Harrogate Borough Council

Harrogate Council spend £885K on office move despite lack of full approval

31 January 2014

Since the Conservative-led Cabinet’s decision to freeze Council Tax for another year, Harrogate Borough Council Lib Dems have said they are now more concerned than ever about plans to build new headquarters for the Council at Knapping Mount, away from the town centre off King’s Road.

The Lib Dem Group has continued to oppose the scheme and instead favours a scheme that would see the upgrade of facilities at the current central home of the Council at Crescent Gardens.

Lib Dem’s say the Council have broadly approved a plan to spend an approximate net capital amount of £10 million (after property disposals) on the new office buildings.

The Council have already commissioned initial work from a range of contractors, costing in the region of £885,000, before a final “go-ahead” decision is made by the Council later this year. If the plans do no go ahead then around £885,00 would become abortive costs – waste.

Cllr Helen Flynn, Shadow Lib Dem Member for Finance and Resources at the Council said: There are so many reasons why we oppose the scheme– this is simply not just a case of ‘tit for tat’ local politics. But there are three main reasons: first, the unnecessary waste of local taxpayers’ money at a time when we know grants from Government are continuing to fall year on year and we are seemingly hamstrung from raising more locally from council tax, for example, judging by recent events. We would rather spend such capital money as is available now on much needed upgrades to local infrastructure.

Second, the efficiency savings given as the rationale for this new-build scheme are predicated over a 25-year period. Who knows what the world will look like in 25 years’ time? The private sector, in my experience, would be looking for a real payback on any capital scheme in 4-5 years.

Third, there is so much financial and structural uncertainty over the future of local government, that making this decision now, prior to the next General Election in 2015, seems slightly reckless. There is a strong chance that there will be a nationwide move to unitary status after 2015, and the cuts to central Government grants to local authorities since 2010 have been giving us strong clues, in my opinion, as to the way things are going.

The Lib Dem Group has been in favour of using such land as is available at Knapping Mount for affordable housing rather than as a site for shiny new offices. Councillor Philip Broadbank, Leader of the Lib Dem Group, said, “We are crying out for more affordable homes across the district, and Knapping Mount would make a perfect infill site for a good number of affordable homes which would not put too much strain on local infrastructure.

The Liberal Democrats have launched a petition that they will present to the Leader of the Conservative Group in May, and are hoping that members of the public will sign it. It can be accessed online at www.helenflynn.org.uk

Harrogate Borough Council have confirmed that last week, councillors and officers interviewed short-listed professional practices, including architects, quantity surveyors and planning consultants, as well as reviewing bids from mechanical and electrical engineers, health and safety and civil and structural engineers. A report will now be presented to Cabinet on 5 February 2014 to consider these appointments. Following the appointment of the design team, proposals will be developed and a period of public consultation on these proposals is scheduled for early summer.

Leader of Harrogate Borough Council, Councillor Anthony Alton has addressed the recent criticisms made by the Lib Dem HBC Group about the office move.

Councillor Alton said: There are a number of inaccuracies and misrepresentation of facts which need to be addressed concerning this issue.

To begin, Cabinet will discuss this year’s council budget on 5th February and will be considering a report from Scrutiny on its budget proposals for 2014/15. The final decision on the budget and Council Tax is one for the full council, which will be made on 13th February, on which all 54 members of the council are able to vote – not just the Cabinet.

Regarding the proposal to build new headquarters for the council at Knapping Mount – it is not the Conservative Group’s plan, it is the councils. At present no final decision on the proposal has been made (nor will it, until the Cabinet and full Council have had sight of the financial options appraisal, which will be considered at the end of this year). Initial work has not been commissioned yet from a range of contractors, and the appointment of a design team needs to go through Cabinet before they are chosen.

The council has not agreed to spend £10 million after property disposals as stated by the Lib Dem HBC Group, the indicative net capital cost will be between £7.9 million to £8.9 million. In addition, the budget figure that the Lib Dems have used was taken from a report approved by the full Council on 18th July, 2013. It is important to note it is the budget that has been agreed, not the final costs which will necessarily be incurred. The budget of £885,000 is split between £460,000 for the development of the project to planning approval stage, and £425,000 for the development of more detailed designs to allow the project to be tendered and construction costs confirmed. In any case, the July 2013 report requires a report back to Cabinet following the pre-planning consultation.

With regards to the Lib Dems comments concerning predicted efficiency savings over a 25-year period, the July 2013 report analysed the costs of the scheme over both a 5 year (short term) basis, and a 25 year (net present cost).

Talk of Harrogate Borough Council’s demise and a move to unitary status has been talked about for many years and will undoubtedly continue to be a subject of discussion for many more. We cannot let this subject affect important decisions which will ultimately benefit the community.

The current state of some of the Harrogate Borough Council office buildings makes them unfit for purpose. As a result we have to make a major investment. The building of new, purpose-built, energy-efficient accommodation will also maximise additional savings and provide greater flexibility for the coming decades.

While a lower capital cost option may initially seem preferable, this would not bring the long term benefits that we want to achieve. Just like any business, reducing our overheads for the long term future has to be the logical decision.

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