Update: Full report on Lowestoft Town Hall petition bid
- Credit: Picture: Nick Butcher
An attempt by campaigners to stop council workers leaving Lowestoft Town Hall and moving to a new £13m shared office complex was thrown out this week by councillors in a political first for Waveney.
Members of Waveney District Council defended their plans to move to new headquarters after rejecting claims made by Frank Joyce, of the Lowestoft Coalition Against the Cuts, that the authority should remain at its long-time home in town's historic High Street and save its money for other 'more pressing' projects.
Mr Joyce set up his petition to save the town hall under new procedures that allow members of the public to force issues onto the council's agenda. After securing sufficient support, it meant members were obliged to discuss a public petition for the first time in the authority's history at their meeting on Wednesday evening.
Mr Joyce's petition, which attracted 350 names, was launched after Waveney and Suffolk County Council agreed to relocate all their backroom staff into a shared building, earmarked for a site at Riverside Road.
The move has been approved by both councils, which will each pump in £6.8m.
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Mr Joyce's called on Waveney to put the Riverside Office Accommodation Project on hold as he claimed the town hall's only future should be as a council headquarters. He also suggested that the proposed efficiency benefits of moving to new offices were unclear, the High Street would suffer if hundreds of staff moved away from the area and that there were 'more pressing' priorities the authority should be concentrating on in a time of austerity.
He told the meeting: 'I think the project faces total opposition in Lowestoft.'
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And he added: 'Waveney District Council will go into debt for this project.'
Mr Joyce also criticised officials for sizing up the land at Riverside Road for the move.
He said: 'Who on earth thought of the idea of putting it out there?'
During the debate, council leader Colin Law defended the rationale for moving from the town hall to land at Riverside Road, which was bought by Waveney before the failed £53m Waveney Campus bid.
He said that by moving to modern, efficient offices, both councils were aiming to save £3m over the next decade.
Mr Law said: 'This project is the only logical choice because of the prohibitive costs we face running, maintaining and repairing old buildings which are now completely unsuited to modern work.
'It is not as simple as repairs here and paint jobs there. Maintenance costs over the next decade would present a drain on our resources and on taxpayers money which simply cannot be justified.'
Mr Law also said the council had still not 'determined the future of the town hall' and while the authority would be looking to dispose of it from the autumn of 2015, the site was of 'strategic importance' to Waveney.
Green Party councillor Graham Elliott tried to introduce a motion that asked if the council's overview and scrutiny committee might look at the project again as he had concerns over the potential impact on Lowestoft town centre when staff moved away – a relocation, he said, that would 'only benefit Asda'.
He said: 'If we are making a big mistake it is better to find out now.' However, his suggestion was rejected.
If the move does not go ahead, it is estimated the town hall will cost up to £671,000 to maintain over 10 years.
Martin Parsons, councillor for Wrentham and member of the scrutiny committee, said he was convinced the proposed move should happen as the town hall was not fit for purpose for its staff.
He said: 'I don't want to be a member of a council that makes staff work in Victorian conditions.'
After the debate, the vast majority of councillors voted in favour of a recommendation that the project should not be put on hold and noted the town hall was a unique part of Lowestoft's heritage and had a viable future other than as a council building. They agreed to engage with the local community over its future.
Only five names from five different households are needed to secure a petition debate. Wednesday's had been due to last 15 minutes but Mr Law introduced a motion to double it to 30 minutes to give sufficient time for a public forum. After the meeting, Mr Joyce said he was 'disappointed' by the vote and said he felt the Riverside Accommodation Project should now go to a public consultation.