Opposition councillors are worried about the cost of a new Falkirk Council headquarters and arts centre – which was given a budget of £45 million but now has a price tag of £53.7 million.
At a meeting of Falkirk Council’s executive, they agreed to allow the project to go to the next stage – which will mean firms will be invited to pitch ideas and costs – but said they remain sceptical about whether the district can really afford it.
Officers reassured Labour and Conservative councillors that that £57.3 million would be set as a cap for the project – and anything suggested over that amount would not be entertained.
That figure includes bringing Falkirk Library into a modern, eco-friendly building that would also include an advice hub for council services and office accommodation for 500 council stff.
The rest of the council’s 700 staff will work from the council-owned Falkirk Stadium if the plans go ahead.
Labour councillors opposing the project have been accused of ‘playing poltics’ – but Councillor Joan Coombes said it is right to scrutinise something the district will still be paying for in 40 years time.
She said: “There are plenty of large scale projects that have gone off the rails because of over-optimistic assumptions at the initial stages – the Scottish Parliament and the trams in Edinburgh to mention just two.
“Carrying out proper scrutiny on behalf of current and future taxpayers is not playing politics, or lacking vision, nor is it being a philistine or ignoring town centre retailers. It’s actually our legal duty.”
Her fear is that while the budget will come from capital and borrowing, it will still have a huge impact on the council’s revenue budget as it pays any loans back.
“Adding an extra 2.2m spend every year for the next 40 years for this new building is simply not financially sustainable,” she told the executive.
“Can we really afford this new building when some villages in our communities don’t have buses any more because we can’t afford to subsidise them?”
She also questioned the fact that the council would get rid of buildings worth £1.2 million in its ongoing strategic property review – then saddle itself with a debt of £54 million.
“That’s not transforming the council, that’s catching a fast train to bankruptcy,” she told councillors.
Council officers say the new building will revitalise Falkirk’s failing town centre.
But Ms Coombes says there is no certainty that a project that will involve at least four years of disruption to the town centre trader will provide answers to the problems they face.
As concerned traders from Falkirk town centre looked on from the public gallery, council leader Cecil Meiklejohn urged everyone to get behind the plans.
She said: “This building isn’t sustainable and we have to look to move forward.
“By agreeing this we will give a level of confidence that Falkirk Council is committed to revitalising the town centre.”
Conservative group leader Lynn Munro shared Ms Coombes’ fears about the cost – but she went further, saying that there while other councils were tackling similar problems, none of them involved spending the amount of money Falkirk is looking to spend.
But both opposition parties agreed to put their differences aside and allow the consultation with developers to go ahead.
The meeting agreed to appoint a design team to help with the procurement exercise and begin the process to find a preferred bidder and site.