Arun District councillors toasted the beginning of much-anticipated rejuvenation works on Place St Maur in Bognor Regis this morning.
The works, which were first discussed last Summer, will see soft landscaping, water features and new seating introduced to the area, creating a natural funnel from the town centre to the seafront.
Designs detailing the transformation and laying out the plans were laid out for public consultation earlier this year and, in September, got the nod from the majority of respondents. It is hoped the project, which is the result of a successful bid for a £1.2 million grant from Coast to Capital, will mark the first step in the 'regeneration' of the town.
Work is due to start next week and Shaun Gunner, an Arun District Councillor and member of the Coast to Capital Strategic Committee, said the project was a 'symbol of the faith we're all putting in Bognor Regis.'
"(Bognor) is a place that's on the up. We want many more people coming here. We want businesses investing in the town, visitors coming to enjoy it, because it's a fantastic town and this is going to make it even better.
"The response has already been really positive from residents and, what I'm hoping is, this will really regenerate this area, make it a destination area. It's a new plaza in Bognor Regis and it's not often councillors can claim something like that."
Anthony Middleton, Acting Chief Executive at Coast to Capital, added: “I am delighted that the Place St Maur project is breaking ground. Once complete, the project will make an excellent contribution to the transformation of Bognor Regis attracting businesses, visitors and residents alike.”
There is, however, some debate over who should claim credit for the project. Liberal Democrat Councillor Francis Oppler made clear that "This project only happened because the Liberal Democrat administration, who conceived the project, who planned the project and have delivered the project before we left office in May earlier this year. On each vote the Conservatives voted against this project, apart from one councillor."
Conservative councillors have, historically, voted against the project. When the Place St Maur project came up at the Arun District full council meeting in July last year, before the Conservative administration came to power, almost all Conservative councillors, including Shaun Gunner, voted against the Place St Maur project.
Conservative councillor David Edwards was the sole exception. He is the acting chair of the Environment and neighbourhood services committee and, now that work has started, he said it's not about who conceived of the Place St Maur project, but who has finally delivered it.
"At the end of the day, whoever made this happen has made it happen. We're doing this for the people of Bognor Regis, and the tourists we want to attract down here. We didn't go in, when we took over the administration back in May, and cancel all the projects that were on the table like the Liberal Democrats did when they took over, because, actually, we want something to happen. This area has been tired and really not very attractive.
"We want people to walk down through our town and have an avenue to the sea. Does this fulfil that? I don't know, if I'm honest. But it's something, and it will be a whole lot better than what we've got now."
Cllr Gunner added that the Conservative's reservations about the Place St Maur project were not actually objections to the scheme itself, but a sense that it might limit potential for further development later down the line: "Essentially we felt that this might inhibit a bigger regeneration on the site. There were no printable objections to the actual proposal, we were saying that, if we want to push ahead with regeneration, this kind of limits your room for manoeuvre on that site."
By the time the Conservatives came to power in May, pushing ahead with the Place St Maur project was the only thing that made sense, Mr Gunner said. "So we have made some sort of consequential changes to the proposals, but we'd been given this money by the government to spend- would you really want to turn that money down? Not only that, Arun had spent money on the project already. My view was, if we got rid of the scheme, we'd have been stuck with nothing. Once you've got that money confirmed, it's a bit churlish to say 'I don't want to spend this money'.