Thursday 30 October 2014

Knowle relocation project: analysis of the Deputy CEO's 'Office Relocation Update'

A fortnight ago, the Deputy CEO presented the District Council's Scrutiny Cttee with a report:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: report to be considered by Council's Scrutiny Cttee: Thursday 16th October

There were serious questions beforehand about the ability of the Scrutiny Cttee to fulfil its remit:
Futures Forum: The lack of scrutiny at East Devon ... Council's Scrutiny Cttee meets Thursday 16th October

These fears were realised by many observers:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: "Merely noting a report has no place on Scrutiny."
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: Councillors "in the dark, as no-one within the EDDC hierarchy was telling them anything."

The District Council has just released the minutes from that meeting - together with an 'update' from the Deputy CEO:
Overview and Scrutiny Committee minutes for 16 October 2014 - Office relocation update - East Devon District Council

The following is an analysis (in red) of that report (in black):

5. Office relocation update

Minute 39

Richard Eley, a local resident, outlined his concerns about the complexity of the relocation project and his estimate on the final cost of the project being double the amount of the build cost of a new office. He stressed the importance of a robust procedure and that the project must be open to scrutiny, as well as the ability to reassess the value and viability of the project. Following the Scottish referendum, he questioned the logic of pursuing relocation when the future of district councils was in doubt with local government reforms pending, and the significant depreciation in his opinion of any new office building.

In response to Mr Eley and the public 

[ie: Richard Thurlow, chair, and Marianne Rixson of the Save Our Sidmouth group: For urgent attention of EDDC’s Overview and Scrutiny Chair | East Devon Alliance] 
speaking earlier in the meeting, the Deputy Chief Executive, Mr Richard Cohen, outlined:

# Assessment of the sale of the “hotel” part of the existing offices had been made and the conclusion reached that: 

> the remaining office space was insufficient for the council to run its business 
[No 'independent analysis' of the floorspace has been accepted - and yet extensive figures have been provided: Futures Forum: "A truly green alternative to EDDC's proposal"; Futures Forum: Knowle: refurbishment vs redevelopment]

> the chamber would be lost, which is required for the holding of council meetings 
[There has been no discussion of which parts would be 'lost'. 
Here is further analysis at Futures Forum: Knowle plans: 1970s building:
"EDDC claim to require 3353m2 of floorspace for their new offices and Council Chamber. My estimates suggest the potential floorspace which could be provided by the 1970s offices at Knowle plus the Council Chamber in the older part of Knowle would amount to 3290m2. This 63m2 shortfall – the size of a large sitting room – would amount to just 2% less than they say is required.
"EDDC want space for 250 desks. This would require 1125 m2 of floorspace under Health and Safety Executive recommendations. But 2630m2 of office space is already available within the 1970s office buildings – more than double what is required."]

> close proximity of council premises to a redeveloped hotel section would impact significantly on any sum offered by a developer 
[And yet in the 1970s, the building was shared between council-flats in the 'hotel' and the Urban/District Council in the 'new build': Futures Forum: Knowle plans: flats]

# Mr Eley’s calculations were not recognised and members were reminded of confidential reports and figures presented to them at past meetings under Part B conditions. The Council had already agreed a series of recommendations in February 2014. 
[The assessment has been carried out 'in private': Futures Forum: Costs of relocating District Council offices vs costs of refurbishing Knowle; Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: getting the figures straight; and yet the Deputy Chair of the Scrutiny Cttee has voiced disquiet about the lack of information available - which has not been mentioned in these Minutes, but which has been referred to: EDDC scrutiny cttee votes against holding cabinet to account (which is its job, actually) - Claire Wright]

# Capital receipts for the assets of the Knowle and Manstone depot would not be known until the results of the marketing exercise had been completed.
[The Minutes do not record the lack of clarity over when the 'results of the marketing exercise' will be 'completed' - other than the Deputy CEO saying that interested developers would tender their submissions at the last moment: it appears, therefore, that these tenders will be presented to the full council on 17th December:  
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: December meeting set to confirm its selling price ... although the decision to relocate was made long before ....

# Process of local government reform had been ongoing for over 40 years and the council should not use present uncertainties as a reason to fail to act on the current needs of the council.
[Many commentators have pointed to the effect of the Scottish referendum: Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: and the longer-term demise of district councils.... This seems to include Cllr Ken Potter: Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: and the longer-term demise of district councils... part five... East Devon District Council "will imminently have no alternative whatsoever than to integrate anyway."]

The Deputy Chief Executive outlined recent developments of the relocation project to the committee, including:

> Marketing of the Knowle and Manstone sites

> Outcome of the town and village green inquiry

> Objections to rights of way orders lodged, pending with the planning inspectorate
[The attitude of the District Council towards the ROW Orders has been described as 'Chippy, cocky, unrepentant …': AND naughty DCC and Planning Inspectorate – you have upset EDDC too! | East Devon AllianceFutures Forum: Knowle relocation project: the current issues... District Council cabinet to consider its "Relocation Update": Weds 4th June. This has affected the 'marketing' of Knowle: commercialsearch.savills.co.uk/content/assets/3732/Brochure - Knowle 020914.pdfSidmouth - Definitive Map Review

> Heathpark - continued contract negotiations with Terrace Hill – the supermarket commitment to the site had changed due to a revised retail shopping strategy that has reduced the size of the required floor area that is required and has therefore reduced the offer price. The impact on users of the East Devon Business Centre was also a consideration.
[In other words, the big supermarkets are in trouble and can't afford more expansion: Futures Forum: Supermarket saturation point: Is there really room for more in Sidmouth and in Honiton?
There is also considerable disbelief, if not anger, at the almost contemptuous disregard of the importance of the Business Centre to the Honiton and East Devon economy. Here is further comment:
"The Knowle project includes the sale of the East Devon Business Centre in Honiton in order to create capital receipts to pay for the move. Yet both the recent annual report and the agenda for yesterday’s council both state that the council needs to provide more serviced office space for small businesses. How can EDDC say they need more office units for small businesses at the same time as planning to destroy an existing one?" EDDC scrutiny cttee votes against holding cabinet to account (which is its job, actually) - Claire Wright
Meanwhile, local councillors have expressed concern about the future of Honiton: Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: Honiton "up for sale"]

> Business space review – a study has been commissioned using external contractors, to provide information to help inform a case for the future of serviced business spaces in the district, and the Council’s role in that provision
[Of course, all these issues are connected: the Knowle is currently a B1 site (ie: business use); its loss, together with that of the Business Centre further undermines the District Council's policies on providing employment land: Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: connected to the draft Local Plan ... connected to employment ... local business ... retail parks vs the high street ... proposed Sidford employment land ... building on floodplains ... tourism ... 
Some would argue that the ghost of the East Devon Business Forum has not been laid to rest and still stalks the District: the area's larger companies continue to dominate, whilst the small business which are the mainstay of the local economy are given short shrift: Reader’s Letter: Time for East Devon Council to change ways | Exeter Express and Echo]

> Transformation and modernisation of how the council conducts its business continues, including the roll out of mobile devices to better equip a mobile workforce; and review of facilities across the district. Now that Devon County Council had vacated Exmouth Town Hall, he was looking at how that resource could be developed to expand and evolve the services offered from Exmouth.
[The whole issue of 'transformation and modernisation' is deeply flawed. There has been a lot of discussion about hot desking and home-working - and yet it is very unclear as to whether they provide best value, or are even proven in the case of District Councils: Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: hot-desking: latest

> The budget for the preliminary implementation costs stands as £705,568, of which £475,669 has been spent up to the end of August 2014.
[This does not include Officer time: there have been several attempts to gain these figures: 
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: the letters of objection 
Moreover, this figure of £705k is clearly not 'fixed' as, in May 2013, the sum given by the District Council was £244,000: "There are no other amounts specifically costed to the office re-location project." Breakdown of relocation costs of the Knowle - a Freedom of Information request to East Devon District Council - WhatDoTheyKnow

A number of questions were asked by the committee, including:
> What the required office floor space was for the council? The current space at the Knowle was approximately 7000sqm; the requirement was approximately 3,300sqm. 
[The origins of the 3300 sqm figure are questionable: the District Council leadership has constantly claimed that 'the Knowle is not fit for purpose and the staff are working in difficult conditions'. In one case, it was claimed that they were forced to work in ‘converted toilets’. And yet the space available is more than twice that proposed for the new building. 
It appears that the figure of 3300 sqm has been derived from standard tables for office workers - and that no one at Knowle has in fact allocated space in the new building.
The alternative proposal has been for the ‘modern buildings at Knowle plus Chamber and Member’s Lounge, etc.’ option, as this will provide more than 4000 sqm. (See figures above.)

The political leadership at the District Council claim that the Davis Langdon reports are 'independent' and will not countenance any new reports on the Knowle buildings to be commissioned: Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: "Committee members agreed by eight votes to none, with four abstentions, that a motion would go to cabinet recommending a professional survey of the building be carried out – not undertaken by EDDC."

> Had there been expressions of interest in the Knowle building? Yes, considerable interest but the extent of actual offers will only be known at the point that that tender process closes.
[These figures, however, will not represent the 'final selling price' of these assets: See above, re the tendering process.
The District Council has been reluctant to provide more than the barest minimum of information: Correspondence with potential Knowle developers - a Freedom of Information request to East Devon District Council - WhatDoTheyKnow]

> Were options other than Skypark as the preferred location still open? Yes, there is always the possibility that the council will not relocate to Skypark.
having made a 'clear decision' earlier in the year: East Devon District Council - Moving and Improving; Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: moving to SkyparkFutures Forum: Knowle relocation project: moving to Skypark... further comment
But perhaps the question to be asked is to what extent the whole 'relocation project' is all very top-down: Futures Forum: Skypark and “authoritarian high modernism”]

> If the supermarket now wanted a smaller site, why not protect the East Devon Business Centre rather than loose an asset; it cannot be assumed that the private sector will take up the slack to provide business units – Negotiations with the developer on the Heathpark site, which are still ongoing, will still provide a capital receipt worthy of consideration. Honiton was recognised as an important town for business provision, but review was needed of the best way to deliver support to small and medium enterprises. The traditional approach of providing such a form of business centre may no longer be the best method of serving the business community. Consultant work was underway to evaluate the best way forward for the council.
[Why have the Minutes gone to such length to record such an unclear answer?
See above re the Business Park.]

> Had any further staff surveys been carried out on staff preference for location? No; costs had been calculated and included in the project, looking at a period of time for allowances for staff that would have to travel longer distances. Green travel plans had also been factored in.
[The statistics around who wants what are contradictory:
It is clear that these proposals will act particularly against staff from Sidmouth, especially part-time staff, which will, over time, lead to these being a decreasing percentage of the workforce; whilst this is not an overall consideration for the District Council in considering the 'overall picture', this will present a severe problem for Sidmouth residents. See points below on Sidmouth.]

> When would the detail of capital receipts from the main assets be released to the public? Currently the information was commercially sensitive. There was an expectation of publication either at the end of the project or when the information became no longer commercially sensitive.
[A very interesting report on 'commercial sensitivity' in the Guardian was referred to in an earlier posting: 
Futures Forum: 106 payments and the NPPF... the repercussions for East Devon
“Without some commercially sensitive information remaining private, developers could simply refuse to work with councils, leaving boroughs without the housing and regeneration we all need,” says a spokeswoman for Southwark Council. The borough brought a legal challenge against a decision by the Information Commissioner’s Office last year ordering the council to disclose the full details of the viability report, after a freedom of information request was denied.
"The tribunal concluded that the information must be disclosed, stating that “the importance … of local people having access to information to allow them to participate in the planning process outweighs the public interest in maintaining the remaining rights of Lend Lease”. 
The truth about property developers: how they are exploiting planning authorities and ruining our cities | Cities | theguardian.com]

SWAP involvement in the project was confirmed and the officer from that partnership was fully aware of the confidential project information and figures. Councillor Howard suggested that a project management spreadsheet would be helpful to members, to demonstrate the progress of the project and where gaps in knowledge existed.
[Although it was not confirmed as to how or indeed whether this would be forthcoming.]

It was confirmed that both internal and external legal advice has been provided to the project team while external professional advice in terms of planning advice has been provided on the Knowle site (published on Savills website). 
There has been a conscious decision not to involve the planning department in discussions given their role as the local planning authority. 
In response to debate on the loss of 400 jobs from the town of Sidmouth, the committee was informed that around 30% of the current workforce lived in or in close proximity to Sidmouth.
[Cllr Graham Troman's concerns about the loss of jobs to Sidmouth were not properly addressed: the point being that not only will the proposed relocation affect Sidmouth the most in this regard, but the knock-on effects to the town's economy in terms of spending power is considerable. This has been recognised by the District Council itself:

"The relocation of the Council’s Offices would lead to a significant loss of 
employment in the town and would cause harm to local businesses." www.eastdevon.gov.uk/combined_special_dmc_agenda_010313.pdf
Indeed, the Economic Impact Study (January 2013) from consultants Peter Brett was pretty clear, to quote from the Economic Development Manager, "that if the changes proposed are approved and implemented this would have an immediate and lasting impact upon Sidmouth’s economy." www.eastdevon.gov.uk/economic_impact_assessment_knowle_final.pdf]

The Chairman highlighted that, as a report on relocation was due to Cabinet at their December meeting, there was an opportunity for members to question the content of the report at that time. Officers also outlined to the committee that any recommendation to sell sites would be subject to delivery of a new location.
[And yet many would assume that it should be the function of the Overview & Scrutiny Cttee which should 'question the content of the report' - rather than simply 'note' it: 
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: "Merely noting a report has no place on Scrutiny]

A proposal by Councillor Claire Wright seconded by Councillor Roger Giles and amended by Councillor Mike Allen, with agreement of the proposer and seconder, was as follows:
>that no decision on the sale of the assets Knowle building, Manstone depot and the Heathpark site be made until complete certainty on the council’s new relocation;
>that no decision on the sale of the assets Knowle building, Manstone depot and the Heathpark site be made until all costs, expenditure and new build costs are published;
>any decision is not made at the December Cabinet meeting but deferred until after the Christmas period, as it is too close to the Christmas period for a decision of that magnitude.
>instant notification if the Skypark option was known by officers to have become unviable

The proposal was put to the vote and lost.


The report on relocation update be noted.

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