Sale of Knowle set to be ‘uncoupled’ from EDDC’s £10million relocation

EDDC's Knowle HQ. Ref shs 7705-15-12SH Picture: Simon Horn

EDDC's Knowle HQ. Ref shs 7705-15-12SH Picture: Simon Horn - Credit: Archant

Plans to ‘uncouple’ the district council’s £10million relocation project from the sale of its Knowle HQ have won the backing of cabinet bosses.

Sidmouth representatives slammed the ‘cavalier’ decision to borrow money to fund the move to Honiton and Exmouth – but East Devon District Council’s (EDDC) top officers said there is greater risk in standing still.

Cabinet members were given the options of borrowing cash to ‘go now’, waiting for the outcome of developer PegasusLife’s planning appeal after it offered £7.5million for Knowle, or staying put and modernising the former hotel or its offices, together with a refurbished Exmouth Town Hall.

Speaking at Wednesday’s meeting, Sidmouth councillor Cathy Gardner said: “If you commit to borrowing a large amount of money at taxpayers’ expense, you aren’t in control. You are in more control when you know the outcome of the planning appeal.

“These figures aren’t certain. These are just estimates based on assumptions.”

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She questioned if the officers had costed staying at Knowle, selling off part of the site and marketing its Heathpark plot in Honiton to another developer.

Councillor Marianne Rixson, who also represents Sidmouth, said EDDC was taking a ‘cavalier approach’ to spending taxpayers’ money, adding: “Any future developer will know you are desperate and will not match the price offered by PegasusLife.”

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EDDC originally promised the relocation would be ‘cost neutral’, it would not borrow money and the project would not progress before Knowle was sold.

But chief executive Mark Williams disagreed, saying the ‘go now’ option ‘derisks planning’, while delaying ‘increases risk’. He added “We have an asset [Knowle] that will appreciate in value.”

Officers said pressing ahead with the relocation to Honiton’s Heathpark and Exmouth Town Hall is the most cost-effective option and could make EDDC £1.4million better off over 20 years.

If it chooses to delay the project so planning permission for Knowle can be secured, it could be £400,000 better off than it is now.

In contrast, members were told if they chose the ‘go minimum’ option – giving up on the new-build Honiton HQ, completing the refurbishment of Exmouth Town Hall and modernising a section of Knowle for £11.3million or £5.9million – they would be £4.5million worse off. There is no capital receipt to fund the modernisation.

Cllr Tom Wright said: “There has been a lot of talk about uncertainty. This building is unfit for purpose. Moving is not a vanity project. It’s to improve what we can do. If we stay here, it’s money down the drain. This building is useless for the 21st Century. This land isn’t going to lose value.”

The ‘go now’ option won the support of cabinet members but is now set to be considered by a joint meeting of the overview, scrutiny and audit and governance committees on April 18.

It will then go before the full council.

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