Further funding is to be allocated to the Wealden Sports Hub project, despite concerns from some councillors.
On Wednesday (November 22), Wealden District Council agreed to allocate an additional £5.183 million of Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) funding towards the construction of a major new leisure facility on land at Knights Farm East in Lower Horsebridge.
Proposals for this facility, which is expected to include 3G football pitches and tennis courts, are currently going through the council’s planning process, with an application likely to go in front of a committee next year.
Cllr Kelvin Williams, the council’s lead member for public health and asset management, urged members to support the funding allocation, describing the project as a ‘vitally important’ piece of infrastructure.
He said: “The delivery of what I would regard as a piece of infrastructure, which is essentially mitigating against a lot of the housing that has actually been delivered locally, is vitally important for the delivery of wellbeing, physical activities etc. I can’t think of anything else of this significance that has been delivered through CIL previous to this.”
He added: “I really do think this is a golden opportunity to deliver a really state-of-the-art all-singing, all-dancing facility which we will not necessarily have the opportunity to be able to deliver if this fails to move forward.”
While the funding allocation was ultimately agreed, several councillors argued it was premature to do so at this stage, as details such as final costs and outside funding remained uncertain.
Among those to raise concerns was Cllr David White, leader of the council’s independent group. He said: “I remain of the opinion that it is inappropriate to allocate a further £5.183m from CIL funds at this stage.
“The previous council initially agreed an allocation of £8m — £1m from investment reserve funds and £7m from CIL. We are now informed that the costs have risen to £16.7m, with a possible grant from the Football Foundation of £3.5m to offset part of the cost.
“But I am not convinced it is a true reflection of the true costs. In particular, no allowance has been made for the cost of acquiring the site or for the officer involvement or the professional fees incurred to date.”
He added: “Without knowing the overall costs I cannot be certain that this project represents value for money or that the same facilities could not be provided in a more cost-efficient manner and on more sustainable sites.
“In agreeing a further allocation of CIL funding at this stage, we are both tacitly endorsing the scheme and more importantly denying the council the opportunity of allocating CIL to what may be more deserving or more important infrastructure projects.”
Similar concerns were raised by Conservative group leader Ann Newton. She said: “The idea for the sports hub was conceived by the previous administration as a marvellous opportunity for Hailsham. However, I am now very worried that the scheme has been allowed to get out of hand and quite clearly is financially out of control.
“I am also worried that the new administration may not have the experience to manage the project in such early days of their term.
“My worries increased on receiving a letter from Mr Steve Wellington, whom I have know for many years. For those of you who don’t know Steve is Hailsham Active and has strived to work with Wealden on active leisure facilities.
“It worries me that he doesn’t support this project and his reasons are detailed in his letter [to councillors]. If he cannot support the project, should we?
“Therefore I think a pause in the process is needed to find out if the other parts of the jigsaw —planning permission, grant funding etc — will fall into place. This extra funding should not be agreed today, actually there is no need.”
Labour’s Daniel Manvell took a different view. He said “I understand where Cllr White is coming from and of course we have to be very cautious about our finances. You look at the state of local government and it is a perilous position right now.
“But there is actually nothing new here. If you go back to the September 2022 meeting of cabinet there was a decision in there — or at least it was referenced in the decision — that additional funding of between £4m and £7m would be needed, bringing the total cost to £12m to £15m.
“So I fail to see what possible objection Cllr Newton has in bringing this up when her own cabinet report, from when she was leader a year ago, says that the cost would be at this level.”
He added: “There is actually nothing new here and any suggestion otherwise is just pure politics.”
The Conservative group’s view also drew some criticism from the council’s Green/Lib Dem administration.
Cllr Gareth Owen-Williams, Lib Dem cabinet member for waste and public services, said: “I think this is a fantastic project. [For the] last four years … I’ve watched as Hailsham has had far more than its fair share (some would say) of development going. It’s not a great thing to watch. It is nice that we invest in the area, in the best place we can find.
“We’ve inherited this situation, but to me it looks like a professional job which I think will give Hailsham some of its pride back and will give a brand new state-of-the-art facility for the people who live there and who have, as I say, tolerated a lot of new housing.”