THE leader of East Devon District Council has accused East Devon MP Hugo Swire of raising concerns about the authority’s costly and controversial relocation plans “because he has an election to fight”.
The Conservative MP has written to Conservative council leader, Councillor Paul Diviani, who has remained resolute on the plans to relocate from Sidmouth despite widespread concern, urging him to pause the process.
Council deputy chief executive Richard Cohen and Cllr Diviani have both maintained that, on the back of various surveys and assessments, the financial burden on the council, and the tax payer, will be tens of thousands of pounds less, in time, by moving out.
But Mr Swire has now told Cllr Diviani that it would be “prudent” to wait until the outcome of the next Government spending review before relocating from Sidmouth to Honiton and Exmouth.
He also said the council should wait and see the effects of the recent agreement between East Devon District Council, Exeter City Council and Teignbridge District Council to forge the Greater Exeter, Greater Devon Partnership – the authorities are retaining their independence but the agreement paves the way for joined-up decision making on planning, housing, resources and infrastructure.
The council was pursuing plans to relocate to a purpose built office at SkyPark. However at the end of November, the local authority announced a U-turn on its plans and instead the council backed the revised plan for the council to retain the council-owned East Devon Business Centre at Heathpark in Honiton where a new build will also be constructed – formerly earmarked for a supermarket – and to use existing space at Exmouth Town Hall.
A council spokesperson previously confirmed that “market conditions” meant that SkyPark was no longer the preferred option. Also, that the highest value commercial interest for the council’s Heathpark site came from a supermarket operator, which subsequently reduced its offer, rendering the deal unviable.
Despite the commercial interest in the Knowle site, the sale of which would make up the bulk of the relocation costs, no developer has “shown an interest” in retaining and refurbishing the offices, therefore it is likely they will be demolished.
Mr Swire said that it is not the “duty” of an MP to “adjudicate” on all aspects of council business but he has expressed his discontent now, following several expressions of concern by constituents.
“I commend the council,” he said. “Because despite all the noise, they do a good job on the whole and run an efficient organisation that’s of good value to the tax payer.
“I thought SkyPark had a certain logic for the provision of a cost-effective headquarters, but I understand it’s no longer an option and I’m not particularly aware why. And I was supportive of the idea of Cranbrook.
“But I think it would be prudent to pause until we see how the greater working between Exeter City Council and Teignbridge District Council works, which is a positive thing, and the next spending review, which is inevitably going to have an effect on local spending decisions and could seriously influence the viability of the project.
“I’m also concerned about the headquarters of East Devon District Council being moved out of the constituency boundary into that of Tiverton and Honiton constituency.
“I don’t think the headquarters should necessarily be centred in Sidmouth, though I think there should be greater examination into the potential shrinkage of the Knowle site.
“And I am supportive of the idea of moving some aspect to Exmouth.
“Therefore I think they should pause, and put the plans on hold, as there is no particular rush, and wait to see the lay of the land.”
Cllr Diviani, said: “Mr Swire has raised concerns now because he has an election to fight and he thinks he’s going for what is a populous view, but I don’t think it is.”
He added: “The decision was passed with a very large majority to press ahead with the move.
“All these decisions take time, this is not something that is going to happen overnight, it’s taken three-and-a-half years to get where we are now.
“Pulling it now is not the answer – we’re looking at 2017 anyway.”