Controversy has surrounded the sale of County Hall to the University of Chester. But Cheshire West and Chester leader Cllr Mike Jones has revealed he dealt with the sale and the purchase of part of the HQ building as he would as a business. DAVID NORBURY reports.
“I AM DEALING with the council finances as I would as a business,” says Cllr Jones.
“When we made the big decisions I asked would it be right for the shareholders, in the council’s case will this decision add real value to the council and for our residents and council tax payers of Cheshire West and Chester.
“We are buying a building that ironically, I spoke against as I believed it would be too big for Chester.
“But it was passed by the Labour and Lib Dem regime at the city council, I have to say against the wishes of many of us.
“The developer did take off the top floor which I believed made it too big and it does look better as a result”.
The new borough council has bought the block which overlooks the city.
This will enable council staff from County Hall and other offices in the city to be consolidated in the new accommodation.
“That allows us to make a huge saving financially, it is massive,” insists Cllr Jones.
“The revenue savings we will make on an annual basis are £750,000 a year, that is £6 a household.
“It is a huge saving and does not include the savings from all the offices we are going to close”.
He argues:“The saving we will make from running County Hall will pay the interest on the loan we will require and when we sell all the other buildings the loan will be paid off.
“The interest saving then comes fully into the accounts but it is even better than that as we avoid spending any money on County Hall”.
Cllr Jones continued:“If we stayed there, first of all we would have to find £5m to pay to Cheshire East.
“We then would have to identify how much would we actually need to spend to make it a much more open-plan and a more flexible building.
“The County Council had plans which were going to cost £7.5m.
“The work to make it really flexible and to insulate it and to install double glazing, if we were able to obtain planning permission for the listed building, would make the cost even higher.
“The court building, which we have also sold, has 33 years of lease to run.
“When this lease was taken, the county council took all the money up front and as a result we have no income for 33 years. We have therefore sold 33 years of liability for the maintenance of the building.
“So the cost savings we make are phenomenal.
“Overall, at worst it is cost neutral to council tax payers, at best it is going to make massive savings for them and avoids huge future costs, saving our council tax payers a great deal of money”.
He emphasised:“Interestingly, many people in the Labour Party have said they agree it is the right decision.
“We offered the opportunity for the scrutiny committee to review the decision, chaired by the opposition.
“Steve Robinson and I spent over two hours answering questions and at the end of that it was unanimous that this is a good deal for the tax payers.”
Cllr Jones believes that HQ is now an important part of Chester’s image “as it would have been awful to have probably the only large office space built in Chester with ‘To Let’ signs hanging outside for years, empty, unloved with weeds growing through the pavements.
“It would be horrendous for Chester – what it would say is Chester is not a place to come to. Whereas what we are doing is putting more people down on the river frontage.
“Others have said the transport might not work but this is the Labour Party saying this and it is the Labour Party which gave the permission when they ran the city council with the Lib Dems and they should have sorted out all those things.
“And this is where I think they are incredibly hypocritical.
“We are selling a building which dates from the 1950s.
“For the university it will be an iconic building and will enable them to consolidate their growth over the last few years and actually provide a far better educational environment for our young people involved in very important services such as health, education and social services supporting our vulnerable children and adults.
“And what the sale will do is bring alive that water frontage right through from The Groves to the racecourse and help support the small businesses in Handbridge and Lower Bridge Street.
“This is very exciting for Chester”.
He hopes that by putting more people on the river frontage, more people will walk along The Groves, walk along Lower Bridge Street, visit the businesses and shops on Lower Bridge Street and Handbridge and bring them back into life.
“Look at the problems we have had with the shops in Handbridge,” says Cllr Jones.
“We have lost the post office, we have lost some fantastic shops in Handbridge because they were not being used as much as they need.
“If we can get people down there such as the council officers in the HQ building and people at the university, there will be a nice walk round across the suspension bridge, the Dee bridge and the Grosvenor bridge which I hope will bring the shops into a new, more stable, financial position. And I think that will be good for the residents”.