Aykley Heads and County Hall – Council responds to resident questions

Some interesting Council answers to some comments from a resident to the Council can be found below. A small number of residents have been in touch with us commenting as to the reasons for moving County Hall and to the business case. The Council responses are in Bold. Our biggest concerns in the redevelopment of Aykley Heads relate to the protection of green spaces and the adequacy of transport links/congestion issues. We await the County Plan in the coming months to see what else is planned.

Point 1

However successful the County Council may be in attracting “new” jobs into a “strategic investment site” at Aykley Heads, any meaningfully audited, significant economic benefit to County Durham, can only be ascribed to jobs that would demonstrably not have otherwise been created in County Durham. In rationally measuring the cost effectiveness in term of strategic benefit to the County as a whole; it is of critical importance to recognise that if any “new” job created at Aykley Heads would likely in any case, have otherwise come about elsewhere within the County, then this would in reality be of negative benefit in terms of rebalancing the County’s disparate economy.

This economic growth is based on the premise that the County needs more employment opportunities for its residents and when possible, to ensure opportunities to create better jobs are being maximised. Across County Durham significant economic opportunities are being embraced and in order to complement these opportunities and to ensure that the potential of the city is being effectively utilised, opportunities for economic growth in the city also need to be embraced. A key asset that to date has been missing in the make-up of Durham city is a central business quarter, which would present a major opportunity to deliver the sorts of employment that will assist the overall economy of the county.
The point about new jobs being created is recognised and that is the ambition of the Aykley Heads site, to create employment opportunities that help to grow the economy of County Durham, not simply to relocate existing employment. However, if companies are facilitated to move and grow in a way that would not have been possible in their existing location, then this is also success as new employment opportunities are being created.
The focus on growth has been recognised and supported by various independent parties who have considered our proposals as well as organisations like the Federation of Small Businesses, the Chamber of Commerce, the University, businesses such as Atom bank, and individuals such as Sir John Hall. This wide ranging support has been on the basis that sites of the calibre of Aykley Heads are rarely available and there is currently nothing that matches it within the North East region. The potential it offers for the economy of the county and the North East more widely is important. Durham City currently lacks a commercial office quarter to meet future growth opportunities and Aykley Heads is considered an excellent location to create that opportunity. There are currently very few empty office buildings of quality available across the north east or in County Durham.

Point 2

To most people the existing building “sits well” into pleasantly landscaped setting. Taking into account the significance of its situation, it would be more than just an aesthetic loss of greenery, if any new build was to be significantly more obtrusive, either in size or proximity to the highway. Consequently, it is difficult to imagine that any “new build” could offer a better (or even equal) jobs per square metre of floor area, than the existing County Hall.

The Council has set out its intention to develop the site in a sensitive way that will respect the natural environment whilst also creating a business community that people choose to be a part of due to the quality of the development, but also the excellent location adjacent to a main line train station and within close proximity of the city centre and the World Heritage Site.
The proposals aim to retain about the same overall scale/quantum of buildings as County Hall, but with buildings moved closer to the road, and kept to a reduced height overall. County Hall is approximately 390,000 sq ft, accommodating approximately 1,800 FTEs, but it is a very inefficient building. The proposed gateway developments in phase two will be approximately 370,000 sq ft with scale and massing between three to five storeys getting higher towards the rear of the site creating approximately 2,787 jobs due to more efficient use of space. This phase of development which is focused around the existing County Hall site is in addition to phases one and three, thereby creating the overall employment potential of the site.
The Councils design and conservation team have led work to assess the landscape, heritage and ecology benefits of the area and establish the characteristics of the site that need to be preserved and enhanced. It is our intention that the woodland spines are protected, managed and enhanced and that the ecology of the site is protected and available for all to enjoy.

Point 3

Given the age of County Hall and the style of building, no doubt significant monies may now be required in order to bring it up to contemporary standards. But repair and ongoing maintenance are the basic actions of reasonable stewardship, of any responsible landlord. There has only been one “landlord/owner of County Hall since its inception on the drawing board, so presumably any necessary repair and maintenance costs have been professionally budgeted for and the adequate reserves accrued.

Should County Hall be refurbished in its current form a total of £26.3 million would be necessary to maintain the current office configuration. This would simply maintain the outdated cellular office configuration and impede the move to more flexible and agile working arrangements.

Due in part to the quantity of asbestos contained within County Hall, it is costly and difficult to significantly amend the layout of the existing building. A further £49.5 million would be required to move to modern ways of working in County Hall. This figure includes optimism bias, fees and inflation. It is estimated that in total, £75.8 million would be required to modernise County Hall. Having considered these figures, which have been provided by an independent cost consultant, a move to a new facility is more cost effective, whilst also enabling the County Hall site to be redeveloped for employment purposes as set out in the masterplan.

Point 4

Considering my above points, it strikes me as very questionable that demolishing the existing County Hall makes any kind of economic sense, other than to the vested interests of the construction industry together with the associated financial interests, capital lenders and fraternal institutions.

I should be grateful for any information regarding estimated costs.

In addition to the inefficiency of County Hall, the building is also far bigger than required by DCC as its headquarters. Since it was established in 2009, the Council has rationalised its office premises across County Durham, but in order to ensure services are delivered to residents in our rural county, we retain some premises and four strategic sites. Having reduced our workforce by over 2600 posts since 2010 due to the government’s austerity programme, we now require a HQ facility about a third of the size of County Hall.
In terms of costs, the anticipated cost for the demolition of County Hall is estimated at £5m at today’s costs. Although the site will require an initial capital investment from DCC to cover the demolition costs and to undertake development, over time the office developments will provide an on-going revenue income stream, and at some point a valuable asset.
Based on the way business rates are currently calculated, once completed the business park is expected to generate annual business rates of £1.5-1.7million which the Council can retain.

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