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Labour councillors furious as sale of Chester’s County Hall is debated

THE sale of County Hall to the University of Chester has generated strongly argued views.

THE sale of County Hall to the University of Chester has generated strongly argued views.

Fury erupted after a special council meeting Labour had secured to debate the controversial plan was "hijacked" by the ruling Tory administration.

Labour leader Cllr Derek Bateman (Ellesmere Port: Central and Westminster) had raised a detailed eight point motion calling on the Conservative Executive to "think again" over the proposed sale of the iconic building, opened by The Queen, to the University of Chester.

Angry Labour activists and their supporters, led by former county councillor David Robinson, demonstrated against the sale on the steps of County Hall in the late afternoon.

But it was late into the evening before people wearily sitting in the public gallery found councillors getting to grips with the issue.

The Conservatives had placed two major issues relating to the half billion pound authority's resources and the state of council housing in Ellesmere Port on the agenda.

These were debated before Cllr Bateman's motion despite protests at the outset by Labour deputy leader Cllr Pat Merrick, (Ellesmere Port: Grange and Rossmore) which were not accepted by chairman Cllr John Ebo (Con, Hoole and Newton).

Cllr Merrick felt the public were being treated with contempt.

With the clock ticking past 9pm, a furious Cllr Bateman, already annoyed at the manner in which a previous debate had gone against Labour, exploded.

"This should have been the first item on the agenda, I feel insulted," he protested.

After the meeting, a still fuming Cllr Bateman continued:"The Conservatives refused to bring forward the item and deal with it first since it was the first item on the agenda following the Labour Group requisition for the meeting!

"They hijacked the whole agenda by putting on two other items hoping that the public present would get fed up and go.

"They are still the NASTY Party."

Earlier in the meeting, Avril Coady, secretary of the Canal Basin Forum, asked councillors:"Is it necessary to sell County Hall?

"It does not make sense.

"Why has there been a reluctance to consult and why the rush to sell?"

Puddington parish councillor Eddie Jenkins, describing himself as "a concerned member of the public" argued:"I question whether this debate is already too late to have any effect as the sale has already been approved.

"Have contracts been exchanged?"

He insisted that "decisions should not be taken behind closed doors" and added: "I feel we are entitled to know what is going on."

He believed there should be more consideration and public involvement.

Referring to the HQ building, Cllr Jenkins, a retired civil engineer, suggested:"Anything which is described as state of the art is not low maintenance."

Former deputy leader of Ellesmere Port and Neston Borough Council, Mr Mark Henesy (Lab) pointed out that although the HQ building was said to be "new, modern and contemporary," the same had been said of the now demolished police headquarters which had soon become outdated and had been universally condemned.

"County Hall has grown over the years to become a symbol for local government," he suggested.

In the debate, Cllr Bateman argued his motion "highlights issues we are concerned about and has provided an opportunity for the public to pass a view."

He criticised an e-mail from influential Chester Conservative figure Simon Harris which suggested the sale of County Hall had all party support.

"This is not true," he insisted.

He believed the issues which had arisen "have not been treated properly" and asked the Executive to take them away and think again.

Describing County Hall as an “iconic” building, Blacon Cllr Reggie Jones (Lab) accused the Conservatives of "destroying our heritage."

"None of the public speakers were in favour," he pointed out.

“We do not need a new building across the road when we are having to find £19m to make hundreds of people redundant."

He claimed "there are many Tories here who are opposed to this" and argued:"None of us have access to the information we want.

"The whole process has been taken in secrecy."

Cllr Jones believed that residents in Handbridge would be significantly affected and that other issues including parking had not been assessed.

The fact there had been no consultation on the plans was "criminal".

"It is appalling and absolutely disgraceful," stormed Cllr Jones.

“Please accept the motion”.

"I have not had people knocking on my door saying don't do this," Upton councillor Jill Houlbrook (Con) disclosed.

Pointing out the demonstration had included Labour councillors and ex councillors, she added:"We would not be having this debate if Labour had not pushed through the bid for a new authority”.

Labour finance spokesman Cllr Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port: Central and Westminster) commented:"We do not believe we have had satisfactory answers to fundamental questions.

"The expenditure is not necessary and not wanted.

"Do we need it - no - can we afford it, I don't think we can”.

Council leader Cllr Mike Jones (Con, Broxton) insisted there was "no evidence to support the comments by Cllr Madders or by Cllr Jones."

He pointed out the Labour government had "imposed a local government reorganisation on Cheshire against the will of the people and with no consultation”.

Although Labour have described the cost of the move to HQ as “huge”, Cllr Jones insisted:"There will be significant savings and the cost to council taxpayers at a worst will be nil."

Borough Lib Dem leader Cllr Malcolm Gaskill (Winsford: South and West) also pointed out the move did not have all party support.

But he added:"We are in favour of County Hall going to a new and responsible owner.

"It will have a new lease of life."

But he admitted he did not have the figures "and if they are too good to be true, they probably are too good to be true."

He questioned whether the council had "a moral right or necessity to move into an iconic headquarters" and suggested council office space is available in Winsford, Chester and Ellesmere Port.

Lib Dem deputy leader councillor Bob Thompson (Hoole and Newton) felt there was "a rush to complete the deal at the earliest possible moment”.

He suggested that perhaps the borough council and the land locked university should be working together on an out-of-town complex.

"Residents’ concerns may not been fully addressed in the consultation and the residents of Handbridge deserve more," he suggested.

The opposition parties had no alternative proposals to put forward, according to Mickle Trafford Cllr Brian Crowe (Con) who revealed he had addressed the demonstration on the County Hall steps.

"Buying HQ for office accommodation will be a very good deal for this council, the university and for the residents of our city for generations," he believed.

Former City planning chairman Cllr Andrew Storrar (Con, Mickle Trafford) pointed out that County Hall would still be part of Chester's heritage and that the HQ building would provide "a state-of-the-art building for a state-of-the-art authority."

”The opportunity we have is one which should be grasped with both hands," he believed.

Cllr Merrick was not impressed and suggested:"The best use of public money is not to spend it at all”.

Resources chief Cllr Les Ford (Con, Frodsham and Helsby) suggested it would be a "an absolute nightmare to continue working in County Hall and carry out maintenance at the same time”.

The financial case was "overwhelming" according to Cllr Gareth Anderson (Con, Ledsham and Willaston) who believed the move "provides a great opportunity for the whole borough."

Cllr Mark Stocks (Con, Northwich East and Shakerley) pointed out a significant number of local authority buildings across Cheshire West and Chester would become vacant and said the accommodation in HQ could have been empty for some considerable time.

"It will benefit the borough in the long run," he suggested.

Cllr Bateman's motion was defeated on a 12 - 47 vote with three abstentions.

BLOB In their motion, Labour councillors called on the ruling Tory administration to "think again" about the sale which will see the new authority moving into the nearby HQ building overlooking Chester Racecourse.

Cllr Bateman insisted the meeting should be held to analyse and further scrutinise, in public, the acquisition of the HQ building and the sale of County Hall.

He felt the council should express its regret at the lack of consultation with the public, other interested organisations and staff about the proposed sale and argued the council had a duty to hear "inform, consult and involve local people in their functions and activities including asset management".

He believes:"At huge cost, without any public support and at the expense of thousands of jobs, the Tories ignore us all with their arrogance, and, at their peril, for the electors will judge us all soon".

BLOB Cllr Mike Jones points out the Town Hall has been a seat of local government for 150 years and will remain the centre of the borough's civic life as town halls do in Manchester and Liverpool and other great cities.

"It has a council chamber and will be used," he insists.

The intention is to reduce from 24 to “hopefully three” offices with significant savings, the removal of fixed costs and the removal of "significant liabilities associated with these old buildings".

"This alone saves the council millions of pounds over the next 10-20 years," according to Cllr Jones.

The actual transaction will see day to day savings pay for the interest on the loan with the capital cost being met by the sale of offices around Chester in 3-5 years time.

"There is nothing wrong with providing our staff with good accommodation," he believes.

The HQ accommodation will be a similar size to that at the Glass Slug on Gorse Stacks which would have cost over £30m.

Cllr Jones also points out that if the County Council had won the local government review debate, County Hall would have closed and moved to Winsford.

New offices would cost £24m - far more than cost of purchasing the space at HQ, Cllr Jones reveals.

"This is an excellent deal for the council and the council tax payers," he argues.

 

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