Owl says: Leader Ingham seems to be thoroughly persuaded that the previous Tory majority council is whiter than white on the relocation project. Many disagree and had hoped that his new broom might be doing some sweeping – but not under the carpet as seems to be happening.
“A full report will be provided that will analyse in detail East Devon District Council’s relocation from Sidmouth to Honiton as ‘questions hang in the air’ over the project.
East Devon District Council’s moved into their new headquarters at Blackdown House in Honiton on February 11.
The new HQ, which replaced the council’s existing HQ at The Knowle in Sidmouth, cost the council £8.7m, while an additional £1.5m was spent on upgrading Exmouth town hall where one third of the council staff are to be based.
The controversial decision to relocate offices was taken back in March 2015 as it was decided the council needed to relocate into buildings that are affordable, cost efficient, and would significantly reduce the overheads of the council.
But the relocation project has faced criticism over the lack of transparency throughout the project, the procurement process, and the amount of cash the council received for the sale.
A freedom of information request asking how much the Knowle would be worth with planning permission said the answer was £50m, £42.5m higher than the council agreed to sell the land to Pegasus Life for, the latest edition of Private Eye states, naming the council as a ‘rotten borough’ because of it.
At Wednesday night’s full council meeting, Cllr Paul Arnott, leader of the East Devon Alliance, said that ‘questions hang in the air’ over the project.
He asked: “Both the disposal of the Knowle HQ and the procurement of the new Honiton HQ are matters of great concern to thousands of people in East Devon. Questions will hang in the air until they are fully addressed.
“Will the leader of the council support the immediate creation of a councillor-led working party, politically balanced, of up to 10 members, all of them newly elected in 2019, reporting to the scrutiny committee, to look into these matters in the public interest?”
In response, Cllr Ben Ingham, the council leader, said: “Relocation has been a key element of the council’s transformation agenda in terms of delivering against priorities of reducing council operational costs and introducing modern ways of working.
“Throughout its lifetime the relocation project has been subject to regular reporting to cabinet and council, dedicated project management, senior member and officer oversight through the Office Accommodation Executive Group, regular risk review and the scrutiny of South West Audit Partnership.
“Prior to the decision to move to Exmouth and Honiton and dispose of the Knowle site an independent audit was carried out to inform the decision to relocate and to test the financial projections for the project. These findings were included as part of the report to cabinet in March 2015 seeking approval of the move.
“Both Audit and Governance and Overview and Scrutiny committees met jointly to consider the relocation project programme and gave their endorsement. Cabinet and Council were provided with extensive detail, independent evaluation and wider committee endorsement as part of their approval.
“Relocation has been delivered successfully in terms of the physical moves and performance of the council. Furthermore this complex project has been delivered within budget.
“A project closure report will be provided to council at the one year anniversary of the project which will include a full project cost analysis and detail of operational costs for the first year of operation of Blackdown House and annual running costs of Exmouth Town Hall.
“If Scrutiny were so minded they could ask to consider the officer report or undertake a piece of work themselves and as Leader I would not want to restrict or pre-empt their independence to set their own forward plan. The Scrutiny Committee is politically balanced and already well placed to do this without the imposition of a working party which is constitutionally unsound in terms of its suggested membership.”
Cllr Arnott said that ahead of the May elections, the East Devon Alliance manifesto on their website saw their page on the relocation project have page views that were ‘streets ahead’ of anything else.”
He asked: “Can I be assured that if anyone on scrutiny wanted to commission a piece of work on sale off the Knowle and procurement of this, there would be nothing to stop them?”
Cllr Ingham confirmed if a member of scrutiny wanted to request that, then they could do so.
He added: “At the moment the project is coming in favourably to the target budget. The idea of waiting a year before the report was to establish more accurately exactly the savings that the council is making in the new building.”