HQ and town hall cancelled - but has someone got sums wrong?

An impression of what the new Municipal Buildings could look like
An impression of what the new Municipal Buildings could look like

Surely it was a wise man who said ‘speculate to accumulate’ to get on with things.

Taking a bold decision to invest millions now to potentially save millions later was considered by some to be a smart move if the circumstances were right.

Falkirk Council stepped away from that last week when it met – again – to debate building a new headquarters at West Bridge Street and replace the town hall with an arts and civic centre at the planned £80 million Forth Valley College campus at Middlefield for a net cost of £23.1 million to be borrowed over 35 years.

The plan was to pay for the replacement of two buildings that cost £1.8 million a year to run and are labelled “not fit for purpose” by closing the council offices at Abbotsford House and Callendar Square and use the savings in rent, heating and maintenance costs that would achieve – plus the £1.5 million raised from selling the site at West Bridge Street for housing – to pay the mortgage.

This bold ‘asset rationalisation’ idea was over two years in the making - but scrapped in less than five minutes last Wednesday.

A motion from the Labour-led administration read by council leader Craig Martin and backed by a single vote, officially pulled the plug.

He blamed uncertainty over future Scottish Government funding, predicted to be £20 million less next financial year, and the future of Falkirk Council itself following hints from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon a review of local government could be on the way as reasons to “continue” the new HQ proposal.

The arts and civic plan will not proceed at all because of, amongst other things, “timescale” issues.

Opposition councillors were delighted.

The SNP claimed it was always an “unaffordable vanity project”, all options had not been fully explored and the public never backed the spend in the first place.

It said moving the town hall never represented best value for money and called for a report on how much it will cost to refurbish both buildings over the next five years.

The Non Aligned Independent Group said the administration had been “forced into a humiliating climbdown”.

Councillor Robert Spears said: “There’s been a significant turning point in local politics now this administration has woken up to the fact the public is not buying into its flawed plans.”

Now the decisions have been made, the question in the current economic climate remains: Was it a sensible move or a missed opportunity?

The latest report to councillors included pages of financial figures and background.

In 2014-15 the bill for running the council’s 46 offices was £3.1 million. The leases at Abbotsford House, which is on the market for £1 million, and Callendar Square have expired and extending them will cost £346,000 a year.

Repairs to the Municipal Buildings over recent years have been confined to keeping the block safe. Upgrading and repairing it and the town hall under a ‘do minimum’ option over the next five years is priced at around £10.6 million.

Meantime, the ‘whole life’ costs of the new HQ over 30 years is estimated at £43 million while operating and maintaining the Municipal Buildings and Abbotsford House over the same period is estimated to be in the region of £55 to £60 million.