Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Knowle relocation project: the letters of objection

The Leader of the District Council has defended the Cabinet recommendation of a move from Knowle to Skypark:

Home - Sidmouth Herald
Futures Forum: How to alienate your electorate and lose influence

At tomorrow's full Council meeting, several members of the public will be speaking - all of whom beg to differ.
Futures Forum: District Council meets to consider issue of relocating from Knowle to Skypark ... Weds 26th February

In the previous two weeks, there have been several letters on the subject - and many of the issues will be raised tomorrow - all published with permission:

£15m cost of 'saving cash'

14th February 2014

I FEEL the need to write this letter due to the anger and frustration at witnessing many council meetings over the last couple of years and the incredulous decisions that flow from them.
The move of the Knowle has been the wish of a few at the East Devon District Club for many years - and for reasons only known to them. Their justification (excuse) used is supposed to be that the existing building is not fit for purpose (not supported by staff I have spoken to), and usually it is delivered in a very dramatic way, with an additional ' exaggeration at each meeting!
This move has been a very contentious one between the EDDC opposition groups and the public alike. The council said from the start that if it wasn't "cost neutral" the move would not go ahead. So far £850,000 has been budgeted for exploring the viability(!) of moving. They want to sell the Knowle for housing, nursing home, block of fiats or whatever today's bright idea is! They've now added the sale of the Honiton business centre to the list, plus the Manstone Depot, as well as borrowing £4.8million. The new building is nearly £15million. This is to save us money!
I'm afraid I deeply question (as do many) the real motives behind the move.
The facts, figures and reports do not stand up to scrutiny - anything controversial is discussed in secret or deemed commercially sensitive and therefore exempt from challenge. The few councillors brave enough to challenge with uncomfortable questions are quickly dismissed and are rarely properly answered.
The different groups making up Save Our Sidmouth have asked many times to meet with the council for them to show us a fact-based cost-saving case for a move. If the case was clear and made sense, our support would be immediate. Unfortunately such a simple solution with the added potential benefit of public support is always rejected with some crock of an excuse, creating even more distrust in their ability to support their case.
What I have witnessed so far means I have unfortunately now lost all confidence that this move is unbiased and in the public interest. A shameful waste of money has already been spent while services are being cut left, right and centre - all for a face-saving vanity project.
This move is with your money, you are going to pay for it. There are 400 jobs directly involved and many more indirectly. There are contracts with businesses in town and the reduction in staff spend will impact the high street. The list of potential damage goes on. Sidmouth WILL be impacted and changed with no clear proven benefit to East Devon as a whole.
I'm angry because I don't believe EDDC is unbiased in its finding. There are not enough councillors brave enough to challenge and question.
I am angry because a move over a refurbishment (without the gold-plated taps to exaggerate the cost) is a waste of public money. And I’m angry that the public have so little influence over council decisions when they are patently and clearly flawed.
Lastly, I’m afraid we are going to end up with a fiasco like West Somerset Council where the project was a financial disaster. I’m sure they enjoyed similar council assurances, spin and promises!

Steven Kendall-Torry

They’re in Dreamland

14th February 2014

If your pre-1980s Home was "not fit for purpose", what would you do?

a) get several quotes for a new kitchen and bathroom plus re-wiring and compare the prices?
b) just add a lick of paint, tidy the garden and put it on the market?
c) forget the decorating, just put it up for auction?
d) see whether the family owns any other properties you could sell and borrow a huge sum of money to build your DREAM HOME?

Guess which option EDDC has chosen?  You've guessed it - Option D

To date they have spent over £350,000 and have committed £800,000 (so far) on this project, excluding officer time.  They want to sell The Knowle and Manstone Depot in Sidmouth, plus the East Devon Business Centre and SITA site at Honiton.  Still this will not be enough for their DREAM HOME, so in addition they may have to borrow up to £4.8 million.

However, it is a safe bet that this will not be the end of the matter and YOU, the ratepayer, will end up footing the bill.  WE paid for their existing premises, so shouldn't we have a say?
The costs have escalated from the initial estimated £1million refurbishment of a “not fit for purpose” building yet the red brick building was only constructed in the 1970s.  An email sent to me on 2nd February by Cllr Mike Allen stated, the cost of £15m for refurbishment compared to another building for £5m-£9m simply makes no sense to me.

You can be sure that any proposals from Officers will be closely scrutinised and the right questions asked. We are not party political lemmings, we are looking for the best decision for all for the next 25-59 years.”

By this analogy, Parliament (re-built 1852, House of Commons) would by now have been moved around London several times and could have been re-built at least 3 times (every 59 yrs) or, worst case scenario, 7 times (every 25 yrs) but at what cost?  What guarantee do we, the public, have that EDDC will not come back in 2050 saying, once again, that their “new” building is not “fit for purpose.”

The ambition in West Dorset to move to new premises had a catastrophic outcome resulting in the need for a £2 million rescue as "West Dorset District Council's proposals were in danger of collapsing due to the economic climate, and the Council receiving low bids in attempting to sell their existing building."  Don’t say you haven’t been warned!

Frankly, it is the Councillors who made this decision who are not “fit for purpose”.

Marianne Rixson

Pause for Thought

21st February 2014

"Councillors, it is in your power, if enough of you have the wisdom and perhaps political courage to vote through Motion 4 this evening, to make this question redundant. But in case that does not happen, I will put it now.
At item 14 of this agenda you are asked to “consider reports” from various sub-sets of Council and “to receive questions and answers on any of those reports”. Minutes of Council meetings usually record that this item concludes with “Resolved :  that the undermentioned minutes be received and recommendations approved.”
Amongst the reports included in item 14 is Cabinet Minute 180 which records discussion of a DCEO’s report in a Part B session containing a number of recommendations which Cabinet then approved. This is a report which no members of the public have been allowed to see – and which I doubt whether most of you have seen. Your special briefing paper on this topic relates only to the Part A section of the meeting. That Minute has aroused much bemusement and considerable anger, especially at Honiton Town Council, and it has enormous consequences for us all.
So on behalf of the residents and electors of East Devon my question is “Will you examine that particular Minute in more detail, ask questions about the gaps in the evidence presented and think carefully before nodding it through just because it is bundled within 116 pages of other reports?”

Peter Whitfield

The point being...

21st February 2014

It is two years since citizens became concerned about proposals to build a large industrial estate with some 500 car parking spaces on the Sidford flood plain. 

We persuaded the district council watchdog "Overview and Scrutiny Committee" to investigate allegations of "undue influence". This enquiry finally got under way in late 2012, shortly after a 4000 strong protest march from the Esplanade to the Knowle by residents of many local towns and villages.

In March 2013 the enquiry chair was surprised to find that the District Council Chief Executive had ordered all the key witnesses not to attend the second meeting of this investigation, which had to be adjourned!

Meanwhile revelations in the Daily Telegraph resulted in a resignation and police enquiries, which are ongoing. 

In May 2013 the electorate of East Devon gave independent candidates Susie Bond and Claire Wright the biggest majorities of any candidates in local elections in England. The ruling elite of EDDC then punished Sidmouth Councillor Stuart Hughes, who had chaired the Overview and Scrutiny Committee, by removing him from his position and from the Cabinet.

In September the next stage of the investigation of possible secret lobbying was postponed at short notice. The Leader of the Council , Paul Diviani, and the Chief Executive, Mark Williams, have refused to say when it will reconvene.

During the summer of 2013 the Cabinet invited some of us as "stakeholders" to discuss how East Devon might deliver services more cheaply and efficiently in future. There was no mention of the delayed enquiry into serious allegations about possible corruption. This was a different topic, about the internal organisation of EDDC and the relocation of its HQ.

The ideas discussed in the summer favoured a dispersed workforce delivering front line services, and a significantly smaller central HQ with flat management structures and smart systems to handle back office administration on behalf of a district authority that may soon cease to exist as an administrative unit, and which should anyway be maximising collaboration with other authorities to reduce duplication of effort and resources. 

We "stakeholders" were invited to another meeting later in 2013. Inner cabinet and senior officers appeared to have totally lost sight of their initial objectives for EDDC reorganisation. Discussion focussed on speculation about possible real estate values at various locations.

On Tuesday 11th February 2014 the local plan inspection began with a reprimand from the inspector for the way East Devon's proposals for our future have been developed and presented.

I would recommend, before any decision on relocation is finalised, that informed discussion within the Council should revisit this objective: to deliver front line services cheaply and efficiently. 

Our elected representatives should enquire whether the Cabinet believes these ideas are no longer worth considering.

I would like to thank the council tax payers of East Devon for generously providing such nice refreshments for us "stakeholders" in the nice accommodation at Flybe Headquarters.

Robert Crick

Stop this Skyparking

21st February 2014

East Devon District Council's cabinet decision to re-locate its offices to Skypark (or else Clyst
House which is larger than Knowle while its offices are older than the purpose-built ones at
Knowle) represents yet another phase of an ill-thought-out project taken in the face of common
sense, in direct opposition to the wishes of the people of East Devon and in reckless disregard of the
financial risks and costs involved.
Public assets are to be sold off right left and centre to fund a move to an area which is almost
outside the limits of the district – these include Knowle, with its historic house and precious
community asset, its purpose-built modern offices, together with the best of its heritage park, plus
the Manstone site and the Heath Park site at Honiton; and hubs are to be set up around the district,
all adding to the enormous costs incurred so far, not to mention the huge borrowing costs over the
next few years. No doubt, too, building costs will rise as in nearby Dorchester, North Somerset and
elsewhere. Moreover, jobs will almost certainly be lost to East Devon residents, these being taken
by people nearby in Exeter. (I gather, too, that in a recent “survey”, current staff did not vote for the
move to Skypark and they were not even allowed to vote for the option of staying at Sidmouth.)
And what is all this for? EDDC claim it will save council-tax payers money. And if it doesn't, who
will pay? You got it – we the taxpayers. Perhaps if the Cabinet, their leader and Mr Cohen, for
instance, were prepared to underwrite any loss we might be convinced, but we see no reason to trust
their maths, especially as they were unable even to count the number of jobs that would be lost to
workers from Sidmouth and have signally failed to estimate the costs of renovating the purposebuilt
1980s offices at Knowle or to consider selling/renting the historic hotel building to fund this.
Why has there been no independent survey done on the current offices?
In the meantime EDDC have failed in their duty of care in maintaining their present offices over the
past few years with the result that they have inflated the costs of repairs. Was this deliberate or sheer
It was clear, when EDDC announced the optional sites for re-location, that a key consideration was
the “need” for a Business Centre which presumably will be incorporated into the new offices. Why
is this? Could it possibly be that they intend to return to “business as usual” as in the heyday of
disgraced ex-councillor Brown who chaired the Local Plan Panel while also being the Chairman of
the East Devon Business Forum, an unelected body representing mainly large developers.
Did the people of East Devon really vote to be ruled by such a “joint body”?

Beryl Temple,


21st February 2014

THE recent sudden surge of speed by the leader of the EDDC cabinet to push through at all costs the proposal to relocate from the Knowle has spurred me into writing to you. I will not go over all the old ground of the discussions on this subject, as it is obvious that the EDDC cabinet will not listen to rea-soning from the local residents or even from their own overview and scrutiny committee. Now I learn from an EDDC councillor that the estimated cost of erecting the new HQ building has gone up from an initial £Imillion to an estimated £15million and they have not even bought the site yet.
This brought home to me memories of when my wife and I lived in Essex just before coming to Sidmouth. We lived within the district covered by the Epping Forest District Council (oh yes, another Conservative-dominated council) and back in the 1980s they decided to build a nice new shiny headquarters building. I won't go into all the fighting that went on over that decision, but cut to the chase. A contract was placed with a large construction company to build this new HQ at a cost of £4.5million. Work progressed steadily with the builders being asked for additional small alterations. We never heard of any discussions being conducted on additions to the contractual cost, but when the building had been completed Epping Forest District Council were presented with a bill for £14.5 million - that is, three times the original figure, and they had to pay it.
This is not a fairy story - the figures can be checked with Epping Forest District Council - it is a horror story and I can foresee it happening again. Does this mean the new build cost here could rise from £15million to £45million? I believe councillors like to think they will be remembered in the future for all the good things they achieved for their electors. However, is it not possible that they will be remembered for being party to the largest waste of public money in East Devon?
I urge all the EDDC councillors to think again, call a halt to this mad rush and care-fully consider the facts and figures before it is too late.

Keith Northover

Knowle’s grim fate

Published 21st February 2014

How do EDDC market Knowle? (Sidmouth Herald, 14 February 2014) – ‘Controversial building site for sale – with a proven history of failed planning applications’ ?

Buyers will know they face near unanimous opposition from the residents of Sidmouth. They will have serious conservation issues to overcome, questions over rights of way through the site, and parkland access around it. Not the best start for a prospective developer. Surely no one will say ‘If I can’t get you planning permission, no one will’. So, I suggest, the buyers will simply take their time – it worked at Fortfield. I speculate:

On completion, the developers will erect an unsightly security fence and strip out valuable materials. They will propose controversial developments. Meanwhile, the buildings will slowly dilapidate. They will attract break-ins, and thefts. Knowle will soon be occupied by squatters and rough sleepers, drug and alcohol abusers. And, as at Fortfield, daredevils will ‘play’ in the emptying shell.

Our local police will waste large amounts of time, risking life and limb, to control illicit activities, until they decide the site is too dangerous to police. Similarly, the Fire and Rescue Service will aim to ensure the site safety, but they too will eventually decide it is too dangerous to enter in the event of a fire.

If fires break out, hopefully our Fire Fighters will control these, without loss of life or limb, thereby protecting adjacent properties and parkland. But eventually, our Knowle will dilapidate or burn so that it has to be demolished for safety’s sake. Confronted by a gaping sore on the face of Sidmouth, EDDC planners will eventually pass a contentious planning application. And the people of Sidmouth will be caught by a cynical approach to the planning process, this time initiated by the very Council whose job it is to control that process.

So, historic buildings destroyed, local jobs lost, parkland and wildlife habitats threatened, expensive policing and management by rescue services, lives put at risk – all because the Council leadership wants a prestigious new building that EDDC doesn’t really need and we cannot afford.

By placing the new headquarters at Skypark, on the edge of Exeter, EDDC will undermine its own case for managing the District within the District by people who know the District. East Devon will effectively be managed from Exeter. As a consequence, EDDC could doom its own existence as a layer of administration, long before the new building repays its costs.

Last year I proposed that EDDC might refurbish the modern 1970s offices at Knowle, funded by selling the older buildings for conversion to flats (letters to all Councillors and to the Sidmouth Herald, July and August 2013). I was told by Cllr Twiss that there was insufficient space for that. I then measured the newer buildings from plans provided by EDDC. I showed that there is 40% more modern floorspace than EDDC had claimed, and an area adequate for their needs – EDDC have never given us any factual counter-evidence. I later found a publication by EDDC’s own consultants indicating that, typically, full refurbishment of the modern Knowle plus the council chamber should cost £2.0million-£3.3million to ‘remodel’ or £3.3million-£4.6million to gut and ‘renew’, not the £15million claimed by EDDC (the lower figures are still unchallenged by real, publicly released, EDDC data). The only contribution I got to this debate from Council Leader Diviani was a two-word email (16 August 2013, copied to all Councillors): ‘Fuller’s Folly’.

If anywhere there is folly in this whole sad and sorry story, it is the proposal to sell Knowle (and Manstone and Heathpark) for development; and, with a £4million loan, use the proceeds – which might have been spent on services in East Devon – to build new offices, miles from the centre of the District, right on the edge of Exeter. That seems like sheer lunacy to me.

Robin Fuller,
16 February 2014

See also:
Call for call-in of Cabinet’s decision to move to Skypark | Save Our Sidmouth

Meanwhile, the chair of the SOS grouping has written directly to District Councillors:
SOS to EDDC Councillors, re Skypark | Save Our Sidmouth

And the secretary of the Knowle Residents Assn sent a letter to the Rt Hon Hugo Swire MP, following a face-to-face meeting on the matter:
Letter to Hugo Swire, MP, re. voicing shared concerns about Knowle relocation | Save Our Sidmouth

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