The former Tory leader of Rother District Council has defended the authority’s handling of the Colonnade restaurant project, as councillors discussed the matter this week.
The project was discussed at a meeting of the council’s overview and scrutiny committee on Monday (July 22), as members considered a report covering the events surrounding the £288,000 renovation of the Bexhill landmark in 2018 and its time as a council-run business.
As previously reported, this council-run business – The Colonnade Bexhill Ltd – made a loss of more than £56,000 within its first ten weeks of trading, a loss officers have largely attributed to unforeseen issues in connecting the building’s gas supply.
However, the report says, the project has proven to be a good return on investment in the long-run – raising the building’s value by £165,000 and increasing council rental income by £36,900 per annum since being taken over by Wingrove House Limited.
Despite this result several councillors called for lessons to be learned from the project. They included Cllr Christine Bayliss (Lab, Bexhill Central), who said: “The conclusions of the paper, the lessons learnt, I think fall short. We should be looking more at the culture of project management and what our methodology is.
“It seems to me that we have got a really good tenant in there now. I walk past there every day and it is busy and there is lots going on.
“It seems from the conclusions that the income is exceeding expenditure, but it was a long drawn out process where we suffered a loss of reputation out there with the general public.
“I would like to see something more about how we manage projects in this council and what the political oversight should be at that point.”
Criticisms were also voiced by Cllr Hazel Timpe (Ind, Bexhill Sackville), who said: “We have fallen on our feet with Wingrove House, because they are obviously very experienced and will make a very big success of it.
“However, it glosses over the whole debacle of the whole thing.
“The reason I got involved and started coming to council meetings was because of the total fiasco that was the Colonnade.
“Just to gloss over and say ‘look how wonderful we are now’ is not right. We cannot ignore that we totally screwed up as a council.”
But this view was disputed by Conservative group leader (and former council leader) Carl Maynard, who argued that the refurbishment had achieved the aims of Next Wave regeneration project by attracting a ‘high quality restaurant offer’.
Cllr Maynard (Brede) said: “I take very specific and strong issue with those councillors that say it hasn’t been a success. We have achieved exactly what we wanted to achieve back at the very beginning of the Next Wave project.
“Furthermore we have actually achieved more, because we have a really good income of £53,300 per annum – an increase of £37,000 per annum on what we were seeing before.
“Under the previous administration we made some bold decisions to ensure that the Colonnade was successful in the longer term.
“The offer that business has put in down there has been – and I hope will continue to be – a tremendous success.”
Cllr Maynard also defended the decision to set up the trading company, saying the Colonnade would have had to be ‘boarded up’ if it hadn’t stepped in and describing the move as ‘public investment to generate private investment’.
This argument was backed by Cllr John Barnes (Con, Burwash and the Weald), who said the council had managed to attract a tenant by ‘demonstrating it was a viable commercial operation’.
He said: “What we did was to run a demonstration. We put together capital from our side and a commercial operator.
“Through no fault of the council’s – and I have to say the utility company comes out extremely badly from this – we lost the best part of one of high-selling parts of the season.
“Nevertheless, we have now got a good commercial operator [and] a very successful return on our capital investment.”
However these views failed to sway Labour councillor Sam Coleman (Bexhill Sidley), who said: “It is interesting that Cllr Maynard talks about this as if it was some clear straight path from the beginning to the final product.
“In actual fact, from what I can see in this report, it was quite a lucky escape thanks to this company coming in and saving the day.
“I think it is quite fitting that this happened in December 2018, because frankly it was a bit of a pantomime.
“The public said ‘there is an issue here’ and the council said ‘oh no there isn’t!’
“Thank god a prince rode in his shining white horse and saved the day, otherwise this council would be in quite a mess I think.”