At a time when local government is being forced to make deep budget cuts to important services that help people, many residents believe that this is the wrong time to be undertaking such an expensive and financially risky project.
Two and a half years ago, EDDC announced its intention to relocate its offices.
The reasons given were that the Knowle was “not fit for purpose,” was getting old and costly to repair and that Sidmouth was not a central location within East Devon.
Residents and councillors were informed that the new build would cost around £3.5m and that Honiton was the preferred location because of its easy access and railway station.
But £3.5m then became £6m, then £7m, then £9m, then £12m and now there are unconfirmed reports that the costs may reach as much as £15m.
Even though the intention is to sell off other EDDC owned property in Sidmouth and Honiton to finance the move, EDDC may still need to borrow over £4m to achieve its aims.
Cost neutral or no increase in council tax?
Residents were previously promised that the move would be “cost neutral.”
When it became clear that this could no longer be the case, the promise quietly shifted. Last July’s (2013) cabinet report on the subject states that the move would “not cause an increase in council tax.”
Not quite the same thing.
The same cabinet report states: “This is one of the most significant decisions that the council will take since it was first created. The risk analysis within the viability study recognises that this is a project of both necessity and risk.”
This report, one of very few in the public domain, was in my view, too heavy on persuasion and too light on the necessary facts, including costs, for any sensible person to make up their mind about whether or not to support the relocation.
Repairs and maintenance
Meanwhile, we are informed that urgent repairs to the Knowle are in the region of £1m.
But the multitude of reports commissioned on the moving process, has cost the council in the region of an eye-watering £800,000. As Cllr Mike Allen pointed out at the overview and scrutiny committee meeting on 30 January, the council has spent almost the equivalent of its urgent buildings repair bill, on just looking at the possibility of relocating.
And there are rumours circulating that little maintenance has taken place on the Knowle buildings for many years. Certainly, the women’s toilets near the council chamber, have for a long time now, appeared to be afflicted with a damp problem, which has affected the closing of the cubicle doors.
My repeated requests to call the project into the overview and scrutiny committee for debate last autumn, were kicked into the long grass. Eventually, the issue came before the committee two weeks ago, just one week before a major cabinet decision was to be taken on where to relocate the offices.
EDDC is facing a time of financial hardship.
The September 2013 Audit and Governance committee papers stated:
“Following the approval of the 2013-14 budget, the council now faces a cumulative budget gap of £3.973 million over the next five year period, with a budget gap of £1,878,000 for 2014-15.”
Nevertheless, a whopping £400,000 is budgeted for office move costs over the next four years. A situation that Cllrs Roger Giles and Peter Halse objected to strongly. Cllr Halse dubbed it “creative accounting,” because there was no description of what the sum of money allocated, would be spent on.
The council will consider the budget at its full meeting on Wednesday 26 February.
And then there is the thorny matter of almost every debate and decision on the office relocation being taken by cabinet without the press and public allowed to be present.
The council argues that relocation reports are commercially sensitive and issues a press release soon after decisions are taken, but the press releases tend to stop short of providing important information, such as costs.
The office relocation working party’s minutes are marked confidential and are not allowed to be circulated outside of the council.
No wonder public trust and confidence in the project is so low.
Despite an important full council meeting on 26 February, where a decision is set to be made on the relocation itself, there is still very little information on costs available to councillors.
Motion to defer decision
Following the overview and scrutiny committee’s recommendation to cabinet to allow an independent assessment of the state of the Knowle buildings – and the cabinet’s disregard for that recommendation, I have lodged a motion to be debated at full council on Wednesday 26 February – details here – https://www.claire-wright.org/index.php/post/motion_to_move_an_independent_survey_of_the_knowle_buildings
I very much hope that the decision on whether to move to Skypark will be delayed, out of respect for a statutory process that is designed to identify and act on issues of public concern. And this runaway horse of a project is undoubtedly a matter of public concern.
To hear the debate, come along to the full council meeting on Wednesday 26 February, starting at 6.30pm. Members of the public are welcome to speak at the start.
Photograph Peter Nasmyth: March on the Knowle in November 2012, organised by Save Our Sidmouth.