Council gives green light for Knowle exit

Moving and Improving project approval signals move to Honiton and Exmouth

East Devon District Council WILL be moving out of its ageing offices at Sidmouth for purpose-built and modernised accommodation at Honiton and Exmouth respectively.

After a lengthy debate last night (Wednesday 25 March) Full Council voted by a significant majority that the authority should sell its Knowle headquarters in Sidmouth and move to the dual-site solution at Honiton and Exmouth.

This vote formally gives the green light for officers to proceed towards concluding the council’s long-standing Moving and Improving project, with an estimated delivery date of mid 2017.

The decision by Full Council follows votes in favour of relocation by Cabinet on 11 March and strong endorsement of the proposals by meetings of Overview & Scrutiny and Audit & Governance committees on 12 March.

Evidence supporting the case for a move has been building for some years as the project team and a senior-level working party compared the options of staying at Knowle or moving.

High costs

The costs of heating, maintaining and repairing Knowle and converting it to accommodation fit for new ways of working are high – and would mean spending money on an asset with no value.

By contrast, the dual-site option of purpose-built offices at Honiton and refurbished accommodation at Exmouth Town Hall ticks all the right boxes in terms of location, suitability for agile working, greater resilience and future-proofing against challenges that lie ahead – not least of which is continuing budgetary pressures.

In last night’s vote, Members accepted recommendations in a report to Cabinet from Deputy Chief Executive Richard Cohen seeking permission 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 report explains that 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

The proposed buyer of the development site at Knowle is Pegasus Life Ltd., a specialist provider of residential developments offering retirement and assisted living facilities.

The developer would be buying 1.8856 hectares of land, including the area currently occupied by buildings and tarmac car parks. Full Council agreed with Cabinet’s recommendation that the 3.5196 hectares (86%) of parkland, which includes the lower ‘grasscrete’ car park, would be offered to Sidmouth Town Council to own and manage, with a covenant against any future development of this land.

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 that are both 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.

Full Council heard that costings calculated by the project team support the case for a move. 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.

Transparent

Commenting on the decision to confirm the move, Councillor Paul Diviani, Leader of EDDC, said:

I’m pleased that we can give the residents of East Devon, many of whom will be voting in district elections on 7 May, a clear and transparent picture of our intentions after many years of careful consideration and fine-tuning to find the most effective solution. Whilst this approach has been prudent, it has inevitably caused uncertainty for our towns and especially for our employees.

This project is all about giving our residents, businesses and visitors the best possible service at the least possible cost. We know there is more austerity on the way and that our council – like others up and down the country – has to find more and more creative ways of saving costs and becoming more efficient. Our customers want good service without hikes in council tax.

How strange would it be for our residents to see us making piecemeal changes here and there to save relatively small amounts of money in each service, whilst pouring scarce funds into an unsuitable building that will have no value? By thinking ahead – and outside the box – we have given ourselves the chance of moving to accommodation that supports modern working practices, will reduce operating costs and will prove an investment for the future.

This has been described by some cynics as a vanity project. It’s not – it’s a sanity project!

I’m delighted that my fellow councillors have decided to grasp this fantastic opportunity and I now feel confident that we will be able to continue giving our customers the service they deserve, at a price they can afford. 

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.

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.

  • 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.