Six-figure sum to work up Bexhill ‘Town Hall Renaissance Project’ details

Councillors have discussed the next steps of a potentially multi-million pound project to refurbish Bexhill Town Hall and redevelop the land surrounding it.

Tuesday, 13th April 2021, 4:59 pm

On Monday (April 12), Rother District Council’s overview and scrutiny committee heard more about the plans for the site, now known as the Town Hall Renaissance Project. 

In February, the council set a £460,000 budget to develop detailed plans for the project, which could see the renovation of the existing town hall building alongside the construction of flats and new office buildings.

However, the setting of this budget was made on the condition that the overview and scrutiny committee could examine the proposals and provide feedback. 

While the committee made no specific recommendations on the project, some words of caution were voiced on the commercial element of the project.

Among those to raise these concerns was Cllr John Barnes (Con), who said he felt the project was moving “too fast for comfort”.

He said: “I’m worried that we are making certain assumptions about the post-covid office future. 

“While I sense the desire to get on, quite a lot of this depends on assumptions about post-covid which I don’t feel terribly secure myself in making.”

He added: “It is a cautionary note and as [officers] have already said we are going to take some years over this, but it does seem to me the specification at the moment is necessarily looser than you would normally have when you go to architects.”

Similar concerns were raised by Cllr Sarah Errington (Ind), who pointed to other projects to create commercial office space in Bexhill – including the Sussex Hotel scheme in London Road.

She said: “There is just something in the back of my mind thinking that perhaps as more shops become offices as a result of the pandemic that we are not going to be able to move quick enough. It is just an observation.

“The other thing is High Weald House [a recently-constructed business centre located off the Hastings to Bexhill link road]. I know that’s not ours, but there are not many takers for that.

“I’m just hoping that perhaps the town hall location is more attractive because it is so central to shops and transport, but I just wanted to highlight the fact that there is a new office complex but not very high take up in terms of tenants.”

The committee heard the council had considered a number of options for the town hall, including: basic health and safety works, a standalone refurbishment or even moving out of the building to a new location.

After consideration, however, a whole site redevelopment was considered to be a potentially “revenue neutral” option – meaning that the cost of development could be covered by income from the finished site. 

While no plans are final at this stage, such a “revenue neutral” is thought likely to include some mix of office space and residential flats, alongside the renovation and refurbishment of the core town hall building.

As part of wider development plan some existing buildings on the site would likely have to be demolished.

It would also likely contain somewhere in the region of 14 flats (either for sale or rent) but officers said the scheme is more likely to favour commercial space than residential.

These parts of the project would be intended to fund a refurbishment and improvement to the core town hall building, particularly in terms of energy efficiency.

Despite some concerns, after discussion the committee opted not to make any formal suggestions on the project at this stage. Members did however ask for the matter to be brought back to the committee in a few months as more details of the design emerge.  

This was agreed by officers, however they also said the final designs are likely to go straight to the planning committee before a decision is made on whether to actually build out the project. They said this was because the council would have a much clearer picture of the full costs when (and if) a scheme gained planning permission. 

After going through the planning process the scheme would return to the overview and scrutiny committee, before then going to cabinet and full council for a final decision on whether to proceed.

During debate around the project, concerns were raised about the meeting being held during the run up to next month’s county council elections.

Opening discussion, Conservative group leader Carl Maynard, who is standing for re-election in Brede Valley and Marsham, raised concerns about the meeting going ahead.

He said: “I don’t think it was appropriate to hold this meeting during the pre-election period, because I think there will be a number of us who are county council candidates for the coming elections or indeed town council candidates who will feel somewhat inhibited relating political statements. 

“Furthermore I’ll go one step further and say that given the very sad passing of the Duke of Edinburgh – and whilst I understand we are allowed to hold public meetings today – we are not allowed to campaign until tomorrow. 

“As far as I am concerned at this particular point I think it would be highly inappropriate for anybody to make any political points at this evening’s meeting.

“This evening’s meeting should be about information gathering and given the circumstances I would have preferred a postponement of this meeting.”

Cllr Maynard went on to say he was advising Conservative councillors not to take part in any votes on the item as it could be “construed as party political.”

Later in the meeting, however, Cllr Maynard also said he was concerned that the project was ‘ideologically driven’.

He said: “From what we have heard thus far it does appear that this project is ideologically driven. That is something I think I find particularly disturbing, because as a local authority the one thing we must do above all else is make sure that we take financially responsible decisions, that we assess risk extremely carefully before making any sort of investment.

“Quite clearly we’ve seen from what has happened, as a matter of fact, in neighbouring authorities very recently, in looking at their budgets, that you can very quickly get yourself into hot water if you don’t make very sensible and prudent financial decisions.

“The other comment I wanted to make is that anybody watching this meeting would think that we hadn’t invested in the town hall in the past and the fact remains that we have gone above and beyond the normal repairs and replacements in the past.”

These comments saw some pushback from cabinet member for regeneration Christine Bayliss, who is also standing as a county council candidate for the Labour Party.

Cllr Bayliss said: “I would just like to say I think this is an ideal project to be taking forward as we come out of the covid crisis. 

“This will enable us to start regeneration of London Road, it will help us put people into jobs in the construction industry and it provides a brilliant opportunity to improve the way we deliver services with our partners. I see opportunities for a one stop shop approach and it provides sustainability for the town centre.”

She added: “It is a commercially and financially viable project. It is the sort of thing that we have been doing since we took office in 2019 and before.

“Far from being a ‘ideologically driven’ project, it is driven from wanting to achieve our objectives around the environment, it is driven by wanting to improve services for residents and it is driven by commitment to our staff.”