearby SSSI/SAC, in particular, by damage to bryophytes, which are a notified feature of the SSSI.”

    The application was revised to make foul discharge to the sewer system and this was approved in March 2015.

    A discharge of conditions application in December 2017 reverted to the use of a septic tank which discharged into the Country Park. This was an abuse of proper planning process as a discharge application cannot introduce new plans that contradict the approved plans and then approve them.

    The reversion to use of a septic tank conflicts with the original planning permission and the objections received from consultees such as Natural England. At no point has approval been sought from consultees for the reintroduction of the septic tank. Natural England have not been reconsulted and a permit has not been sought from the Environment Agency.

    Despite this HBC approved the change to use a septic tank and discharge into the Country Park.

    An application was received in April 2019 to make further changes to foul drainage. The first set of plans showed that foul drainage would be to both septic tank and the sewers. A later set of plans now show that foul drainage will be to sewers. No explanation has been given for the change from septic tank to sewers.

    Councillor Chowney’s statement that “the visitor centre will have its own mini-treatment plant for effluent, which means it doesn’t have to be connected to the sewerage system” conflicts with the latest planning application received.

    It is unknown whether Cllr Chowney is misinformed about foul drainage or whether there is yet another proposed amendment to foul drainage in the pipeline.

    Confusion rules and clarification is urgently required.

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  2. Here we go again with Cllr. Peter Chowney seeming to know little about anything when he makes comment. An explanation is required to the serious confusion on the sewage disposal methods for this straw construction. There is no indication on the current planning application which suggests he is correct. Does he understand how foolish he looks when he keeps making grossly confusing statements? If it isn’t his misleading statement about VAT on solar panels, it is the disgraceful announcement that his council was the force which saved Robsack Meadow from development. Come on Cllr Chowney – get the facts correct in order before you make comment. .

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  3. Watching the cost of this keep escalating and only in the ground breaking stage. What is the bet we will be hearing how this project costs have to increase due to some unforeseen issue. It often does with anything local authorities have their fingers in. To prove my point look at the new by pass and that other new road. I can see this ballooning to around a million at the end of the day. And bear in mind the costs of actually equipping this place have probably not been included in the build costs

    Such a lot of public money for something that is only open a few hours a day per week. I am sure people will view my opinion as cynical – fair enough. But if this was a private company doing this, it would be looking at bankruptcy right now.

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