Councillor Mike Barnard’s defence of the joint council office project (The Journal, Aug 29th), which involves moving some 500 council staff from the town centre to an industrial park a mile out of town, is inadequate. The sale of some ten office buildings, including the Town Hall, which he describes as “old, inefficient and unfit” along with savings on energy and maintenance costs will, he maintains, cover the £13.6m price of the new building.
There are serious flaws in this financial case. The Council will not make savings of hundreds of thousands of pounds in business rate relief by building in an Enterprise Zone, dedicated ironically for “energy related industries”. How on earth could the writers of the plan, Norfolk Property Services, not to mention the Chief Planning Officer, make such an elementary but serious mistake? On the contrary by building in an EZ industrial opportunities are closed off and income from the land lost. Selling the land on Riverside Road for industrial use would have generated capital to be spent on refurbishment or rebuilding in the town centre. That would be the sound financial approach.
There are already many large office premises in Lowestoft town centre which have been empty and on the market for years. If the present Council’s premises are indeed “unfit” then they can only be demolished and the land sold for more housing. The Town Hall, which is certainly “old”, historic even, also has to be sold to fulfil the business plan. If it isn’t the plan will have another big hole blown in it. Yet the Council is apparently consulting us on its future. What if we don’t want it to be sold? In reality there is no way of knowing when sales will happen, how much will be made, or when savings will outweigh costs. It will certainly be longer than forecast. Interest charges will accumulate and it is likely that the taxpayer will be paying for this ill-judged scheme for many years to come.
If the narrow financial case is flawed the broader economic consequences for Lowestoft are worse. The Bury St Edmunds town centre manager recently described their decision to move council offices to an out of town site as “a disaster”. A similar outcome for Lowestoft could have been foreseen if WDC had followed planning laws. That is what planning laws are for. No economic impact assessment of the move was carried out nor were obvious alternative sites looked at. The need to retain and expand the Marina Customer Services Centre defeats the object of centralisation; it is costly and unnecessary. If the two councils, Waveney and Suffolk, were determined to rehouse staff then all their services could have been housed on the old and, at the time, empty WDC Housing Offices site on Clapham Road. The site is surrounded by half empty car parks. This would have allowed the Marina Centre to be sold and the Town Hall to be retained and renovated. Instead 500 jobs and 500 potential customers will be lost to town centre and High Street shops and businesses. The decision to relocate to Riverside Road is a disaster.
The plan makes no financial, economic or even environmental sense. Building should be halted now while these serious questions are answered. I hope that Councillor Barnard will take the opportunity.
Frank Joyce, Secretary
Lowestoft Coalition against the Cuts