Thursday, 4 December 2014

Knowle relocation project: "East Devon District Council has ditched its plan to move to Skypark near to Exeter airport from its current headquarters in Knowle in Sidmouth."

The cabinet of the District Council met last night to consider the latest report on relocating its headquarters:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: District Council cabinet meets Wednesday 3rd December: analysis of proposals

The Leader of the District Council was interviewed this morning by Matt Woodley on BBC Radio Devon. The piece was introduced with the observation: "Well they were and now they're not. East Devon District Council has ditched its plan to move to Skypark near to Exeter airport from its current headquarters in Knowle in Sidmouth."

The full audio can be listened to again here

Following the cabinet meeting, the District Council released the following press statement:
3 December 2014 - Combined Honiton and Exmouth sites to be considered - East Devon District Council

Here is a critique from the East Devon Alliance:

December 4th, 2014
and the “Notes to Editors” which accompany it are truly hilarious (below)!
But on the serious side: is this really a press release or is it a party political spin sheet- something Eric Pickles says should attract sanctions from his office?
And notice that the Skypark relocation is described as moving to Skypark as it was “considered the best location for an ambitious and prestigious new office” … austerity, what austerity?
The ‘Notes to Editors’ are a sign of true desperation! Here are the notes@
Is this a u-turn?
No. The council has been clear that SkyPark was the preferred option but that a move to this location would be subject to affordability. We now know that this option is not financially viable.  (It’s taken £705,000 PLUS officer time plus 4 years to find this out)
How much has been spent so far on the relocation project and how can you justify this?
The overall project development cost of £705,000 to the end of 2014/15 represents an annual requirement project cost of approximately £200,000. Half of that cost is the project management staffing and the other half is taken up with survey, valuation, legal, marketing and other costs. There is also a significant and prudent element of contingency as one would expect in the management of a project of this scale and importance.  (No officer time charged, includes high charge for specialist Relocation Officer, does not include the legal costs of keeping information secret)
A project of this scale is going to incur significant costs. Relocating necessitates getting expert consultancy on board to help us through this process.  (But the “expert relocation consultant didn’t spot higher costs, EU regulations, poor valuations of existing property, etc nor does there seem to have been a stress test of areas that might be subject to weakness such as the supermarket offer)
Why move at a time of austerity?
That is one of the main reasons that we want to relocate. Like other councils we need to maximise the use and value of our assets so as to continue to deliver high quality services efficiently and be ready for the future.  (But costs have already spiralled from “around £4 m” to “around £10 m – with no real idea of what the final cost may be)
At present we are struggling to maintain an oversized, inefficient and low value headquarters on a site that has significant capital value as well as continued amenity value. Capital receipts from Knowle will be invested in the new headquarters.  (The “oversize” HQ has no obvious structural problems and has a modern 1980s constructed wing which could be refurbished at minimal inconvenience)
Against a background of continuing austerity and national funding cuts, the council approved a budget for 2014/15 and was able to freeze its council tax bills for the fourth consecutive year – and kept at the same level for the fifth year. As well as the freeze on council tax, the council’s budget involved no cuts to services East Devon residents value the most. This has been achieved through prudent financial management.  (Council tax has been frozen by selling off assets, increasing prices of some council services, stopping or reducing others and passing costs on to parish and town councils which will have to increase their precepts)
If the council is to continue to provide cost effective and high quality services, it needs to find new ways of creating efficiencies and generating income. Like other councils, this involves squeezing as much value as possible from assets. Remaining at Knowle keeps us tied to old and inefficient buildings, expensive to maintain or improve and fails to make best use of this valuable council owned asset.  (Many other councils have accepted that at this time tired and neglected buildings will have to remain in use and that refurbishing them has a lower carbon footprint that constructing a new building)
Why move when local government could be shaped differently in the future?
This and future governments will continue to expect local government to enter into new ways of working including cross-border partnerships and shared space. Accessible, fit for purpose offices designed around the way we work will help the council to succeed.  (EDDC has only just agreed a tri-partite agreement to share costs, etc with Exeter and Teigbridge.  It has no idea how this parnership will evolve or how it will affect staffing levels.  Only 250 of the current 500 staff are covered by Honiton (170) and Exmouth (70))
An HQ at Honiton and a significant Exmouth satellite operation offer both a physical presence for the council in key locations and an asset base that can be adapted to respond to future change in the way local government is structured and carries out its business. (The council has no idea how much the town hall will cost to refurbish as DCC has only just moved out.  Exmouth is as poor a location as Skypark for some EDDC residents to reach and the cost of “satellite” offices cannot be known until it is known where those offices will be and which staff will be using them).
Why is SkyPark no longer an option?
SkyPark was considered the best location for an ambitious and prestigious new office but due to the market response this option can no longer be pursued and this preference was always contingent on finances. The council had always said that capital receipts from the sale of parts of Knowle, Manstone and the council’s site at Heathpark would be invested in the new headquarters so that it keeps its commitment not to place any extra burden on council tax payers. However, a reduced offer for Heathpark means that this is no longer a viable option.  (There is no mention here of falling foul of EU regulations, as mentioned in Cabinet papers – what exactly did this mean?  If Knowle is worth less than anticipated, receipts from Honiton are lower than anticipated and none of the Knowle developers wanted Manstone depot how could comparative costs have been correct in the first place)
Why haven’t you revealed any financial costs associated with the move?
This is due to the commercial sensitivity of costs associated with relocation. We will be negotiating with contractors and developers. Revealing our figures would disadvantage us. Officers and councillors are confidentially made aware of the sums involved.  (The first bit of good news.  Now that Skypark is off the agenda there is no commercial sensitivity and all documentation on that aspect of relocation can now be put into the public domain!)
Why do you need to leave Knowle?
Remaining at Knowle keeps us tied to old and inefficient buildings and fails to make best use of this valuable council owned asset. At present, the council is struggling to maintain an oversized, inefficient and low-value headquarters on a site that has significant capital value.  (EDDC has deliberately not maintained Knowle since they made the decision to relocate in 2011 – this lack of routine maintenance has led to its current problems)
Essential repair works to existing buildings would cost £1.5 million and there is no funding available to cover this cost. Refurbishment of all existing buildings would cost up to £15.9m – and again there is no funding for this – we would need to borrow £15.9m. We have already made the decision to leave Knowle and use the capital receipt to fund a new HQ. Knowle has high annual energy costs of £83,900 per year compared to a predicted energy cost for Honiton/Exmouth combined of £33,700 per year. This  (We have absolutely no way of checking these figures – they are kept secret and EDDC has refused to allow an indpendent surveyor to visit the building to make an independent report for electors)
Given the squeeze on public expenditure – which is set to continue at least until 2020– we need to make year on year savings to release money for frontline services and as such have explored opportunities for savings from all assets including our property portfolio.  (Again, given current austerity, cherry-picking of EDDC’s most valuable assets is not a sensible way of proceeding.  What if Honiton fails the test?  What if Knowle is not given planning permission?)
What will happen to Knowle and surrounding park land?
Existing parkland will be retained for public use. We would like to hand it over to Sidmouth Town Council’s ownership.(But possible not all of it, and with no “golden hello” so Sidmouth will have to increase its precept to pay for it from Day 1 of ownership)
How will residents be able to access the council?
In the same way they do now. Residents access services through a number of channels – whether that is face-to-face, over the telephone or via the council’s website. The council aims to expand its digital services and has an ongoing project to improve existing online transactions and develop a further online service for customers who would like to do their business online.  (Many of East Devon’s residents are elderly and not part of the internet generation; some have disabilities that preclude telephone use or digital services.  Services will almost certainly not be available at weekends or evenings (as now) when working people need such access)
Two sites covering East Devon’s largest towns provide an ideal opportunity for the council to respond to the demand for various services and offer a front door for residents. It is clear there is a need to increase service provision for housing benefits, Council Tax, housing and debt advice in both Exmouth and Honiton.  (Two sites means two sets of expenses for heating, lighting, communications, etc and travel expenses between the two sites.  There will be a three tier office system:  senior officers and councillors in Honiton, junior officers in Exmouth, blue collar workers at Manstone Depot with all the expenses that includes.)
The council will provide surgeries in other towns as they already do for example in Cranbrook, Seaton, Axminster and would experiment with frequency and range of services depending on demand.  (EDDC has not said where surgeries will be, when and how people will access them, they have not been costed in, they will need to rent premises in some towns or perhaps evict tenants of EDDC buildings in other towns.  And what about rural villages that need services?)
If Honiton and Exmouth Town Hall become the new council offices, when would the council relocate?
It looks likely to be in 2017.  (If the political make-up of the next council has a Conservative majority – everything is back to basics if  not)
Why haven’t residents been consulted?
We don’t have a duty to consult on operational matters but we do have a duty to provide best value for our residents. As a general rule (set out in Local Government Act 1972) a council can dispose of land in any manner they wish, subject to getting the best consideration that can be obtained. We have a best value duty towards our community. Our duty is to make arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the way council functions are exercised, having regard a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness.
However, we have kept residents and stakeholders informed of decisions we have taken.  
(Well, this speaks for itself – we don’t count and we don’t matter.  They have no idea what “best value” is having said first that it was one site at Skypark and now three sites at Exmouth, Honiton and Sidmouth)
As a planning authority, we do have a duty to consult on planning applications.  (They can’t get out of that one – it is a legal requirement.  Recall the first Knowle planning application when residents queried costs and statistics and there had to be several consultations one after the other)
Why has it taken so long?
Relocation was first mooted in 2008 when the then council leader, Sara Randall Johnson asked one of the directors to start looking at options for moving. It wasn’t until 2011 when cabinet called for a project team to investigate an office move from Knowle to purpose built offices.  (Interesting:  we never knew about the 2008 suggestion and project teams – well, urination in a brewery …)
A project of this scale is going to take time and we’ve encountered significant challenges.  (Such as not getting costs right, not stress-testing plans, not knowing you were breaking EU rules …)
Who is on the Office Accommodation Project Executive Group?
This includes Councillor Paul Diviani (leader), Councillor Andrew Moulding (deputy leader), Councillor Ray Bloxham (corporate business), Councillor David Cox (finance), a small number of senior officers and a project manager.  (How small a number of senior officers – which project manager – how much officer time has this taken/will it take)
What are the next steps and what could we expect to see on Knowle?
In response to marketing of Knowle and Manstone, a mix of proposals were received, which contained variations on residential, retirement and/or care and extra care communities whilst retaining the public park. All proposals were based on the removal of existing buildings at Knowle (whilst keeping or re-provisioning the bat roost). A range of matters still need to be explored before selecting a preferred bidder but once selected, it will be for the developer to enter into discussions with the planning authority to explore proposals.  (All proposals will now be predicated on the potential buyers knowing they have EDDC in a cleft stick – watch offer prices go down and S106’s – if there were to have been any – disappear in a puff of smoke)
Recommendations from cabinet will be considered by full council on 17 December.  (No they won’t – most councillors have never seen the secret documents and never will so Cabinet recommendations are flawed to begin with and should not be voted on.  A proper Overview and Scrutiny Committee and/or Audit and Governance Committee would be insisting that they deal with the matter first.)
A decision to sell Knowle will be brought to a future cabinet following further negotiation.  (Er, how can you decide to sell the Knowle when you have already marketed it and received offers!)

And there are other comments from the EDA blog from today:

The costs of relocation:
It’s official: the “current” move to Honiton/Exmouth will cost at least £10 million | East Devon Alliance
Spending £705,000 TODATE on the abortive move to Skypark: just “getting the ducks in a row” says Diviani | East Devon Alliance
Relocation plan 100b (Honiton/Exmouth) doesn’t add up … at all | East Devon Alliance

With more detail  from comments:

It is a bit rich when Paul Diviani offers the Radio Devon interviewer Matt Woodley a personal guided tour of the Knowle HQ to point out the refurbishment issues when this is an opportunity being denied to local people.  Diviani has even refused to allow an independent surveyor to check the (secret) figures on refurbishment.  All we know is that a figure of £15.9m has been suggested and, given that EDDC seems to have got ALL its costs wrong so far, surely this is one that should be checked immediately.
An independent surveyor should also be allowed access to the past and present maintenance schedule for the Knowle, which might turn up some very unexpected surprises.
2 thoughts on “Radio Devon interviewer offered a personal guided tour of Knowle by Paul Diviani to talk about refurbishment costs – locals not allowed at all!

Paul says:

I don’t have the URL to hand, but recent committee / cabinet Agendas have had reports which provide some detail on the refurbishment costs.
That said, these were only ball-park estimates, many of which were simply allowances in case something was needed without any evidence either way as to whether it was needed, or how much was needed.
And I am sure that not all the work is essential (except if you want to refurbish to a luxury standard) either; I am sure that you could undertake essential maintenance to the basic fabric first, and defer major adjustments to the office layout, decoration and furniture until later.

Tony Green says:

Last night’s Cabinet meeting was given a Relocation Update Report claiming that it would cost £15.9 million to refurbish all the Knowle council buildings, and £7.7 million to renovate just the more modern offices – completed, incidentally, in the 1980s, not the 1970s as the Report says.
Some sceptics doubt the objectivity of these estimates. They’re based on a “cost model” analysis by the council’s consultants AECOM “following a request” by Steve Pratten who is an employee of AECOM “embedded” with the Council who plays an important role in the Relocation “Team.”
In court in August, Deputy Chief Executive Richard Cohen challenged the Information Commissioner’s directive that EDDC should publish some of Mr Pratten’s reports on the Knowle. He argued that Mr Pratten was so cosily “embedded” that he should be regarded as an officer so that his reports were not be subject to Freedom of Information requests.
There might be an open invitation to Matt Woodley to visit the Knowle, but EDDC leaders have bluntly refused to allow an independent survey of the modern offices even when called on to do so by the Overview and Scrutiny committee.

And an extraordinarily accurate take on the 'saga':
Duck, ducks, more ducks and flying ducks … sorry, pigs | East Devon Alliance

There has been strong comment from independent Cllr Claire Wright:

EDDC cabinet vote through plans to scrap Skypark and instead pursue offices at Exmouth and Honiton
Wednesday, 03 December 2014 2 Comments by Claire

EDDC’s cabinet this evening, agreed to scrap the plans to build brand new offices at Skypark and instead opt for TWO new office locations at Exmouth and Honiton.

The recommendations also paved the way for the Knowle to be sold, with a decision to come back before cabinet and then full council, next year.
The council has u-turned on its plan earlier this year to relocate from Sidmouth to Skypark, on the edge of Exeter. The planned move to Skypark was a change of plan from the previous option of a new HQ at Honiton.
Councillors and officers decided (after about eight months of negotiations) that Skypark was unaffordable.  Officers were in the process of arranging to buy land at Skypark for building at a price tag of almost £1m.
Instead the conservative leadership now intends to build extra space onto the East Devon Business Centre. They also plan to refurbish the Exmouth Town Hall offices, that were built in the 1920s.
One of the main reasons cited for moving offices is that the the Knowle is not fit for purpose. Around half of the building is over 100 years old. The other half was built in the 1970s for East Devon District Council.
The council says it faces urgent repair bills of over £1.5m. But voted down a motion of mine in February, to allow an independent surveyor to assess the building for a second opinion. Many people distrust how many urgent repairs the council offices really face. Several million pounds are also likely to need to be borrowed to achieve the council’s ambitions.
Now officers will decide on a preferred developer for the Knowle, before a decision to sell the HQ is brought back to cabinet and then to full council next year. The recommendations from this evening’s cabinet will go before full council on Wednesday 17 December.
We are told that over a 20 year period that the plans will save money. I am a very long way from convinced of this.
Most councillors seemed to support the plans this evening. However, some of us still have serious concerns at the amount of taxpayer’s money that has been wasted on this project so far - and how much more will be wasted in the future.
Listen in to tomorrow’s BBC Radio Devon programme that starts at 6.30am for interviews on this, from me, residents and EDDC leader, Cllr Paul Diviani.
Photographs:  EDDC’s offices at Knowle, Sidmouth.

EDDC cabinet vote through plans to scrap Skypark and instead pursue offices at Exmouth and Honiton - Claire Wright

Around £700,000 of East Devon taxpayers money spent on shambolic EDDC office relocation so far
Thursday, 04 December 2014 4 Comments by Claire

Conservative leader of EDDC, Cllr Diviani, confirmed to BBC Radio Devon’s Matt Woodley, this morning, that almost three quarters of a million pounds has been spent so far on botched plans to move EDDC’s offices from Knowle to Honiton, then to Skypark and now to Honiton and Exmouth.
Last night, a senior officer said he could not confirm how much the abortive negotiations at Skypark had cost, which started in February and were recently abandonded.
Cllr Diviani told BBC Radio Devon listeners that a move to Honiton and Exmouth would cost in the region of £10m. We also know that millions must be borrowed to achieve this.
Cllr Diviani struggled to answer a question that Matt Woodley put to him several times, which was whether EDDC’s HQ, Knowle, had been valued early on in the process. Cllr Diviani’s reply seemed to say that the Knowle had not been valued by estate agents, until recently, only by surveyors. 
The now halted plan to build new offices at Skypark has been dropped on the grounds of unaffordability, partly because the Knowle was thought to be worth more.
But Cllr Diviani claimed that the relocation project had been conducted in a “logical and orderly fashion.” He also claimed that the Knowle needed repairs worth £15.9m.  Yet half of the building dates back only to the 1970s. Cllr Diviani labelled mine and the views of other residents interviewed as “vitrol.”
Listen again to the interview here. It was on at 8.15am - http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02c7n1v
See what the East Devon Alliance have to say about the interview here - http://eastdevonalliance.org/
The story was the second on the news bulletins and there are interviews from residents Tony Green, Robert Crick and me, which are played every 20 minutes or so.

1. At 11:28 am on 04th Dec Sandra Semple wrote:
£700,000 could have built 7 affordable homes for families REALLY living in sub-standard accommodation.  In these times of austerity many people are having to forgo food, warmth and shelter of which EDDC has plenty and in a good enough condition that many people in overcrowded homes can never hope to achieve in their lifetimes.
It’s rather like banker’s bonuses when you think about it.

2. At 11:37 am on 04th Dec Tony Green wrote:
With officer time factored in - something EDDC refuse to calculate - the real cost must be well over £1 million.

3. At 03:55 pm on 04th Dec Tim Cope wrote:
A pitiful interview! Why is honesty and transparency so hard to find at the EDDC!!!!

4. At 11:12 pm on 04th Dec Conrad Black wrote:
It is at moments like this that we can see why the population has so little belief in or respect for public officials and most elected officials.  A spectacular disaster in a plan claimed to be critical to the success of delivering services to residents, and not a single person takes responsibility or resigns.  
Does anyone apologise for wasting the public purse on a doomed venture?  There is no remorse from the individuals whose prime purpose was to ensure that the plan was delivered.  In what other walk of life is incompetence and stupidity ignored, or even rewarded?  
East Devon is full of small businesses who could not survive on the level of waste that this administration has casually tolerated and ignored by abject failure to show even the faintest amount of humility or remorse.  Somehow, to judge by his lack of utterances on this bungling, and preference to summon the hue and cry for irrelevancies, 
Councillor Twiss shows no admission that something is desperately wrong when after all these years the grand masterplan is revealed to be a fiasco (as far as public and recorded utterances go).  Perhaps he could opine as to why and how expenditure on this project to date has been to the benefit of the electorate?  
Of course, any failure to give a proper analysis, having regard to his various responsibilities and the fact that he appears to receive significant funding from the public purse to carry out all his important responsibilities might be felt to reflect badly on his value for money?

Around £700,000 of East Devon taxpayers money spent on shambolic EDDC office relocation so far - Claire Wright

And here is the latest from the Express & Echo:

East Devon District Council cites “commercial sensitivity” as reason to keep tight-lipped over move to Honiton and Exmouth

Posted: December 04, 2014

EAST Devon District Council has received “firm bids” for its “dilapidated” Sidmouth headquarters and is pursuing its move to Honiton and Exmouth instead of SkyPark, but continues to cite “commercial sensitivity” as the reason for remaining resolutely tight-lipped on the costs.
However, despite the commercial interest in its headquarters, the sale of which would make up the bulk of the relocation costs, no developer has “shown an interest” in retaining and refurbishing any of the existing buildings.
All buildings would therefore be removed, apart from a bat roost which could be repositioned. And no interest has been shown in the council’s Manstone depot so that cannot contribute to the moving bill.
At the end of last month, the local authority announced a U-turn on its plans to relocate to SkyPark. Instead, on Wednesday, December 3, the cabinet backed the revised plan for the council to retain the council-owned East Devon Business Centre at Heathpark in Honiton where a new build will also be constructed – formerly earmarked for a supermarket – and to use existing space at Exmouth Town Hall.
Critics, including members of campaign groups, the East Devon Alliance and Save Our Sidmouth, have long argued for more transparency over the costs involved convinced that it makes more financial sense to stay put at a refurbished Knowle.
But the deputy chief executive Richard Cohen and council leader, Councillor Paul Diviani have both maintained that, on the back of various surveys and assessments, the financial burden on the council, and the tax payer, will be tens of thousands of pounds less, in time, by moving out.
Some figures have been revealed by the council:
Essential repair works to existing buildings at its current offices at Knowle, Sidmouth, would cost £1.5m, and refurbishment of all existing buildings would cost up to £15.9m.
Knowle has high annual energy costs of £83,900 a year compared to a predicted energy cost for Honiton/Exmouth combined of £33,700 per year.
A spokesperson said that, “even after repairs, Knowle energy costs would still be double those of Honiton/Exmouth alternative”.
The spokesperson confirmed that, the council has no funds to pay for the refurbishment of Knowle in order to stay put.
The Echo asked how much the new build at Honiton, and how much the necessary refurbishment of Exmouth Town Hall would cost, but a council spokesperson refused to answer, and instead said: “The report to cabinet explains that we have received price, form and quality of development propositions that merit further detailed negotiation towards selection of a preferred developer.
“Negotiations are ongoing and due to commercial sensitivity it is not possible to give out costs either of the HQ or of the refurbishment of Exmouth Town Hall. The figures in question are being made available in confidence to council members prior to cabinet.”
The spokesperson confirmed that the new build at Honiton and refurbishment at Exmouth Town Hall would be paid for out of capital receipts (such as the sale of its assets for example its current headquarters), and “prudent borrowing”.
And it would take 20 years until the costs are covered and savings made.
The Echo asked how much would be paid for out of capital receipts and how much the council would have to borrow. Again, the spokesperson refused to answer, and instead said: “These are matters that will be negotiated with contractors and due to the commercial sensitivity it is not possible to give out figures.”
The council spokesperson previously confirmed that the final decision to relocate to SkyPark was only going to be made once all the pieces of the “complex jigsaw” were known, and “market conditions” mean that SkyPark is no longer the preferred option. Also, the highest value commercial interest for the council’s Heathpark site came from a supermarket operator, which subsequently reduced its offer, rendering the deal unviable.
East Devon District Council cites “commercial sensitivity” as reason to keep tight-lipped over move to Honiton and Exmouth | Exeter Express and Echo

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