Knowle - home to East Devon District Council for the past 40 years

Cabinet asked to recommend sale of Knowle and transfer to Honiton and Exmouth sites

East Devon District Council’s Cabinet will next week (11 March) be asked, finally, to recommend that the authority sells its Knowle headquarters in Sidmouth and moves to the dual-site solution at Honiton and Exmouth. This would be the culmination of the council’s long-standing Moving and Improving project.

If Cabinet agrees, the matter will be analysed by a joint meeting of two scrutinising committees the following day (12 March) and a final decision will be made by Full Council at a special meeting on 25 March. The timings have been set to avoid this major decision getting caught up in the pre-election ‘purdah’ period. If the project does move ahead, the relocation is likely to take place in mid-2017.

In a report # to Cabinet which was made public last night (Tuesday 3 March), Deputy Chief Executive Richard Cohen asks Members to give the go-ahead to progress with the sale of the Knowle development site for between seven and eight million pounds. The exact figure remains commercially confidential at the request of the would-be buyer.

The figures supporting the case for a move have been modelled in co-operation with the council’s independent external auditors, Grant Thornton. Internal auditors the South West Audit Partnership have also examined the project’s governance and process. 

Specialist

It also names for the first time the proposed buyer of the development site at Knowle. The offer that councillors are being asked to accept comes from Pegasus Life Ltd., a specialist provider of residential developments offering retirement and extra care living facilities. The developer would be buying 1.8856 hectares of land at Knowle. This includes the area currently occupied by buildings and tarmac car parks, plus just 14% of the remaining parkland.

Cabinet will be asked to agree to the release of that open space for residential purposes. The remaining 3.5196 hectares (86%) of parkland, which includes the lower ‘grasscrete’ car park, would be offered to Sidmouth Town Council to own and manage.

The capital, borrowing and running costs of relocation are published in the report and comparisons are made with the equivalent costs that would be incurred in remaining on the Knowle site, making a strong case in favour of the move. In addition to the selling price of the development site, the council would need to find just over two million pounds through prudential borrowing* from the Public Works Loan Board over a loan period of 20 years.

Critically, the calculations verified by external auditors show that in each year after the move takes place, the savings in operating costs in moving to purpose built offices in Honiton and refurbished space in Exmouth would exceed the loan repayments. Each year, the amount saved would increase and, after the loan has been repaid, the savings would continue on.

Challenging

Fundamental to the move is EDDC’s desire to move away from traditional working practices which are expensive and wasteful.  Investing in the working environment, technology, business processes and flexible working practices will realise the benefits of lower operating costs, high productivity and better services for our residents.

The council’s Worksmart approach will help it to move away from traditional ways of desk-bound working.  New ways of working mean that increasingly work will take place at the most effective locations respecting the needs of the task, the customer, the individual and the team. Properly equipped mobile officers will be able to operate more efficiently; the use of surgeries across the district will continue to manage local demand; and an improving website, plus other applications, will offer a greater number of online transactional services.

In the introduction to his report, Richard Cohen says:

The relocation project has been pursued in detail since Cabinet reiterated in July 2011 its desire to investigate moving office. This report seeks Cabinet approval to recommend to Council actions to enable the sale of the defined Knowle site and to begin in detail the council’s plan to move to new and modernised offices in Honiton and Exmouth respectively. 

This is understandably a sensitive decision in terms of local interest, but it is also a clear matter of operational consideration for a council looking on behalf of the whole district to maintain service quality, manage cost and deliver future resilience and flexibility.  The report is in Part A to ensure that the information is publicly available and Members are able to discuss and decide as transparently as possible.

Costings calculated by the project team support the case for a move, says the report. The most cost-effective option is to refurbish Exmouth Town Hall and a new-build office at Honiton Heathpark.  Options of Honiton alone and combined with Exmouth are all more cost-effective than staying at Knowle with ‘do minimum’ investment, let alone any significant modernisation. Over the 20 year period the district will be £2.8m better off if the Council moves. This compares with being £3.9m worse off by staying and carrying out ‘do minimum’ investment works at Knowle. 

A move away from a site in Sidmouth that has been the council’s home since 1974 has been on the cards for at least seven years.

In line with many other public bodies and councils up and down the country, East Devon District Council’s Moving and Improving project is designed to maximise the value of the council’s property asset and minimise running costs, whilst at the same time delivering outstanding service to residents. To do this EDDC needs accommodation that will give Staff and Members the best possible future-proofed, flexible space from which to work.

Expensive

Knowle is expensive to run and will continue in the future to cost millions to repair, maintain or modernise – money that the council does not have to pour into aged and inefficient buildings.

As far back as 2008, Members instructed one of EDDC’s directors to look at the options for a new HQ. The idea gained extra momentum when Government cuts started to bite. In July 2011, Cabinet called for a project team to investigate a move from Knowle (without increasing the Council Tax), with an EDDC-owned site at Honiton an early favourite in terms of making the best business sense.

Early in 2012, EDDC appointed a dedicated Project Manager and three communication events were held in Sidmouth. Refusal of outline planning permission for a home-grown development proposal resulted in a further look at the options. In July 2013, Cabinet and Full Council voted to actively seek a fresh location. A search identified 15 proposals, which were assessed by the Relocation Executive Group (REG), made up of the council’s leader, deputy leader, two other cabinet members and senior officers.

The initial choice following this exercise was a site at SkyPark to the west of the district, close to the new community of Cranbrook and at the heart of the Exeter and East Devon Growth Point.

But reduced income by way of capital receipt from the mooted sale of Heathpark meant SkyPark was not a viable option, so Honiton then became the focus for further consideration.  At the same time space became available at Exmouth Town Hall, providing an ideal two-site solution incorporating a smaller head office in Honiton and achieving a greater presence for the council in Exmouth.

# The report to Cabinet can be viewed online.

Editors’ Notes

• EDDC’s current offices at Knowle are expensive to run, unfit for new ways of working, and a depreciating asset.

• Marketing Knowle shows that potential developers are not interested in buying a site with council still occupying part of it. Not one wanted to keep any of the buildings apart from the bat house.

• Ongoing austerity, falling revenues and rising costs make a move the most judicious option.

• The council is investing in the Moving and Improving project to find a better all-round solution.

• New offices will allow more flexible working catering for local demand across the district.

• A new-build at Honiton and refurbishment at Exmouth will lower energy usage and reduce costs.

• EDDC’s Worksmart project, use of surgeries across the district and an improved website will ensure residents can access our services when and how they want them.

• A dual-site solution (Honiton/Exmouth) is now the favoured choice and if agreed a move would be likely in mid 2017. 

*Prudential Borrowing: Introduced in 2003, Prudential Borrowing is based on local authorities planning their needs for capital spending in a sensible and long-term way, based on sound management of assets and finances. Borrowing must conform to the Prudential Code, endorsed by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. This requires that borrowing be affordable and prudent (sensible). Whilst the rate of increase of central government contribution to capital expenditure has slowed, prudential borrowing has helped to maintain an overall increase in investment, allowing local authorities to meet the local and national challenges that they face.