Review to look at the future of Norfolk’s County Hall
Norfolk's flagship county council building could be knocked down and rebuilt at another site amid fears that the long-term cost of bringing it up to scratch could spiral into tens of millions of pounds.
For several months scaffolding and protective covers have been in place across entrance points into the iconic building after the severe winter weather raised fears of masonry crashing to the ground. Major works were also needed to upgrade the lift systems.
But there are fears that those works are the tip of the iceberg, and the EDP understands that senior county councillors are beginning to look at whether the authority should vacate the building and move to another site, or build a smaller more purpose-built facility.
Officers are set to produce a report in the autumn looking at the maintenance needs of the entire building over the next 10 years with a list of possible options to consider.
Much will depend on the long term cost of maintaining the building and bringing it up to scratch, and what legal covenants exist on the site.
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Yet with the authority facing cuts of millions of pounds and set to axe hundreds of staff in the next three years in the wake of government spending cuts and members running the rule over whether it can sell off any of its property assets, they have not ruled out starting again somewhere else, particularly if it would prove a cheaper option.
Cliff Jordan, newly appointed cabinet member for efficiency, who was brought in by council leader Derrick Murphy to 'think the unthinkable' and look at how the council could make the best use of its assets at a time of dwindling finances, confirmed that the future of the building was being looked at.
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Previously as leader of Breckland District Council, Mr Jordan also oversaw the move of that authority to new offices at Elizabeth House on the edge of Dereham. While he would be not drawn on any details of the review, Mr Jordan also refused to deny whether moving out of County Hall was on the agenda.
'We are looking at the best value for the public of Norfolk,' Mr Jordan said. 'It's obvious to everybody who looks at County Hall that it's got tired and with all the scaffolding around there is something seriously wrong with it.
'We are on top of the whole issue. We know that something has got to be done. There is nothing ruled in and nothing ruled out.'
The authority insists the building, which houses around 1700 staff, is safe, but officials from NPS, the council's commercial offshoot, which manages the council's property portfolio, are drawing up a report looking at the state of the building and its long term upkeep and costs.
Alison Birmingham, from Norfolk Unison, said County Hall was often an uncomfortable building for staff to work in, but much would depend on where any new building is sited.
'It's a vexed question because it can be extremely cramped and the temperature control is poor, it's hot in some places, and cold in others,' she said. 'It's a dire building, quite often it's a very uncomfortable place to work in. Staff will probably want to see what is going to be put in its place and how convenient it is.
'For a lot of people County Hall is convenient, because it is near to the main highways and also the city centre,' she added. 'I am aware that there are reviews of buildings going on, especially with adult social services, where they are looking at reducing the amount of buildings so that people can work more flexibly and also from home.'
County Hall was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in May 1968. Although not an English Heritage listed building, officials from the Norwich Society have recently added it to their local listing of significant buildings.
Steve Morphew, former leader of Norwich City Council, who had previously considered disposing of the site when the city had secured unitary status, said the site was ideally placed to give the city a flagship concert hall and conference venue and said the idea should be explored over the longer term.
'I think it would be seriously worth thinking about and carrying out a feasibility study looking at replacing it with it with a concert hall,' Mr Morphew said.
'Studies by the Greater Norwich Development Partnership showed that with the growth of the city and the audience potential for a conference centre and concert hall would probably mature around 2020. The advantages are that it's close to the road networks and the railway line and it's in an industrial area with the capacity to develop industries that support a conference centre.'
Will Jones, head of the commercial department at Bidwells said the site would attract large interest from developers and could be worth around �400,000 a acre if redeveloped as a commercial site and more than �500,000 an acre if used for housing.
'A substantial site like this would attract a large amount of interest and would be regarded as a strategic site,' Mr Jones said.
Vicky Manthorpe, secretary of trustees at the Norwich Society, said: 'It's not listed by English Heritage, but it has been listed by us locally as a building of local significance. It's a building with a purpose and it's in the skyline, and has a link with a local architect, but I can't say we would be horrified or pleased if they knocked it down.
'It would depend what they were going to replace it with. It's rather like the Forum, the old central library was lost in a fire, but the new Forum has made a massive impact.'
Mike Britch, managing director of NPS Property Consultants, said: 'During what was a hard winter, while carrying out a routine inspection of the exterior of the County Hall building, it was noticed that several small parts of the exterior decorative blocks had become loose. These were removed and, as a precaution, a protective canopy was put in place. That remains in place and is likely to stay for the foreseeable future.
'In light of this development, we have commissioned a report from structural engineers, the findings of which will be shared with members. In the meantime, we are certain the building, which opened in 1968, remains safe to use.'