COUNTY HALL: Audit essential for all options

An open letter to Northumberland County Council chief executive Steven Mason.

There was a clear understanding that there would be a full council debate on the issue of the new County Hall project on December 2, at which we would have had the opportunity to question some of the claims made to try to justify this scheme.

My group deplores the cancellation of this debate and considers that this is a clear attempt to avoid challenge, so hiding away from public scrutiny.

I find it impossible to believe that this unnecessary move of the headquarters is either efficient or commercially justified. Members of the public across Northumberland have expressed concerns with regard to the way that the project has been commissioned.

With a construction cost rising to over £40million and a lifetime cost in excess of £60million for the building, it is only right that the council and taxpayers should be fully informed about all matters leading to this important decision, which will have repercussions on the council’s operations and finances for years.

A number of claims have been made which my Conservative group has fundamental issues with. For example, the GVA ‘Options Review’ did not include the interest costs on the borrowed capital and we now find that the cost amounts to £29.32million on top of the total build cost.

As the last few months have brought substantial changes to the proposal, and there are still many issues which have not been resolved, my group has made it clear that there should be an independent review looking at all aspects of the ‘business case’.

We do have serious reservations with regard to a number of the claims which have been made to try to justify this capital spending.

1. There is the issue of the need for change. There is a claim that it is necessary to spend £12.38million on the existing building. Although this amounts to a near total rebuild, there is no basis for this in fact as there has been no structural survey to act as a basis for any estimate. This figure we find to be extremely misleading.

2. As it is the council’s aim to move staff to premises in the market towns, there should be even less of a need to invest in expensive new facilities in the corporate centre.

3. The ‘Options Appraisal’, which the council is relying on, does contain a number of flaws. The lack of any allowance for the cost of capital is clear and this would have altered the figures significantly.

4. The operational and planned maintenance costs of the existing County Hall seem to be exaggerated. The claimed need for all-new furniture is questioned, as well as the £4.73million figure for ‘relocation costs’ and, if the existing building is large enough, why make an allowance of £1.65million for ‘off-site archive storage’?

5. The options were not considered on a like for like basis so the existing building with the capacity to house up to 1,400 staff is being compared to one for 1,000.

6. If the council was to relocate its headquarters, other geographical possibilities in Northumberland, such as Cramlington, should have been considered and scored against factors which would provide the most effective operational environment.

7. My group is concerned about project cost inflation and we have doubts about whether the building will be delivered within budget. We do not consider that the full costs of relocation have been provided, with an allowance of only £275,000 for such a large move and no HR-related costs.

8. The need to rationalise various council buildings in Ashington is understood. But those savings cannot just be claimed by one option only. Any savings are general and should apply equally to all options, including remaining on the existing site where spare space would be provided. There is a bias in the figures amounting to £12.98million as a result of this assumption.

9. There remains a lack of any clear, defined plan for the use of the existing County Hall site. There is no sign of public support for any of the proposals and no indication of the significant financial burdens which may be undertaken by the council as a result.

10. A project of this size should be subject to an open, transparent procurement process. It is not satisfactory for this to be done in a way which may not provide value for money for the taxpayer. The decision is to place the entire contract in a behind-closed-doors arrangement with Arch, without any form of competitive process. Even though this company is wholly owned by the council, it is not at all clear that the claimed Teckal exemption will stand up to legal challenge.

There is general agreement to undertake a full external audit review of the whole decision making process regarding the project. I would only request that this is carried out by a senior audit partner with significant commercial experience. I have outlined the main issues, however I look forward to reviewing all of the information, line by line, with the external auditor.

As, in the view of the Conservative group, the entire proposal for a new County Hall is based upon a premise that has not been adequately justified, it is now essential that all of the options in a potential relocation are subject to a full external audit.

Coun Peter Jackson,

Leader of Northumberland Conservative Group.