Councillors agreed in public to invest £800,000 providing new accommodation for hundreds of staff – then in private cancelled that and voted to spend over £1 million buying their existing offices instead.
The deal was agreed behind closed doors when Falkirk Council’s executive met on Tuesday.
Earlier it had accepted the recommendation of development services director Rhona Geisler that her department quit its Abbotsford House HQ in Bainsford ahead of the lease expiring in 2018 and move to Falkirk Community Stadium.
The move was promoted as part of the council’s strategic property review project which is key to freeing up money in rents and rates to pay for a new home for the council.
But when an updated report on Abbotsford House was taken in private later, the executive agreed by eight votes to two to follow Mrs Geisler’s latest recommendation to buy the building for £1.009 million instead.
When the meeting was open to the public she told the executive there had been a lack of progress with the other options of reaching an agreement with the building’s owners, Falkirk Property SPV Limited, for the continued lease or acquisition of Abbotsford House on suitable terms, and recommended work relocating staff to the stadium for an anticipated cost of £800,000 and annual lease of £31,500 proceed.
Last month the executive authorised the director to submit a planning application for the change of use of Suite 1B at Falkirk Community Stadium to office accommodation.
In her report Mrs Geisler said: “Each of the options involves a level of cost and, if requiring relocation, would involve a significant level of service disruption. It is recognised the decision on the provision of accommodation for Abbotsford House staff is necessary as an interim solution pending progress on the council headquarters office project.
“At the present time negotiations with the landlord have not achieved an acceptable offer for either lease or purchase which might be considered as a means to deliver best value for the council.
“Purchasing the building remains an attractive option, however the current revised price is in excess of what could be recommended for acceptance given the residual value of the building. Accordingly, it is suggested the council continues to progress its option to relocate to Falkirk Community Stadium.”
Councillors were told the total cost of the switch would be £1.5 million after the cost of creating the office suite and fitting it out is taken into account.
The executive also heard that terminating the lease would leave the council liable to pay dilapidation costs Falkirk Property SPV Limited have calculated at over £1 million.
It is understood the director told councillors in private later that since her original report had been written there had been a “late development” in discussions and if the deal could be done within a set timetable it would represent an acceptable ‘spend to save package’.
Search for solution to council’s accommodation issues goes on
Tuesday’s decision is the latest twist in the long running saga to provide councillors and staff with offices that are fit for purpose.
The new SNP administration is finding it just as difficult as the former Labour-led administration to deliver an affordable package.
When it was in opposition the SNP labelled Labour’s plans to build a new £16 million Municipal Buildings on the site of the former West Bank Clinic at West Bridge Street a “vanity project” taxpayers could not afford.
But on Tuesday, as part of its on-going Strategic Property Review which will determine the approach to the council’s civic headquarters project, it kept that option open by agreeing to buy the building from NHS Forth Valley for £155,000.
The executive was also told another possible ‘solution’, and one favoured by the SNP, to refurbish the Municipal Buildings to modern standards would cost nearly £18 million.
In June the council agreed to a market testing exercise to identify ways the project, which includes the provision of office accommodation, civic accommodation and a new arts facility, could be delivered at locations in the town centre.
On Tuesday Mrs Geisler said: “The options remaining are to revisit the new build proposal at the existing site and progress the results of the market testing for options that might be available by working with the private sector in a town centre location.
“Redesign of the new build scheme would be necessary and could include extending the building to create an arts facility as part of this complex. It would add significantly to the cost, but enable a level of sharing of facilities within the civic HQ.”