Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Knowle relocation project: a message for the New Year >>> that there are a lot of very mixed messages


The last meeting of the full Council this year followed on from the District Council Cabinet's consideration of its relocation project:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: Cabinet meets today: 5.30pm: Wednesday 14th December >>> new hiccups question the 'desire and need' to move >>> and raise the prospect of a 're-run of the business case'

The Cabinet had decided to speed up its part-move to Exmouth, despite its own planning committee giving the go-ahead to selling the Knowle to developers, which would have financed the complete relocation project:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: latest report to Cabinet >>> the District Council’s 'commitment' to sell its HQ has been 'stymied' by a decision of the planning committee

Predictably, last week, the full Council rubber-stamped the Cabinet's decision - despite the mounting disquiet over their plans:
Full Council yesterday: No questions from Conservative councillors, but lots from their colleagues and from the public | Save Our Sidmouth
EDDC majority turn their backs on the public yet again | Save Our Sidmouth
Tory councillors refuse spending scrutiny role and trust (vastly overspent) officers | East Devon Watch
A relocation cost swept under the carpet? | East Devon Watch
EDDC relocation has hallmarks of a “dodgy project”, Full Council is advised. | Save Our Sidmouth

The East Devon Watch blog asks a pertinent question about the competence of the Officer leading the project:
Is Mr Cohen up to his job? | East Devon Watch

Meanwhile, yet more hundreds of thousands are being spent on this project:
EDDC expenditure on consultants and agency staff 2015/16 almost £2 million | East Devon Watch


Not many Councillors seem to be bothered in scrutinising these sums a little closer, as reported immediately after the Council vote last week:

... Two Sidmouth residents kept up the pressure. One questioned the financial competence of the Council with relocation costs spiralling: £600,000 more for Exmouth Town Hall, £400,000 more for Knowle. Another asked the Chief Executive to warn planning committee councillors against bias in favour of any future application to develop the Knowle because it would advance the relocation project. This seemed to have happened at the December 6th DMC meeting, but the CEO was unconcerned.

... East Devon Alliance Independent Councillor Cathy Gardner grew increasingly frustrated at Leader Paul Diviani’s failure to answer questions. Why was the contact with Pegasus life for the sale of the Knowle kept secret? Why was the project manager of the Queen’s Drive affair not sacked for “ineptitude”? And what action would be taken against the same officer who had publicly expressed personal frustration at the refusal of the Pegasus Life planning application for the Knowle?

... Rob Longhurst (Independent) said the leadership seemed to think £600000 more on Exmouth Town Hall was “small money” that didn’t require detailed accounting. “I like to see numbers”, he added. Support came from fellow independent Roger Giles who quoted an earlier Council Leader Peter Halse who said when it came to costings it was not good enough for the council leaders to say “Just trust us”.

Finally, Cllr Longhurst, seconded by Independent Ben Ingham, proposed an amendment that councillors should be updated every six months with detailed costings of the council’s projects. “Unnecessary!” chorused a succession of Tory councillors. They said leave it to the internal auditors Southwest Audit Partnership, forgetting, perhaps, that SWAP was strongly criticised in 2013 for an “anodyne” report on the governance implications of the Graham Brown affair which suggested it was in too cosy a relationship with Council leaders. A vote on the amendment was lost with 30 Tory councillors voting in a block against it.

Bleating sounds could be heard coming from a member of the public!

Tory councillors refuse spending scrutiny role and trust (vastly overspent) officers | East Devon Watch

Looking back over the year, the project to get out of Sidmouth and move anywhere else has been the dominant thought for Councillors and Officers at the Knowle - although by the end of the year things look rather shaky:
Futures Forum: The unravelling of projects in East Devon


Honiton Councillor and grandee Peter Halse was very unhappy about the figures being trotted out to justify the relocation project, as reported in January 2015:

At last night’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee senior Tory councillor Peter Halse lashed EDDC’s Relocation Project. He said it risked the Council’s reputation for financial prudence. “At the time (the relocation project) looked OK, but now, with hindsight, it looks pretty bad….Quite honestly we have fallen flat on our face!” He was sceptical about Deputy CEO Richard Cohen’s claimed energy savings, and said employees based in the newer 1970/1980s building, “can’t see any reason why they’d want to move”. He concluded “It’s not just the leadership who are responsible. We need to look this thing full in the face. We can get out of this”.

Sidmouth resident Richard Eley, had already mauled Richard Cohen’s assumptions on future energy cost savings which were “way out of line” with those predicted by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). Mr Cohen in response welcomed the fact that auditors would now be taking “a useful look under the bonnet, as it were”. In the meantime a preferred developer had now been selected for a mix of care home and residential properties at Knowle. The planning process would have to be gone through by the developer and further attempts to delay the Knowle sale have been factored in to the costs, he added.

When Independent Cllr Claire Wright expressed concern that EDDC’s planning committee would be under extreme pressure to grant permission to develop the Knowle because the whole relocation project depended on it, she was accused of casting doubt on the integrity of councillors.

Independent Councillor Roger Giles didn’t get a clear answer from Mr Cohen about where his 10% annual energy inflation figures came from, only that they were “conservative”! And there was no answer to Cllr Giles’ second question about how much extra the renovation of Exmouth Town Hall would cost.

“Quite honestly, we have fallen flat on our face” with the relocation project, warns Honiton Councillor, Peter Halse | East Devon Watch


Honiton was chosen because it's 'central':
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: and the politics of maps ..... "What I have found most difficult to understand is why EDDC ever decided to base itself in Sidmouth where over 50 per cent of the area covered by a 20 mile diameter is in the English Channel."

... although it isn't:
Futures Forum: "A truly green alternative to EDDC's proposal"

Exmouth was chosen - eventually - because it's the District's largest town:
Futures Forum: 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."

But, then, Skypark had been chosen for all sorts of good reasons:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: moving to Skypark
Futures Forum: Skypark and “authoritarian high modernism”


Of course, this project has never been about wanting to get out of Sidmouth, but all about wanting to be all 'modern' or whatever:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: “We are committed to exploring all options for a possible new office site as well as maximising the values from our landholdings. One option has always been the sale of our Heathpark site alongside that of Knowle and Manstone Depot in Sidmouth and to use the money raised for a new, more efficient and modern headquarters”

... and, anyway, the people of East Devon don't actually need to travel to the District Council's HQ - as everything is done virtually through new clever ways of working. And yet very little of this has actually been costed:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: 'modern working practices' >>> Of Worksmart, Hubs and Hot-desking
Costs of Knowle Relocation Project - a Freedom of Information request to East Devon District Council - WhatDoTheyKnow

And as we've seen, the cost of creating a modern working environment at Exmouth Town Hall is proving a little challenging:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project >>> still many questions re costs
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: time for some number crunching >>> a £17 million cost ... or even £30 million?


One of the biggest contradictions has been the political leadership saying on the one hand that they need less space for an ultra super modern HQ - and yet they insist that moving into the more modern part of their current HQ would be 'too small':
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation: District Council challenged again

Robin Fuller put together the statistics to argue that refurbishing the modern 1980s part of Knowle would be more than adequate:

Knowle – a positive and cost-effective way forward

I outline a proposal which offers a truly green alternative to EDDC’s plans to demolish perfectly sound buildings at Knowle and destroy public parks and gardens, trees in the arboretum and wildlife habitats, all in order to fund the provision of up to date offices.

·         EDDC says it needs only half the present floorspace for its staff.
·         The Design statement in the OPA for Knowle gives the current floor area as 7742m2.
·         About 2630m2 of this is modern offices built around 1973.
·         The Council Chamber building at 660m2 also has a modern roof and has been partly refurbished. 
·         The modern offices plus the Chamber building together comprise about 3290m2 of floorspace, of which about 3000m2 is office space.
·         EDDC employs 460 full time equivalent staff, of whom 365 work at Knowle.
·         HSE stipulates a space allocation for office staff of 11 cubic metres which, allowing 2.4m ceiling heights, would equate broadly to 4.5m2 per person, or 1642m2 for 365 staff.
·         3000m2 of office space would give 8.2m2 per person – near double the HSE requirement.
·         So, the 1973 offices plus the upper floor of the Chamber building could comfortably house all EDDC’s office staff, with ‘hot desking’ and home-working allowing part-timers and transient office users to be housed economically.
·         Any remaining shortage of space could be made good by storing rarely accessed archive papers in a local warehouse, rather than in custom built offices.
·         Thus there would be more than 4000m2 of the old Knowle Hotel and cottage unoccupied and available to sell – enough for up to 50 one- or two-bedroom flats.
·         The basic buildings should have a total market value of £3.5million-£4million; restored  and refitted, the cottage and flats could sell for around £10million in total.
·         The sale of the historic parts of Knowle would pay for an update of the 1973 buildings, in terms of layout, insulation and services; and the refurbishment could be done while EDDC still occupies the old Knowle, allowing builders unfettered access.
·         EDDC would halve its floorspace, instantly halving energy use; insulation plus renewable energy installations could halve that again, giving savings equal to those planned for Honiton.
·         Rewiring and new cabling will provide modern connectivity.
·         Refurbishment of the existing building will save the huge carbon emissions associated with a new building (which would take 50 years to repay its carbon costs).
·         Sidmouth is demonstrably more central to the people of East Devon, and will remain so, even once Cranbrook is completed j.
·         The land earmarked for EDDC at Honiton could be sold to boost Council funds and thereby benefit all Council Tax payers.
·         Sidmouth will not lose 365(-460) jobs, so easing pressures to develop employment land elsewhere in the Sid Vale.
·         EDDC will also get most if not all of the 50 dwellings currently planned for the Knowle site, but without using any greenfield land whatsoever.
·         The historic Knowle will be saved from demolition.
·         Sidmouth and East Devon will retain all of the Knowle parkland and gardens as public open space.
·         The weekend ‘park and walk’ will remain available for visitors to Sidmouth.

j See Annex A. Journey times and distances from across East Devon to Sidmouth and Honiton

Futures Forum: "A truly green alternative to EDDC's proposal"

The District Council has refused independent access to the Knowle building:
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."


At last week's full Council meeting, an observer reminded Councillors that another justification made for getting out of Sidmouth was that Knowle was a rabbit-warren and so 'unfit for purpose':

[The observer] said he was “surprised” that a veteran member of the DMC (the finger of suspicion points at Tory Cllr Mark Williamson) had commented that the existing Knowle offices were “not fit for purpose” and had gone on to tell a joke about people getting lost for years in the old hotel building.

Lost at Knowle … are there bodies buried in the “old” building? | East Devon Watch

And following on from this comment, a further observation has been made:

The EDDC claims their existing HQ is unfit for purpose as there are problems with access and way-finding.

This of course is a lot of nonsense as the public is not allowed into the Knowle except for the reception area and the council chamber. As the rest of the building is off-limits why should orientation in private space be a concern to the taxpayer?

As can be seen from the attached plans, the access to the present Council Chamber is far better than both Exmouth and Honiton.

In respect to ease of access and way-finding the Knowle is outstanding and it is the proposed relocation sites which are “unfit for purpose” and disorientating.

DMC member Tory Cllr Mark Williamson commented that the existing Knowle offices were “not fit for purpose” and joked about people getting lost for years in the old hotel building.




But, then, nobody was listening back in 2012 when the Chamber of Commerce wrote to the chair of the District Council's planning committee:

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