Thursday, 24 May 2012

Minimising the cost of #rdg civic centre

I think it's fair to say no one goes into politics in order to decide what building to meet in.  However in Reading we are facing a very important decision about how we move on from a building that is life expired and dangerous and would cost more to refurbish than to move to a new building.

The all party civic board have been discussing this for I believe the last 4 years and we are now at a point, as reported in the local press, where a decision is about to be taken.  The cross party board have along with support from council staff and independent advisers narrowed the decision down to 2 properties, Plaza West and RG2.

The report prepared by them that will be considered at the special council meeting is available here:  http://www.reading.gov.uk/ meetings/details/3532/
I believe that we need to base our decisions on cold hard facts - the council can't afford to spend money on luxury or status symbols.  My personal view is that we should be seeking the most cost-effective solution that meets the minimum requirements of space and location.  We need a space that works for the general public and is safe for our staff of course, but beyond that we need to consider is how much it will cost to buy and move into the building, and the ongoing running costs.  Plaza West is cheaper on both counts as the report shows.  That will mean we have less to find (still a lot) when it comes to this year's cut in funding from the austerity focused national Conservatives.

I'd have thought that Jeremy Hunt's man in Reading would have appreciated a value for money approach.  Instead the MP for Reading East has decided to publish an attack on the process and idea of moving to Plaza Westi,  I'm not clear what his motivation is here, given it's based on all party (including Conservative) work, but Council Leader Jo Lovelock has written the following open letter to him responding:


"I am writing in response to the article on your website regarding the Council’s decision on a replacement for the Civic Centre, which will be made on Tuesday evening.

I am disappointed that you have put misinformation on your website rather than waiting for the briefing you are asking for so that you can comment in a more informed way.

As you know, the current Civic Centre is life-expired and is becoming increasingly costly to maintain and ensure the safety of staff and the public.  As a result, the all-party Civic Board has been leading on the process to find new accommodation, and has been intimately involved not only in the search for a suitable building, but in drawing up the criteria against which that search has taken place.  Back in January, 2011, we set out our two key aims for this process – ensuring high-quality service delivery to the public and achieving the best possible value for money for Reading residents. These two principles have guided our work throughout.

A final short-list of two properties was agreed by the Civic Board – Plaza West in Bridge Street, and RG2, the former Yell building at Queen’s Walk. After rigorous analysis, conducted by council officers and our independent advisors, the Labour Group has agreed to recommend that the Plaza West building should be purchased to replace the current building.

The case for this is compelling. Overall, Plaza West is the most cost-effective option, coming in at £59,640,000 over 25 years. This figure includes the purchase price and all the costs involved in moving.  It is some £4.7m less than the costs associated with RG2. The ongoing revenue costs are also less.  We believe these figures are robust. They are based on information provided by the owners of the two buildings and their consultants, and have been verified by our independent advisors.

But the decision is not based on cost alone. Plaza West is much more suited to our requirements and will require much less work to meet our needs. We estimate that we will be able to occupy the building in 13 months while it will take 19 months to bring RG2 up to our requirements.

We have also taken into account the potential economic impacts on the area around the current Civic Centre. That is why we are in discussion with the Post Office regarding the possibility of relocating their Civic Centre office to Broad Street Mall. The Post Office is responsible for a large proportion of the Civic Centre public footfall and we are determined to do everything possible to ensure that it remains in this part of the town centre.

You state that the area around the Civic Centre needs to be regenerated. We agree. That is why we are planning to demolish the building as quickly as possible after it is vacated, and to seek a development partner to take forward a comprehensive regeneration project, after full public consultation.

We believe there is potential to deliver a distinctive and high-quality, multifunctional space with a mix of residential, commercial/retail and leisure/community facilities, complemented by open spaces that together will create a new destination and a desirable place to live, work, and spend leisure time. We would be happy to brief you further on this issue.

We are also planning some interim use of the area as we recognise the need to ensure that people who visit the Police station, the Hexagon, the Broad Street Mall and the Market or simply walk through the area en route to the Town Centre will need to have as good an environment as possible while the longer term regeneration is taken forward.

You have suggested that a move to Plaza West will have an impact on the commercial interests of businesses already located there. The facts are as follows. Yell have a lease but are not in occupation, having consolidated their staff at 1 Reading Central. The lease is due to expire in December.  Allied Irish Bank also have a lease but have not occupied the building for some time. Their lease also runs out in December.  SAB Miller are in occupation, but have already stated that they intend to consolidate staff at their Woking headquarters. Care UK are already looking for new premises in Reading. In addition, you should be aware that the owners of Plaza West currently have planning permission to extend the building.  If we did not move there, it is likely that they would seek to carry out the extension project when the current leases expire. This demonstrates that they expect the building to be empty by the end of this year.  In view of these facts, I hope you will accept that your claims regarding undue commercial impact are groundless.

Finally, you have criticised the costs in general. Let me be clear: we need to find an alternative to the Civic Centre; the most realistic cost of purchasing and moving into Plaza West is £59.6m – not the £60-90m you state; and it is disingenuous to compare this with ‘as little as £4m to buy RG2’. The comparable cost of buying and moving into RG2 is £64.3m.  The capital costs we will incur are £25.5m for Plaza West and £29.3m for RG2 all of which is clearly set out in the Council report, available on-line at http://www.reading.gov.uk/ meetings/details/3532/

It really would be helpful for you to have a full briefing from our officers as soon as possible, so that you can base your comments on facts and I will ask them to contact your office to arrange that."