COUNCIL bosses are pressing ahead with plans for a new £10.5 million HQ – despite having to find £70m in savings and job cuts Cumbria County Council wants to build the new office complex for 600 staff in Carlisle at the same time as it asks the public for savings ideas.
Union leaders have questioned the proposal and Tory opposition leader Coun James Airey has branded it ‘barmy’.
“It will be a grandiose white elephant at a time when they’re bringing in on-street parking charges and looking to cut bus sub-sidies in South Lakeland,” he said.
Officials argue the new HQ will slash annual maintenance costs spent on a crumbling ‘patchwork’ of 20 sites across the city.
But a local anti-council tax campaigner says it is ‘totally inappropriate’ in today’s financial climate.
The HQ idea was mooted in 2011 but has accelerated recently following the appointment of a preferred bidder for the job.
A final decision is due in October with the building to be completed in December 2015.
“We will now work to develop the design, seek planning consent and finalise the cost,” said a council spokesman.
Cumbria says it has saved £88 million over the last three years and in February cut £24 million from its 2014-15 budget.
It meant bus service cuts, the end of transport help for some over 16s, re-arranged fire cover and new on-street parking charges.
The Lab-Lib Dem auth-ority say cash problems are the Government’s fault for clawing back £1 from every £4 it gives the council as part of its austerity drive.
More than 900 council staff have taken or been made redundant in the last three years and a further 600 posts will go before March, 2015.
Coun Airey said: “We all know this new building will probably end up being about £20 million by the time they’re finished – it sends out totally the wrong message.”
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Deborah Hamilton, for Cumbria County Unison, questioned whether it should be in Carlisle.
She believes a ‘north and south’ premises might be better under a possible unitary authority arrangement.
That would involve the county and all Cumbria’s six districts being scrapped and replaced with a single ‘super council’.
She said: “I don’t agree with jobs being lost and why are the investments in Carlisle only? Cumbria is a big county.”
However, she said the existing county buildings were ‘damp, rickety, falling apart and not fit for purpose’.
Anti council tax camp-aigner Steve Atkinson, of Loppergarth, has spent the last year pressing the authority to make public the amount paid to its former chief Jill Stannard and other directors who have departed over the last year.
Mrs Stannard, paid £170,000-a-year, retired last May aged 55, with a reported £400,000 ‘golden goodbye’.
But the council has resisted making the amount public until its accounts are published this summer.
Mr Atkinson said: “This new building is totally inappropriate when everyone can be connected by computer. They should not even consider a new building when they are seeking to install parking meters to raise money.”
Andy Silvester, for the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said: “The cost of local government in Cumbria must come down. That includes a long, hard look at whether it really needs seven authorities.”
This summer, thousands of residents will be asked to help identify where £70m savings can be found before 2017.
Windermere’s Coun Jo Stephenson, leader of the Lib Dems and the man overseeing the savings, told the Gazette they were likely to be ‘unpleasant’.
But he stressed that no council tax money would be spent on a new HQ.
It would come from Cumbria’s government-financed capital budget rather than its ‘resources’ pot which funded public services.
“The business case is that we will borrow the cash to pay for the build and then pay interest on that loan,” he said.
“We will then repay that over a period of time whilst saving money on the annual maintenance costs of propping up old buildings.”
Coun Stephenson added: “Some of the existing buildings are spectacular but pretty old and a new building will be far more cost-effective.”
The authority’s existing buildings are said to require £9.2 million to put right. It could also raise money from selling off the old buildings.
The new premises will go up on the old William Street car park in central Carlisle.
Countywide, the council supports more than 300 schools, delivers home care for some 5,600 older people, runs libraries, cares for more than 600 children, funds 28 children's centres, maintains 5,000 miles of road and recycles 115,000 tonnes of waste.
A spokeswoman said it cut its maintenance costs by £4 million by the recent sale of £5m of buildings.