CAMPAIGNERS against East Devon District Council’s proposed sell-off of its Sidmouth offices have voiced concerns that the move will not be as “cost-neutral” as anticipated by council bosses.
Their claim follows a lighthearted Picnic in the Park event in the picturesque grounds of Knowle.
It was organised by the Knowle Residents Association, backed by campaign groups Save our Sidmouth and the East Devon Alliance.
The aim was to celebrate the public parkland and gardens that surround the council offices which the groups claim are at risk from being developed as part of the local authority’s relocation plans.
On the back of various surveys and assessments, deputy chief executive Richard Cohen said the council would save tens of thousands of pounds a year if its offices moved from the aging premises at Knowle into a newer building.
Following the unanimous agreement by the council’s cabinet for the authority to relocate, Mr Cohen is exploring potential sites in Honiton and Cranbrook.
But following the picnic, where poetry was read highlighting the strong affection for the parkland, Ian McKintosh, chairman of the Alliance, has raised concerns about the proposal of the council to sell-off three of its landholdings – Heathpark in Honiton and Knowle and the Manstone depot in Sidmouth – as a possible option to fund the move.
“There is growing disquiet that the costs of relocation will get out of hand as they have in West Dorset where a similar project has left the district council millions in debt,” he said.
“Already the council admits that it might be necessary to borrow over £4 million before assets can be realised.
“Former council leader Councillor Peter Halse, at July’s full council meeting, argued powerfully that the relocation plan should be dropped because it was too financially risky.
“Tax paying residents of East Devon will be puzzled that their council is embarking upon such an extravagant enterprise at a time of austerity when all are being urged to tighten their belts.”
Robert Crick, resident and campaigner, has written to East Devon MP Hugo Swire to enlist his support on the issue.
“I’m annoyed the council is wasting our money,” he said. “Common sense tells me that it is cheaper for me, or my neighbours to retrofit our terraced houses than to knock them down and build a new house to save on our electricity bills.
“This is not just about Sidmouth,” he added. “The whole district is full of anger at the secretiveness of the council.”
However council bosses are adamant that moving from Knowle is the most financially viable option.
Council leader Councillor Paul Diviani previously affirmed that “all options” had been considered including demolishing the current offices and building smaller offices on the site – but none were financially viable.
A council spokesman added: “The council has significantly reduced the development area of the Knowle campus that it originally proposed.”
“The boundary of development in each of the remaining zones has been a matter of public knowledge for over a year and has already been consulted on as part of the Local Plan.
“It is therefore unclear to us how this is either surreptitious or, since the land is council-owned, able to be called stealing.”