In this time of austerity, local authorities everywhere have been forced to make huge cutbacks. In a report by the Financial Times, local authorities funding from Westminster will fall to 77p in the pound by 2020. This has led to numerous cut-backs. For example, 350 Sure Start Centres have closed since 2010, with even more to follow. As such, most local authorities are tightening their belts. I say most because there are some local authorities have decided on a spending spree. Warwick District Council is one of them.
In an ambitious scheme, Warwick District Council will relocate to a brand new site in Leamington. The new offices will cost an eye-watering £8.6 million, putting a huge strain on an area where two-thirds of children’s’ centres have already closed. There is no doubt that the old offices have issues. The building is too large and is costly to run and would need significant investment. The council argue that it is relatively inaccessible to people without a car. With greener environmental policies being pushed through at every level of government, surely a car-pooling or bicycle scheme would be a much simpler fix, helping not only the local environment but also reducing road traffic.
Many local residents are questioning the decision by the council to fund this project. The funds will be provided by selling off the old office land to build private residential housing. So far so good. The project estimate suggests that the new office will break even. However, the only way to raise the millions of pounds required is to build only high-end housing and neglect the dire need for affordable housing in the area. According to the Leamington Observer, there are 2,500 people currently waiting for council properties. When the new build was announced, many thought that affordable housing would be provided as part of the deal. The council didn’t fully explore other options. For example, the council own 300 empty garages that could provide land for affordable homes. The most tragic thing about the lack of affordable housing is the council steam-rollering its own housing strategy. The planning rules were written by Warwick District Council state an aim of 40% of new builds to be affordable homes. This new development has none.
The new location of the offices is a failure of planning insight. The Convent Garden car park is essential for keeping the retail core of Leamington alive: 800 people a day currently rely on the car park. Usually, half of those shopping are local with up to 35% coming from locations further afield such as Coventry. When completed, there will be an increase in the number of car parking spaces, but only by 21, not 144 as originally planned. This is due to reserved spaces for office workers and residents of close-by apartments. There will also be fewer spaces reserved for parents with children, hitting businesses like Jojo Mamman Bébé and Happyology. Nationally almost 6000 high-street shops closed down in 2017. The last thing a relatively thriving town centre like Leamington needs is huge building works cutting the legs away from small business owners.
There has been opposition to the scheme. MP, for Warwick and Leamington, Matt Western led the charge, and for a while it seemed that the hard work that he had been doing on behalf of residents was working. The government finally agreed to review the council’s plans, putting the project on indefinite hold. However, in what must have been intense behind the scenes lobbying by the Tory-run council, within a few days the government performed a spectacular U-turn and the planning application was granted. This is a massive blow to the residents opposing the plans.
Despite being labelled a “mischief-maker” by council leader Andrew Mobbs, the Labour MP has continued to fight the move.
Other councils have recently failed in similar schemes. Northampton, for example, enjoyed just four months of their new offices before declaring themselves bankrupt and had to sell them off after “investing” 53 million pounds. We can now only hope that the Warwick District authority will listen to their residents, but as the Council Leader and the project’s Chief are refusing to turn up to the public meeting then this is extremely unlikely.