Council HQ move and major Riverside House development in Leamington given green light

What the new council HQ and car park could look like
What the new council HQ and car park could look like

Plans for two major developments in Leamington, including the district council moving its HQ to a new site, have been given the green light.

Covent Garden car park will be demolished and replaced with a development comprising of the district council's new offices, a 617-space multi-storey car park, and 44 residential apartments.

The move will be financed by the re-development of Riverside House in Milverton Hill, which will have up to 170 new homes built on it. The council has claimed this future sale will make the £50 million Covent Garden development 'cost neutral'.

The council has also claimed the move will save it more than £300,000 a year in running costs, improve accessibility for customers, and increase footfall and spend for local businesses.

But construction is set to put the Covent Garden car park, which has 592 spaces in total, out of commission for around two years. A 'car parking displacement strategy' is currently being drawn up to help mitigate the parking problems, but its details are not yet known.

Both plans were approved by Warwick District Council’s planning committee in two lengthy debates on Tuesday November 9, which were watched by a packed public gallery.

Neither plan included any affordable housing, which generated strong comments during the meeting.

Warwick district's Local Plan, approved last year, recommends that all major developments should be made up of at least 40 per cent affordable homes, which are below market value.

The Local Plan also earmarked Riverside House for 100 homes, but up to 170 will now be built, a 70 per cent increase.

Cllr Barbara Weed (Lab, Leam) said: "I'm shocked and disappointed that the committee is taking so little regard for our policy on affordable housing.

"I think we should stick to the policy of 40 per cent affordable housing - it's what we would expect of any other developer to be able to at least offer.

"I'm ashamed to be part of the council. I'm ashamed that the council is putting its name to this application and expecting it to go through."

Her comments received rapturous applause from the gallery.

Councillors discussed part of the Riverside House plan in private, as the plan's 'viability assessment' contained financial information which, under law, the public cannot hear.

When the councillors came back into the meeting room, Cllr Felicity Bunker (Con, Park Hill) said the 160 affordable homes at the Station Approach development in Leamington, granted in 2015, meant the council had a 'credit' on affordable housing.

And Cllr Richard Edgington (Con, Emscote) said although he understood the need for affordable housing as he was the youngest councillor on the committee, he also said: "Even I realise you can't get 40 per cent everywhere."

The Riverside House plan was later granted by eight votes to two, three hours after the start of the meeting. Many people in the public gallery shouted "shame" when the decision was announced.

After a short break, the committee moved on to the Covent Garden development.

Both Stephanie Kerr of Leamington BID and Alan Heap of Leamington Chamber of Trade voiced their concerns over the car parking displacement scheme

Referring to Cllr Bunker’s previous comments, Cllr Colin Quinney said: “The relevance of other, occasional gains in affordable housing are grossly outweighed by the overall shortfall.

“Quite simply, when a property is owned, developed, and assessed by the very same local authority, I am deeply concerned that they would seek to keep viability figures out of the public domain.

“It’s not palatable or able to be justified to the public and we should certainly question if it should be done at all."

He also claimed the council’s claim of the plan being cost-neutral was false, instead saying it would cost £8 million.

During the Covent Garden debate, Cllr Terry Morris (Con, Saltisford) said the car park was currently in a bad state. He added: "Overall, I'm in favour of this scheme. Covent Garden is falling apart."

The plan was eventually approved by nine votes to two at around 10.30pm.

Speaking after the meeting, Warwick District Council's leader Cllr Andrew Mobbs said: "We are very pleased with the decision to approve the plans which will deliver a major economic boost to Leamington and the wider district.

“Covent Garden has long been in need of major investment and this scheme will create a landmark development fitting to this key Leamington town centre location.

“This has never been about politics, it has been about economic common sense and regeneration. The reality is that the new Council HQ will save over £300,000 a year in running costs, funds which we can use to maintain or improve the vital and high-quality services we provide.

“The inevitable disruption that the closure of the existing car parks will cause while new car park is built has also been a major concern to many people. In addition to what was agreed by Planning Committee, I can confirm that further proposals for temporary alternative parking will be brought forward to our Executive as a priority."