Last week, the Planning Committee approved plans for redeveloping the Town Hall. Understandably, the story attracted lots of comments, with some wondering why the decision was taken at a time the council’s budget is under pressure. The answer is: it’s being done precisely because the council’s budget is under pressure.
Local government funding isn’t the easiest thing to get your head around, but one basic rule is there are two types of funding: the General Fund, which mostly pays for services, and capital, which can only be spent on assets. Most council’s reserves are capital, spending them on services would be illegal and, of course, reserves eventually run out.
To get around this, for years the council invested capital reserves in financial products and used the interest to fund services. Unfortunately, after the crash the return on these investments nose-dived which, combined with Government cuts to council incomes, has forced greater creativity in how we invest capital.
The Town Hall project is the latest and largest part of this strategy. The old Town Hall was great for its time, but that time has passed and much of the building’s plant has reached the end of its life. Simply keeping things as they are would cost taxpayers almost £20m, retaining a half-empty building we’re paying full business rates on, and which is inefficient to both heat and cool.
The new Town Hall’s design will make it far more energy efficient in terms of lighting, heating and cooling, and cheaper to maintain and operate. Above the Town Hall, floors of commercial A Grade office space will provide the council with a major new income stream for services, as will the new combined heat and power plant being built on the site, which will massively reduce carbon emissions across the town centre. Finally, the redevelopment will provide a new public square and many new homes, 40% affordable.
So, we have the chance to generate new money for services, reduce carbon emissions, improve the town centre’s appearance and house hundreds of local people in a single project. To me, that sounds like a good deal.