Finance the stumbling block over town hall plan

Date: Monday 22nd January 2018

Sir, Your readers may have been surprised to see my name in connection to a motion to go ahead with the single site project for Eden Council (Herald, 13th January. I feel they are owed an explanation.

I was among several councillors on a scrutiny committee tour of office accommodation at Mansion House recently. Although I would be hesitant to use such a term as “Dickensian”, it was certainly below the standard expected of a modern working environment and, in constant expectation of a resolution to the single site dilemma, maintenance had effectively been put on hold for quite some time.

Since the concept was first presented to the council there has been almost universal acceptance by councillors of the desirability of having all council staff in one place. The main stumbling block was how to finance it.

It was first described, if I remember correctly, as being a “self-financing envelope” funded by the sale of Mansion House. Unfortunately, that envelope was based on an out of date and over-optimistic valuation of the building.

When the project kept returning to council it had as its basis the sale of Mansion House, the last time as part of an “interesting” arrangement with a local developer. The figures could not be reconciled.

The chief executive’s latest report accepted that Mansion House could not fund the extension to the town hall and presented a new proposal. This was, in effect, a mortgage over 50 years at a fixed rate of interest over the whole term.

Given that we are presently in a time of what has been described as historically low interest rates, which may be about to change, this seemed to me to be a very good approach. Additionally, Mansion House, and its large car park, would remain in council hands and plans were presented in which it could provide a revenue stream.

When I was much younger, nearly 50 years ago, a pint of milk could be bought for less than a shilling (less than 5p in modern money) and a pint of beer for one shilling and nine pence (less than 10p). Although we are talking on a different scale, the effect of inflation on the money the council may borrow is evident, especially since it will be at a fixed interest rate.

I accept that not all councillors had long experience of the single site saga so I understood Councillor Greenwood’s view that the issues should be examined in detail. However, I felt that could be done quite quickly and moved that the issue should be returned to the council within two months.

I do feel strange at being an advocate of a project of which I have had serious reservations for so long, but when facts change I feel that I ought to reconsider my stance. That I have done. But, if the council decides to spend so much money for its own benefit, it must also consider the benefit of its residents.

Another issue I raised was the fate of the public toilets in Penrith. If the town council does not take them over, then Eden Council must commit to keeping them open, and I will fight to ensure it does.

I wrote this letter at the weekend and received notice of the resignation of the chief executive on Monday evening, which made my decision to back the single site proposal rather moot.

Robin Hooper has been the driving force behind this project since its inception and without him I feel that we have now come to the end of this long-running saga.

I await developments with the Heart of Cumbria company with interest since Dr. Hooper took a starring role there also. From the lack of answers to my many questions on the company at the last council meeting it appears that it will continue to remain outside the scrutiny of councillors.

The first test of how well the company will do without the current chief executive will be the purchase, or not, of the first three houses from Persimmon. Yours etc,

MIKE EYLES

(Eden councillor, Penrith East)

Brent Road,

Penrith.