Up until last night EDDC has claimed that the move would be ‘cost neutral.’
Several Sidmouth residents spoke at the meeting including Michael Temple, Richard Eley and Barry Curwen. They highlighted a number of issues and asked a number of questions, relating to:
– lack of justification for the move
– potential spiralling costs
– the existing building receiving a good c-rating for energy efficiency
– no independent assessment carried out on costs
Former Sidmouth chamber of commerce chair, Richard Eley told the meeting that chief executive, Mark Williams had informed him the cost of a new build in Honiton would be around £3.5m.
But deputy chief executive, Richard Cohen had later told Mr Eley that the cost of a new office build in Honiton could be as much as £7m.
When Mr Cohen addressed the committee he said that had ‘no recollection’ of this conversation with Mr Eley.
There was also some confusion on how much of the Knowle gardens would be developed. Members of the public said it could be up to 70 per cent, but Mr Cohen claimed it would be only 10 per cent, but he said that it was early days and he couldn’t confirm this until later.
Listening to the arguments it was clear that some fundamental issues had been glossed over, if not ignored completely.
No one seemed to have any idea of how much it would cost to stay at the Knowle, compared with moving to Honiton.
In my first question to Mr Cohen, I asked whether he could provide assurances to the committee that the costs of moving to Honiton would not reach £7m.
He said that there were some inaccurate figures on cost being talked about at a recent consultation event so he had given to residents a ‘heavily caveated’ figure of around £6-£7m for a new build at Honiton.
This creates a shortfall of over £3m.
I said that two issues seemed to be emerging, which were cost and justification.
I said I was alarmed that a decision was made by cabinet for the council to relocate to Honiton when fundamental issues such as cost assessments relating to staying at the Knowle had not been done. It was putting the cart before the horse.
I added that the justification was that the move was cost neutral. How could this be established if no work had been carried out to find out the cost of staying versus leaving?
I made a proposal that an independent assessment be carried as soon as possible, on the costs of staying at the Knowle/making the building fit for purpose and a second assessment on the costs of moving to Honiton.
Mr Cohen claimed that this work was already being carried out by the company undertaking a risk assessment.
I clarified this with the representative from the company who confirmed that his work did not cover the subject of my proposal.
I told the chairman, Cllr Stuart Hughes, my proposal stood.
It was seconded by Cllr Roger Giles.
Cllr Tony Howard wanted to know when the public across East Devon would be consulted about the move.
It was unclear when this might be but it would happen, we were told.
Cllr David Key told the meeting that the council had been talking about the move to Honiton for years. He said: “It hasn’t just come to light. Look at the high ceilings in this room for a start.
“The people of Sidmouth are adamant that they don’t want EDDC to move. What makes Sidmouth people think that we should bow to their needs?”
Cllr Tim Wood said that the idea seemed ‘perfectly sensible’ when first put forward as the Knowle building is inefficient. He said doubts about capital were emerging and that concerned him.
Cllr Roger Giles asked questions about the energy survey on The Knowle referred to by the public. When was it carried out and what were the findings?
Richard Cohen said that the energy rating was ‘c’ which was good for a building of this age, however a new building would increase energy saving by 25 per cent.
Cllr Giles then asked about the consultation events. How many people attended? Mr Cohen said that no numbers had been counted.
Cllr Giles final question was about the economic assessment. When was this carried out and when will it be available.
Mr Cohen said it was started around six weeks ago and would be available on 10 August.
Cllr Giles expressed surprise that this had only just been carried out, given how important it was and how long the project had been under consideration.
Cllr Mike Allen said he thought that Honiton was the centre of East Devon and it was right that the offices should be based there.
He then departed from his point to ask the chairman to ‘eject a gentleman’ in the public gallery, if he kept interrupting.
(One of the members of public had been calling out and had been asked not to several times by chairman, Cllr Stuart Hughes.)
Cllr Allen resumed his point to add that a large area of green space at the Knowle would be lost and he wanted an ‘equivalent metreage’ put somewhere else. He added that an estimated build cost of between £3-£7m ‘looked incompetent,’ and he wanted to see a cost/benefit analysis circulated to the committee.
In response to a question from me, Mr Cohen said that the tree survey would be available for public viewing in August.
Cllr Hughes said that the Knowle gardens contained public rights of way and open space. He wanted consideration of a one-stop shop service or premises. Streetscene would need to be retained in town, he said.
Mr Cohen said that this was not his decision, it was the decision of the cabinet, but he hoped that it would be the case.
Cllr David Key said one of the things that concerned him was the forthcoming planning application to develop the Knowle and the lack of information available with which to determine the application.
He wanted to defer the determination of the outline planning application by one month to September, when more information would be available.
Cllr Roger Giles expressed his concern that a planning application was coming forward in this way and proposed that the scrutiny committee should make this recommendation.
He said: “Nothing that I have read, or heard this evening convinces me that the economic case for relocating the EDDC offices from Sidmouth to Honiton, has been made.”
The leader of the council, Paul Diviani, chairman, Peter Halse and Andrew Moulding, portfolio holder for strategic development all felt it necessary to stand up in turn, to tell the committee that the planning application should be determined in August and not be deferred by one month.
Cllr Diviani said an August decision was necessary because a planning approval would ‘add value’ to the project.
Cllr Halse agreed, adding that the building is not ideally suited for purpose and the longer the delay we would ‘all get more jumpy’ about it. He was sure that Sidmouth would survive, he said.
Cllr Moulding said he agreed with Cllr Troman that the scheme should ‘stack up.’ He said without outline planning approval how can we be sure this would be the case. The application must come forward in August, he insisted.
There was a brief and unhappy exchange with Cllr Hughes and the leader, Cllr Diviani, as Cllr Hughes attempted to make a case for deferring the application by a month, based on a lack of information available. The leader simply insisted again that it was necessary.
Cllr Hughes did not persist in arguing but he looked very unhappy about it.
The subject was dropped.
I was dismayed at the determination to force major decisions through such as a planning determination, which was hardly likely to be rejected. It was clear that the entire relocation project was being steamrollered through, despite common sense, independent evidence, potential spiralling costs and people’s views.
I expressed these views to the committee, adding that the scrutiny committee should insist that the planning application should be deferred by a month and that the council was putting the ‘cart before the horse.’
Cllr Giles agreed. He said the role of the scrutiny committee was to hold the council to account and that is what we should be doing.
There was then a vote on my amendment to the recommendations, relating to an independent assessment of the costs of staying versus moving.
The vote was unanimously supported.