Council leader has say on authority's controversial HQ plan for Leamington

Warwick District Council leader Cllr Andrew Mobbs
Warwick District Council leader Cllr Andrew Mobbs

Warwick District Council has come under huge criticism on our letters page for its new headquarters plan. Prior to a public meeting to discuss the issue at the Spa Centre in Leamington from 6.30pm this evening (Monday November 12) Cllr Andrew Mobbs, attempts to address the objections in his regular column. It is fair to say that this column is longer than usual but given the importance of the issue, and in the interest of balance, we have published his response in full.

Cllr Mobbs writes,

CGI of Warwick District Council's proposed new HQ in Leamington.

CGI of Warwick District Council's proposed new HQ in Leamington.

As I write this month’s column, it is very clear that many of you would like to take part in further discussion about our plans for a new Council HQ and the redevelopment of the Covent Garden and Riverside House sites.

I would therefore encourage those who are interested to come along to our Public Meeting at the Royal Spa Centre this Monday (12 November) at 6.30pm for a 7pm start.

This meeting will be independently chaired by BBC CWR’s Phil Upton and I am very much looking forward to an open and informative debate about the key issues which are of concern to our local community.

May I clearly state that local party politics should not be part of this equation. I remain committed to always doing what is right for our district, residents and businesses.

also send this clear message – Leamington is a fantastic place and is open for business and will remain so during the redevelopment. There has also been a lot said about the lack of adequate alternative parking for current users of the Covent Garden car parks.

Nothing is further from the truth. All of our plans, including those to develop the Creative Quarter are geared towards increasing footfall and assisting our retail and hospitality sector to continue to thrive.

However, prior to the meeting on Monday I wish to set down the facts and answer the criticisms currently being levelled at our Council:

First and foremost I contest the view that we are side-lining the interests of a socially diverse town in our desire to have our new offices in Leamington town centre and that our scheme will not bring any benefits to our community.

The Covent Garden location has been chosen to breathe new life into an area of Leamington which is in major need of investment.

Developing this site for our new HQ and one-stop-shop, with town centre apartments and greatly improved parking facilities will enhance and encourage business in an area which could otherwise fall into decline.

Our development plans have been almost ten years in the making and follow a district-wide search for a suitable site for a smaller and more efficient Council HQ.

They also solve the issue of replacing a multi-storey car-park which isn’t fit for purpose, has irreparable ‘concrete cancer’ and is already partially closed.

By creating an attractive gateway to the town with the addition of 44 apartments we are also addressing the changing landscape of our high streets with less segregation between retail and residential, demonstrated successfully in other towns and cities across the UK.

The new HQ will be less than half the size of Riverside House and will be very much a public building with the inclusion of a new council chamber and a one-stop shop.

The new 617 space multi-storey car park will offer around 500 public spaces which is more than the current capacity of the surface and multi-storey car parks (maximum 468 spaces) and will include dedicated disabled and parent and child spaces, parking for 60 cycles and motorcycles and more than 60 charge points for electric vehicles.

The suggestion circulating that 800 (1/3 of the town’s parking spaces) will be lost is highly inaccurate.

We do however fully appreciate that the closure of the Covent Garden Car Parks and the temporary loss of 468 town centre parking spaces is of concern to many commuters and businesses.

Our alternative parking arrangements have been independently assessed and will offer sufficient spaces to make up for the losses during the closure. We have also listened to the advice of local business groups and car park users and will be working in conjunction with an independent media consultant to ensure that businesses, visitors, commuters and shoppers are kept fully informed of the new parking arrangements and options available.

Rather than keeping people away, the new parking provision will bring long term benefits to our town.

Although Councillors have seen all the financial appraisals, our transparency about the costs of this project has been questioned. Stage One of the project (to undertake an appraisal of the financial viability of the scheme) was approved by Full Council in April 2016.

The final viability report will be brought back to Full Council in the New Year and if approved the building of the Covent Garden Development will begin. Clearly we would not go ahead with such a huge project without first carrying out thorough feasibility studies.

We have consistently stated 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.

Remember that, despite a substantial reduction in the funding we receive from central government since 2010, we have not cut any services and these plans contribute to us being able to continue to operate our full functions and also balance our budget year on year.

To put this into context, the project we have developed means that we do not have to dip into Council reserves or increase Council Tax (£300,000 equates to a Band D Council Tax increase of 3.3%) as the sale of the Riverside House site will fund the new offices, thus stimulating the regeneration of the Covent Garden area.

It has also been widely reported that the project will cause environmental damage, due to the loss of trees.

Let’s be clear, the proposed development at Riverside House will result in the loss of 42 trees on the site and 3 trees on the street, but the magnificent cedars and many other trees on the site will be protected.

The planning application stipulates that 76 new trees will be planted on the site and a financial contribution will be made by the County Council to replace the trees which have been lost on the street.

A tree preservation order has been put in place to protect all of the remaining trees.

Quite rightly the point has also been raised regarding the issue of the lack of affordable housing within our scheme.

I would like to reiterate, that the Council’s administration are extremely disappointed that there is no affordable housing within either the Covent Garden or Riverside House schemes.

However in order to build a new HQ at no cost to the Council Tax payer and additionally secure funding for the new multi-storey car park we urgently need, we have to ensure that the development is financially viable and will not incur added future costs on the public purse.

This I believe is a sound, pragmatic business decision we have made on behalf of the residents of Warwick district.

This will not deter us in our aim make 40% of new developments across the district affordable in the coming years.

Finally, thank you to all who have made contact.

I welcome all views at Andrew.mobbs@warwickdc.gov.uk