Anger over £2.7m revamp of council’s meeting rooms as £130m shortfall puts services at risk
PUBLISHED: 14:07 27 August 2020 | UPDATED: 16:49 27 August 2020
Council leaders have warned they are facing a daunting £45m budget gap next year, yet are planning to spend almost £3m to revamp their own meeting rooms at County Hall.
Norfolk County Council’s Conservative administration says it faces a £129.7m budget gap over four years due to the “extremely challenging” financial situation worsened by coronavirus.
But, despite the pressures - which could mean further cuts to services - the council wants to spend an initial £2.7m revamping County Hall’s civic area, including the council chamber and other committee meeting rooms.
The council says those areas have been largely unchanged since County Hall opened in 1968 and the lack of air handling means they do not meet regulations around Covid-19.
While committee meetings are currently conducted virtually it means face-to-face meetings in those rooms cannot resume until the work is done.
The presence of asbestos means a “fundamental redesign” is needed, with issues around lighting, heating and cooling and access for the disabled.
The council said the cost would come from a capital budget, which is separate to the revenue budget used to provide services.
Greg Peck, cabinet member for property, said: “Public areas at County Hall, including the council chamber and committee rooms, have not been refurbished since 1968. For a number of pressing reasons, we must invest in them now.
“They do not meet the latest standards regarding access for disabled people and they do not meet COVID-19 regulations regarding air circulation.
“If we do not tackle this now, it will not be possible to resume face-to-face council meetings and be COVID secure.
“I accept some will question why we are spending money on this, but I feel it is essential that our buildings are open and accessible to all residents, particularly those with disabilities.
“We have looked at various ways to reduce the cost, but as an old building with asbestos in the walls it needs to be done as a package.
“We’re proposing to spend £2.7m to get most of the work complete by February next year and the work will help to boost the economy at a challenging time.
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“All the council’s party leaders were briefed last month and they understand why we have to do this now. The money will come from our accommodation rationalisation budget - so it will not impact on council services.”
But Steve Morphew, leader of the opposition Labour group, said: “I can almost hear Norfolk residents jaws hitting the floor at the timing and insensitivity of this.
“I have a feeling they’d rather council kept meeting online than plough £2.7m into a building to rectify historic underinvestment, when there are pressing issues for our communities that are new, now and need tackling.
“Yes, the work needs doing but good luck convincing Norfolk it should be a priority in the teeth of the financial crisis we are facing.”
Brian Watkins, from the opposition Liberal Democrat group, said: “Whatever budget this money is coming out of, the public will find it shocking that it is being spent on this project in a middle of pandemic, when it would be expected that the council would be focusing on providing the services that the public need at this critical time.”
The move was questioned by Marilyn Heath, from Horstead, whose daughter Sara has Down Syndrome.
She said she was recently told by the council that she was not allowed to draw on money from Sara’s personal budget to purchase a table tennis table for her daughter to use during lockdown.
She said the council had told her that Sara’s personal budget could not be used in that way it was not in her care plan, even though Mrs Heath had found one for just £20.
Mrs Heath said: “They have already spent millions to revamp County Hall, have just agreed to spend £2m on a car park and now they are doing this.
“I know it’s from different pots of money, but it just seems when they want something they can always find the money.”
On the budget gap, Andrew Jamieson, cabinet member for finance, said: “We’ve been dealing with austerity for a decade and Covid-19 has added to our pressures, through extra costs, reduced Council Tax and other income and ongoing additional demand.
“It’s time to recognise that local government and adult and children’s social care need sustainable, fair funding, to ensure we can continue to keep our communities safe and supported.
“We keep talking to MPs, ministers and the County Councils Network about this and believe funding should be addressed in the government’s forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review.”
The issues will be considered at the next virtual meeting of the county council’s cabinet on Monday, September 7.
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