A crucial meeting for the future of the Look & Sea Centre has been branded an 'utter disgrace' after a controversial vote caused uproar in the public gallery.
A meeting of Arun District Council's overview select committee was held this evening to decide whether a cabinet decision to turn the whole building into a café, restaurant or bar and get rid of the visitor information centre and educational experience as we know it should be upheld.
The cabinet decision on October 15, which you can read about here, was called-in by opposition councillors on October 18, on the grounds it had not been properly scrutinised. Click here for the full story.
After hours of cross-examining witnesses, including trustees and staff at the centre, councillors on the committee narrowly voted to reject the call-in. Plans to find an operator for a café, restaurant or bar were put on hold while the call-in was made - but tonight's decision means Arun can now carry on looking for someone to run it and to relocate the other services.
The voting process was criticised by members of the public - with one councillor asking what they were voting on just after chairman Norman Dingemans asked the committee to make its decision, sparking shouts from the public gallery.
Speaking after the meeting, councillor Mike Northeast, who was among those who called-in the original decision, said he thought the vote was 'utterly disgraceful', and councillor Ian Buckland shared his feelings. He said: "I'm disgusted. It was an undemocratic process."
Dr James Walsh spearheaded the call-in. After the meeting, the councillor said: "The way the decision was made was a shambles. Members didn't appear to know what was being voted for and even though the chairman tried to retrieve the situation, the damage had been done.
"What is such a disgrace is that only two Littlehampton members were on the committee; the rest were elsewhere in the Arun District."
Roger Elkins put forward a motion to refer the October 15 decision back to the cabinet for reconsideration, which was seconded by Barbara Oakley. The vote was briefly tied at five in favour and against until another councillor voted against.
Robert Wheal's proposal to reject the call-in then received seven votes, with four against. After the decision was made, some members of the public confronted the committee about it.
Mr Northeast, who was a trustee on the board of the Look & Sea Centre when it closed, came under intense questioning from committee councillors about why the centre failed. He told the committee that in the final weeks, they were in discussions with operators to take over the Harbour Lights restaurant to generate more income through rent, but rules meant they could not sub-let the building.
After the meeting, he said: "All they wanted was to use me as the whipping boy tonight. They weren't interested in how to take the plans forward."
Rachel Stanford, former manager of the visitor information centre, told the committee that up until the centre's closure on August 31, 3,054 school children visited in 2018 - an increase of 2,154 students on last year and generating £6,108 for the centre. Before the Look & Sea shut, she was holding talks with Girlguiding UK to host sleepovers there. She said the centre was the only venue in Littlehampton large enough to host the educational school trips they held.
After the meeting, she said the older generation would also suffer due to tonight's decision. She said: "For some of them, we were the only people they would see daily.
"It wasn't only a visitor information centre - it was a hub of the community.
Regarding the vote, she said: "They had no idea in there what they were talking about. Have they actually been down to the Look & Sea Centre?"