The findings of a review into the future use of Durham County Council’s new headquarters building will be discussed this week.
Members of the authority’s cabinet will be asked to agree a number of recommendations regarding the new building at the Sands in Durham City, when they meet on Wednesday (September 29).
A report, to be presented to members, will also consider the future of the council’s current County Hall base alongside plans to redevelop the wider Aykley Heads area as a strategic employment site, capable of attracting high paid jobs to the county.
Council agreed in January 2018 to relocate the council’s headquarters to The Sands, in Durham City, and to develop Aykley Heads, with the new building designed to create a smaller, more modern and efficient workspace.
However, in June 2021, the council commissioned a review into alternative options for the use of the new development at the Sands.
The review addresses three key questions, with a clear direction that any change in decision would need to be in the public interest and provide value for money:
– What are the options to repurpose the building at the Sands for alternative use such as a hotel or offices?
– What are the options to improve County Hall and still deliver the significant proposed development of the Aykley Heads site?
– Are there alternative locations to Aykley Heads and the Sands for a new HQ?
The review found that conversion to a hotel or multi-let office accommodation was not a cost-effective option because the building was designed specifically to provide office-space to be occupied by a single organisation. Any conversion would, therefore, require substantial design and construction work, which could take significant time to carry out and the costs would be prohibitive.
The review found that the most viable alternative to the council taking occupation of the building would be to let or agree the freehold sale of the building to a single third party. A similar arrangement with multiple occupiers would not be viable due to the costs associated with the conversion work required.
Preliminary discussions have taken place with an interested third party, but further and more detailed negotiations are required.
When considering options for the future of County Hall, if the authority chose not to move into the headquarters building at the Sands, the review found that it was not considered practical or value for money to leave County Hall standing.
It concludes that the best option for the redevelopment of Aykley Heads and achieving the overall outcomes of the master plan is the demolition of County Hall, which would allow for the comprehensive redevelopment of the area.
The review also found that the Aykley Heads development could accommodate a new building for the council and that this will be considered in the further feasibility work.
There are also potential sites and buildings across the county that could provide suitable office and civic accommodation, but an options appraisal would need to be undertaken to consider these in further detail.
In light of these findings, Cabinet will be asked to approve a number of recommendations at their meeting next week. These include:
– The most viable option to the council occupying the building at the Sands would be disposal or letting of the building to a single occupier, within agreed timescales.
– A business case is developed to assess alternatives for office accommodation and civic space, while also ensuring the Aykley Heads development is able to progress, and for this business case and for this to be presented to members by summer 2022.
– The council remains committed to the development of Aykley Heads as a strategic employment site and that County Hall should be demolished in order to support this.
– Should it not be possible to reach a satisfactory outcome with the third party within specified timeframes, the council will occupy the building on the Sands.
Cllr Richard Bell, Cabinet member for finance, said: “The new building at the Sands represents a significant investment by the council. We want to ensure that any decision we make regarding its future provides good value for money for the authority and is in the best interests of the county’s residents.
“The review looked at a number of key issues, not least the impact upon the development of Aykley Heads of choosing not to occupy the Sands site, and we fully acknowledge that there is much to be considered when agreeing the recommendations.”
Cllr James Rowlandson, Cabinet member for resources, investment and assets, said: “It is crucial that we make a fully informed decision on this important issue.
“It is clear from the report’s findings that some options are simply not viable due to cost or time implications, while others are not in the public interest. However, we now need to take a closer look at those areas where there is scope for a change of approach and, as such, it is important that we now progress with the development of a business case to further consider our options.”