On Wednesday (October 13), Hastings Borough Council agreed to increase the budget of a project to redevelop the former public toilets in Harold Place from £1.2m to £1.7m.
The project will see a purpose-built restaurant constructed on the site, which the council intends to lease out to as-yet unnamed operator.
Cabinet member for finance Peter Chowney said: “We are not debating whether the project should have been supported in the first place, we have already agreed that as a council, some ago it is true, but we have already agreed it.
“The recommendation here in front of us tonight is just about approving the increase in costs.
“That seems kind of inevitable, because building costs have gone up a lot since we agreed this, due to shortages, shortages of labour and various other things that have happened over the last couple of years.”
Even so, Cllr Chowney said the rents would still cover the costs of the borrowing.
Commercial partner announcement ‘imminent’
He went on to say a planning application for the redevelopment had now been submitted (although it was not validated and publicly available at time of publication), with the council’s commercial partner due to be announced ‘imminently’.
Should this application be approved, he added, the council may be able to secure additional funding from the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP), to the tune of around £400,000.
Restaurant ‘could be a white elephant’
While approved on a majority vote, the project came in for some significant criticism from the council’s Conservative group, which argued the council should walk away in the face of growing costs.
Among those to offer criticism was Ashdown councillor Mike Edwards, who said: “I don’t know if it was a full moon the other night when the council were meeting but this is certainly a lunatic idea. To borrow this volume of money in a very uncertain business environment to build a building and not plan to make a penny profit out of it.
“Furthermore I would suggest that the possibility that things could go wrong is very real. By way of increasing interest rates, which are very much on the cards at the moment, or cost overruns, which are equally likely as things stand.
“To press ahead with this as a regeneration project seems like madness. Regeneration is about bringing more people into the town.
“I would suggest across the borough there are very few people who will be saying, let’s go into town to sit in this restaurant as yet unknown. Even more so people coming into the town from outside, which is presumably where we should be targeting our efforts as a seaside resort.”
Cllr Edwards also cast doubt over whether the building would be large enough to provide a good income. As a result, he said, the council could be left with a ‘white elephant’ should the operator fail or pull out of the lease.
Similar criticism was offered by Conservative group leader Andy Patmore, who predicted costs could be set to rise again once work began due to ‘unknowns’ at the site.
He also raised concerns around the environmental costs of the development in light of the council’s push towards carbon neutrality and argued in favour of an alternative use for the site, such as an improved link between the town centre and seafront.
Green Party councillor Julia Hilton also argued against the project, criticising the building’s proposed design and questioning the need for the restaurant on the site at all.
Council ‘has already agreed to build a restaurant’
These arguments were dismissed by the majority Labour group, however, which argued the benefits would outweigh the downsides.
Cllr Judy Rogers, cabinet portfolio holder for organisation, said: “We have already agreed to build the restaurant. That was done a while back, as Cllr Chowney has already pointed out.
“This is a regeneration project and it will be an offer for our tourist industry. That is something we do need to do. We need to provide places.
“People will come. They may not come, Cllr Edwards, specifically to eat in that restaurant, but people will come to visit Hastings and they will come again if they enjoy their experience. We need them to come again.”
Both the Conservatives and Cllr Hilton voted against the budget increase. Despite this, it was approved with 17 votes for and 10 against, due to support from the majority Labour group.