Concerns after decision on Falkirk Council HQ and arts centre delayed

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Plans to build a new council headquarters and arts centre were put on hold as Labour councillors demanded the whole council should have a chance to debate them.

Falkirk Council’s leading SNP group had hoped that proposals to build new offices for council staff and an arts centre to replace the dilapidated town hall would finally begin to take shape today.

The council’s executive was told an independent consultant had advised that there were several options, varying from a large theatre and a ‘micro’ office block to a small auditorium and a large office block – with compromises in between.

Officers told councillors that the option for a 600-seater theatre which would allow big names to come to the town was just too expensive.

They recommended a 550-seater arts centre with accommodation for either 350 staff or 550 staff depending on the option preferred and asked the council’s executive to let them take the proposals forward.

But Labour councillors were in no hurry to approve plans for a building that they have blasted as being a waste of money when council funding is so stretched.

Instead they asked that the matter be deferred to a special meeting of the full council.

The Conservative group backed their appeal to put the discussion off until all 30 members of council could have their say on the proposals.

Conservative councillor Malcolm Nicol added to the options by saying they agreed that a new office building was necessary and that it should be in the town centre – but they see the arts centre as a ‘nice to have’ that cannot be afforded at the moment.

Council leader Cecil Meiklejohn was furious at the delay – and confirmed the SNP stood by their commitment to bringing a new HQ and arts centre to the town centre.

She said: “The criteria was that it had to be more than an office block – it had to give something back and regenerate the town centre. The arts centre is the catalyst to do that and to increase people coming into the town centre.

“I would remind members of the recent Audit Scotland report that said we need to get on and make these big decisions. We need to be bold and brave and take this forward.”

There was confusion over the fact that the costings for the proposed new buildings were based on building it on the land the current municipal buildings and town hall are already on.

But director Rhona Geisler told members that this was just a baseline, to allow ‘ballpark figures’ to be established.

Labour group leader Robert Bissett asked if she could confirm that costs would climb if the actual new build was not in the current location but she said it was “very difficult to answer that question”.

“I would suggest that something more in the heart of the town centre is likely to cost more but on the other hand there is potential for external funding,” she said.

Officers had hoped that the combined HQ and arts centre could be delivered for £45 million, but the baseline costs show that is the very minimum they could expect to pay.

Councillor Meiklejohn said the Labour group’s request was “just a delaying tactic”.

But Councillor Allan Nimmo said: “When you’re dealing with a project of this scale, it’s right that all 30 councillors can debate it and get a chance to take their views forward.”

Conservative councillors backed Labour’s plea to hold a special council meeting, leaving the SNP group frustrated at another delay.

Councillor Meiklejohn said: “This delay creates doubt – but the administration is committed to taking this forward.”

Several people with businesses in the town centre were in the public gallery and reacted angrily when it was clear no decision would be made.

One business owner, Jamie McSween, said: “This is Falkirk Council’s Brexit. The politicians have failed to deliver what they promised. The business community will look at this and say Falkirk is not open for business.”