Officers said that the £3.4 million proposals had reached an ‘important stage’ and asked councillors to sign off on several aspects of the project so that works can start on January 10, 2022.
Detailed design work is set to be completed by August 6 with materials then set to be ordered on August 9. The site is due to be prepared for the works on September 13.
The public realm improvements will include improved pedestrian crossings, the planting of 30 trees, seating areas every 40 metres in the high street, new paving, new bins and bike stands and improved CCTV.
Councillors discussed the works at an economic committee meeting on Monday (July 26) and main sticking points included delays, retaining trees in the area, ‘misused’ phone boxes and street furniture.
The proposed start date intends to minimise disruption to the Christmas trading period so that the town centre is as ‘busy and active as it possibly can be’ after a challenging period for the high street as a result of lockdowns and restrictions.
Officers also noted that a national shortage of building materials had put a spanner in the works adding that the lead time could be up to 20 weeks and therefore plans required swift approval.
Finger pointing over delays
However, Grant Roberts (Con, Arundel and Walberton) said that delays started ‘well before Covid’.
He said: “I’d like to remind councillor Dr Walsh that this project was due to start in Autumn 2019, well before Covid. It was your delays which have caused this unnecessary future ongoing delay.”
David Edwards (Con, Felpham East) argued that the pandemic had been used as ‘an excuse’ for the delayed improvements by the previous Lib Dem administration.
But leader of the opposition James Walsh (Lib Dem, Beach) called this a ‘rewriting of history’ adding that accusations of ‘dithering’ directed at his previous administration over the scheme were ‘utter and complete nonsense’.
He said: “There was a thing called the pandemic, which there still is, which actually interrupted most civil contract works in the last year, has put up the prices of things and delayed the start of many, many contracts.
“It’s because of that, that phase one had to be cut out because the price had gone up for the contract work and may well go up again.
“It was nothing to do with the administration who were as keen as anybody to get on with it.”
Council leader Shaun Gunner (Con, Rustington East) was ‘disappointed’ that phase one was not included in the scope of the current works and said that his Conservative administration would aim to get funding for this ‘by hook or by crook’.
A lime tree situated outside the town’s arcade has now been granted a tree protection order and councillors voted to keep the tree despite an earlier decision to remove it.
Mr Gunner said it was unfortunate that a decision was previously made to remove the tree. He added: “I think this committee should endeavour to save that lime tree as that’s what we’ve heard from members of the public.”
Dr Walsh said that he requested the TPO himself after listening to the public.
He explained: “The tree is the least of the problems, it’s a mature, fine, attractive tree and I’m delighted to hear the arboriculture officer has recommended that it is suitable for a TPO.”
However, Emily Seex (Arun Ind, River) said decisions should be made based on ‘what the council thinks is right’ and not ‘based on the press or public opinion’.
She said it was ‘undeniable’ that the lime tree blocked the view of the arcade. She added that other trees should be removed as they were a mobility issue and also blocked shopfronts.
Council officers told Ms Seex that the trees would not be removed at present.
Several BT phone boxes proved a sticking point for councillors and Ms Seex tabled an amendment seeking for their removal.
The phone boxes, which officers had originally planned to remove, will now remain in situ after the works to be used as data hubs.
Officers told the committee that they would cost £35,000 to remove and doing so would be to the detriment of other works included in the scheme.
Ms Seex said: “The phone boxes are just used as a place to urinate and we know that BT makes more money from having the advertisements on the side.
“We don’t really need data hubs and the concept of free wifi in high streets is outdated now because data on mobile phones is so cheap.”
Andy Cooper (Con, Angmering and Findon), chair of the economic committee, said: “If we agree to remove these, there will be a cost at potential detriment to the rest of the scheme.
“We’ve already lost large swathes of this scheme and £35,000 may seem very little but we need to deliver this scheme we need to get on and do it.”
Richard Bower (Con, East Preston) said he ‘could not countenance’ spending £35,000 when funding for the scheme ‘should be spent elsewhere’ and thought that BT should be responsible for removing them. Officers confirmed they were working with the telecoms company to ‘enhance the quality’ of the boxes.
Mr Edwards said that the phone boxes were ‘unsightly’ but suggested that sealing them or finding an alternative use may be more economical than removing them.
Councillors approved Ms Seex’s amendment which asks officers to find other ways of removing the phone boxes.
Cobblestones and street furniture
The longevity of proposed street furniture and resurfacing was also raised at the committee meeting.
Matt Stanley (Lib Dem, Marine) asked that as much cobblestone and street furniture be repurposed as possible.
This followed comments by Mike Northeast (Lab, Courtwick with Toddington) who is opposed to the resurfacing of the high street.
In a written statement he said: “The pavements were installed in 2000 after a lot of research to ensure they were robust enough to take vehicle traffic, emergency and market vehicles.
The design is a heritage pattern of waves lapping the shore and the replacement will cause an enormous amount of disruption to traders in these difficult times.”
Mr Northeast recommended that the money should be spent elsewhere such as on a covered walkway for the town, much like the one in neighbouring Rustington.
Officers said that grant funding had already been allocated for specific parts of the project and could not be repurposed.
Dr Walsh also raised his concerns about the longevity of wooden street furniture which is set to be installed in the town centre.
He said: “It looks fine and dandy in the brochure pictures but wood surfaces in any environment, particularly in a salt laden maritime environment, go grey or black and require a lot of maintenance. The steel furniture we currently have requires regular repainting but will last for many, many years.”
Economic committee members approved the ordering of materials so that the public realm works can start in January 2022.