'Absurd & shameful' scheme for civic office flats will see council borrow millions and there's no accounting for cost of 'vanity project' extension. New report appears to contradict boasts and proclamations

  Posted: 04.01.22 at 22:40 by Report by Thurrock Nub News editor Neil Speight.

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THURROCK Council is planning to borrow more than £15 million to part finance the demolition of half its civic offices in Grays and build 82 social housing dwellings on the site.

The overall cost of the project will be more than £26 million, of which £10 million is already in the council's housing revenue account from the sale of previously council-owned properties.

The council’s proposals are revealed in a report to next week’s housing committee – and it presents a far different picture to that painted by Conservative councillors several years ago when they boasted about the site being used to generate significant commercial revenue for the borough – and more than enough to fund the building of its new civic office extension.

Through many meetings in which there was significant opposition from the council’s opponents, - which at that time included two current cabinet members Cllr Luke Spillman and Jack Duffin who were damning in their condemnation of regeneration portfolio holder Cllr Mark Coxshall’s rhetoric - the ruling group were adamant that there would be no cost to residents for the new extension and that the whole new build project at each end of the offices would be self-financing.

To an extent part of that remains true. The council wants to build 82 new dwellings on the site of the office building it plans to demolish and it has projected that over the next 30 years it will generate £20.4 million in net rental income. Assuming a very favourable rate of borrowing from the Public Works Loan board and a sublimely fair and beneficial wind, the theorists suggest the borrowing will be paid back equitably. And the money in the coffers from right to buy could legitimately be used to fund the gap.

But analysis of just some of the detail in next week’s report suggest it is being wildly optimistic with huge questions marks against the cost of demolition, the capability of the council to build to a budget and huge engineering problems such as the impact of a mainline railway with massively increasing freight traffic thundering past the new residents’ windows!

The reality is not quite how it appeared in the CGI images - but lots of other things have changed too.

But that doesn't even take into account the likelihood of gaining planning permission - albeit from its own committee. For example the new flats will come with just 41 undercroft parking spaces for 82 flats.

And no-one in the report is saying how the new civic extension – which is inexorably linked to the overall project – will be funded.

The inclusivity of the whole project was trumpeted by Cllr Coxshall when planning permission was controversially granted for the scheme.

He said: "The plans to extend our civic offices will enhance the customer experience and improve the high street. Building this new extension will cost less overall than fully refurbishing the existing offices, as previously planned. Additionally, it means that we can build 80 new homes on a brownfield site rather than in the greenbelt.

"The civic offices development will feature new and enhanced public spaces including meeting rooms which the community can use, a new café and outdoor seating area open to the public and a new registrar’s garden for ceremonial use.

The building on the right, known as CO1 will be demolished and 82 flats built at a cost - the council speculates - of £26.1 million

"Now that the extension has received planning permission, this exciting scheme can be progressed at pace."

Certainly the council put the pedal to the metal to get the extension built. It is due to open for business later this month - though those who have been inside speak of spaces that now seem superfluous to use. Since the plans were drawn up the council has announced plans to slash its workforce by more than 20 per cent and the covid pandemic has proved that many people can work from home rather then the civic offices - and they would prefer to do that.

What next week's report does include is six ‘significant’ risks to the maths of the project caused by ‘increasing borrowing rates from the Public Works Loan Board’, ‘changes that reduce Local Housing Allowances thereby reducing income’, ‘risk of reintroduction of a national cap on affordable housing rents’ and ‘accelerating building construction industry inflation’.

The project has been ridiculed and its financial veracity questioned throughout by many councillors – and indeed a majority of elected members voted to scrap the plan some years ago. But that was overridden by the ruling cabinet, which continues to back the plan despite the many concerns raised by informed observers. Their attitude resulted in the scheme being branded as a 'vanity project'.

Two members of that cabinet are former independent councillors Spillman and Duffin, who were regular users of that phrase.

Now Cllr Spillman has portrayed himself as the architect of the new revised social housing plan – which will (on paper at least) put 56 one bedroom apartments and 26 two bedroom apartments – onto the local social housing availability list. The rents for those flats, which would be built by September 2025, are likely (extrapolating a best guess from the information currently available) likely to be between £600 and £900 a month depending on size and configuration which is marginally above the current local average but does sit within the current ‘affordable’ classification which is 70 per cent of commercial market value.

However, informed sources who have studied the figures in the report believe they are ‘rosy’ at best and ‘completely unattainable’ at worst – harking back to concerns raised by Cllr Spillman (now the portfolio holder for housing) and Cllr Duffin (in charge of central services) in 2019.

In August that year Cllr Duffin said councillors have been “crying out” for a business case that justifies spending the ‘absurd sum of money’ on the civic offices extension and questioned the whole viability of the scheme, while three months later Cllr Spillman said: "This whole project has brought shame on Thurrock Council and the Tory administration.”

Times change of course, and they are entitled to a change of opinion based on information put before them. And the fluctuating politic scenario in Thurrock.

However, one critic has remained consistently against the scheme and has questioned its veracity from the start.

Labour leader Cllr John Kent says: “This didn’t make sense in 2018 when it was first dreamed up, it didn’t pass scrutiny when it was examined in detail in 2019 and now, as we move into 2022 it remains hugely questionable.

"But what is not questionable is that there will be a huge cost to borough residents – for example there’s another £1.7 million shoehorned into the figures for ‘development cost’. Is this more money for consultants and commercial entrepreneurs weaving a dream?

“I don’t know. And this report tells me very little either. This whole shameful project needs to be the subject of independent scrutiny before more millions are wasted on a scheme that is untenable, undeliverable and unnecessary.”

The report being put before councillors next week can be read in ful via this link.

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