Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Higher Trenant - Cornwall Conservatives back down

Today's Cabinet meeting is a biggie. Later on we will have discussions on the controversial waste contract, but first up is the proposal to sell off the Higher Trenant offices in Wadebridge - the former offices of NCDC.

Higher Trenant is one of the most modern buildings in the council's property portfolio and it seemed bonkers to me that the Cabinet should be selling it off in advance of undertaking the holistic review of all council property.

All sorts of arguments have been advanced for why selling off Highr Trenant is a bad idea. These include the likely net loss of money if we sell off Higher Trenant only to build new offices seven miles away in Bodmin. There is significant doubt that the Council can make the money from the sale that they are talking about and new offices are likely to be more expensive in any case.

Of course, if we were starting from scratch, we might not choose to have the Eastern hub offices in Wadebridge. But the truth is that we are starting with modern offices in Wadebridge and no offices of significant size in Bodmin.

The Corporate Resources Scrutiny Committee looked at this proposal and held a meeting in Wadebridge to gauge local opinion. In a very strong report, the committee unanimously agreed to ask the Cabinet to abandon this plan - at least until after the full office vision review has taken place.

At today's meeting, Scrutiny Committee Vice Chair Dave Biggs (a Conservative) made a very strong case on behalf of the committee for the sale of Higher Trenant to be considered as part of the vision review, not on its own.

At last, the Cabinet appears to have started to see sense. Leader Alec Robertson amended the proposal in the papers and proposed that only the land around the Higher Trenant Offices be declared surplus to requirements at this stage - not the offices themselves. This is a huge climbdown, but still appears to be clinging to a determination that part of the land could be sold off as soon as possible. My colleague Jeremy Rowe asked if this was because there was already an offer on the table from a supermarket for the land, pointed out that the vision might conclude that the land around the offices was also needed and suggested that two hubs for East Cornwall might be needed - East Cornwall is 52% of the entire Cornwall area and a single hub covering the whole area from Bude to Torpoint seems far fetched.

Cabinet Member Jim Currie refused to answer Jeremy's question - claiming that he had already answered twice. Those of us listening to the debate hadn't heard such answers and we shall look forward to reading the details in the minutes.

Despite Graeme Hicks appearing to suggest that he backed the original recommendations, the Cabinet voted to give a stay of execution to the offices, to declare the land around Higher Trenant surplus now and to report back to the Corporate Resources Committee on the review of the office vision. Whilst not perfect, this is a significant climbdown by the Cabinet and shows that this time (unlike on the severance scheme) they have been prepared to listen to cross-party objections.

UPDATE - Jeremy Rowe has come up with a great soundbite on this - “They have a building which doesn’t need to be replaced, a replacement which doesn’t need to be built, a business case that doesn’t even begin to stack up, universal public derision at the proposals, and absolutely no answer to the question of why they need to rush ahead with this madcap scheme before their own office review has even started.”

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