Refurbishment plans for Bexhill Town Hall ‘need more scrutiny’

Rother council leaders have backed proposals which could lead to a multi-million pound refurbishment of Bexhill’s town hall. 

Wednesday, 10th February 2021, 2:18 pm
Bexhill Town Hall SUS-200928-133414001

On Monday (February 8), Rother District Council cabinet members gave their support to a £460,000 project, which could lead to the redevelopment of Bexhill Town Hall and the surrounding area. 

If agreed by full council, this £460,000 budget would be expected to cover the costs of developing detailed plans for the site, which are likely to include housing and a climate-friendly refurbishment of the existing town hall building.

Council leader Doug Oliver said: “This pandemic gave us an opportunity. It was a wake-up call. We needed to look at where we were, we needed to reset and we looked to go forward and take opportunity. 

“This was the message that was given to the senior management team, to explore all the opportunities where we could generate further income, with efficiency and deal with some of the other issues that are out there as part of this administration.

“A significant amount of preparation work has been done at this stage, but I really would like to identify that this is an exploration to go forward, look at all the benefits that are there, which come in from very many sides.”

Based on current estimates, officers say the final scheme would be expected to cost somewhere in the region of £13m to £14m.

According to officers, the council would aim to ensure any redevelopment project would be “revenue neutral” as well as providing new housing (likely in the form of around 14 flats).

Both the new buildings and the refurbishment would also be expected to meet stringent environmental standards – with the flats expected to meet to be rated as excellent under BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method).

Kathryn Field, cabinet member for environmental management, said: “With my environmental hat on, I think we need to really think carefully how we manage our own estate.

“This gives us a huge opportunity to make sure that this building an iconic heritage building is environmentally sustainable and isn’t leaking heat and emissions into the atmosphere.

“We declared a climate emergency and this is a good thing from that respect, but actually as important is the conditions our staff have to work in. 

“Those that are working here – and not at home – need to be comfortable and have modern up-to-date office spaces.”

While the plans gained support from cabinet members, several councillors raised concerns that the scheme had not been through the council’s scrutiny process ahead of the meeting. 

Several councillors – including Conservative John Barnes and Labour’s Paul Courtel – raised this concern. 

Concerns were also raised by Conservative group leader Carl Maynard about the decision-making process, as cabinet members were to authorise officers to enter into contracts associated with the project before funding being agreed by full council.

He said: “It is a bizarre way of bringing the paper in front of members and it does appear as if councillors who aren’t on cabinet are not being given the opportunity to properly debate the pros and cons of what is in front of them.

“Reference has already been made by a number of members that this should have gone to scrutiny committee first and I think, quite frankly, it should have done.

“At the moment you have a scheme which is going to cost an extremely large sum of money and frankly, personally speaking, I don’t buy into this cost neutrality whatsoever. I think you are being incredibly disingenuous to suggest this could ever be cost neutral.”

In light of Cllr Maynard’s concerns, officers suggested the authority to enter into contracts be made subject to the council agreeing funding. 

If funding for the refurbishment project is approved, a full development options report would be expected to be brought forward at a future cabinet meeting. Any scheme will also need to go through the planning process.

In the long term, the redevelopment would be expected to come alongside wider changes for the area, as East Sussex County Council is considering the creation of a green plaza at the front of the Town Hall.

According to Rother District Council, these plans are subject to consultation but have already been funded to £1.3m through a combination of Local Growth Fund and Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) monies.