Energy firm could move into threatened study centre

A wind energy company is negotiating a temporary move into a threatened study centre – a plan which campaigners hope will buy them time to secure the building's long-term future.

Norfolk County Council's cabinet voted in October to sell off the popular Wells Field Studies Centre to concentrate resources on the more financially-viable centre at Holt Hall.

Councillors vowed to try to find a buyer who would retain the Polka Road building for educational purposes, but fears were raised it could be sold to the highest bidder to maximise income for the cash-strapped authority.

In the meantime, negotiations are continuing with Scira, the Norwegian-backed energy firm currently constructing the Sheringham Shoal wind farm off the north Norfolk coast.

The company wants to secure a 14-month lease on the building to use as an office and training facility for turbine technicians while its permanent on-shore base is constructed two miles inland at Egmere.

Dr Marie Strong, a county councillor for Wells who has campaigned for the study centre to maintain its educational role, said the move would provide a good opportunity for the community to come up with proposals for its future.

And she hopes people will be empowered by the government's Localism Bill – which promises to make it easier for communities to take on public buildings – if it becomes law as expected in the summer.

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'If Scira uses this building it will allow time for proposals to come forward from the community, and for the community,' said Dr Strong. 'Asset transfer to communities remains a key thread of the government's localism agenda. My wish is that when the centre is placed on the market it will be within the realm of possibility for the community.'

Alison Thomas, Norfolk's cabinet member for children's services, said: 'Cabinet resolved that conditions of the sale of the Wells site should encourage, if possible, its use as an educational resource.

'When the centre goes on the market, we would certainly welcome interest from any members or groups from the local community, especially given the strength of local interest during the consultation over the future of the centre.'

Mrs Thomas said the future of Holt Hall was dependent on funding from the sale of the Wells centre, and that marketing of the property was due to begin towards the end of January.

'In the meantime, Scira Offshore Energy has expressed an interest in leasing the centre from the council for an interim period, which seems like a good arrangement all round,' she said.

Scira has made an application to North Norfolk District Council to change the use of the study centre building from its current category into 'offices'.

Earlier this month, the same planning authority approved Scira's application to build a two-storey office building and a warehouse at the North Creake Airfield Business Park at Bunkers Hill in Egmere, near Wells.

The base will include a 500sqm storage warehouse and 800sqm of office space to accommodate about 30 full-time staff and 42 technicians who will service the 88-turbine wind farm on rolling shifts.

Construction work at Egmere is expected to begin early in the New Year and continue until November 2011, when the wind farm is due to be nearing completion.