By Local Democracy Reporter
THURROCK Council officers have failed again to convince councillors that redeveloping Thurrock’s council offices will be beneficial to residents and struggled to provide any confidence over the £10million price tag.
One of the most detailed discussions on why the redevelopment of the Civic Centre was needed took place during a Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee on Tuesday night, with council officers urging members to look at the “bigger picture”, such as how it will inspire the regeneration of Grays.
The project has been surrounded by controversy since its announcement.
Opposition councillors have labelled it a “vanity project”, while residents have been left frustrated by news that millions of pounds of taxpayer money will be spent on something that appears to have little benefit to the community.
At Tuesday’s meeting, council officers tried to convince councillors that the public would benefit and described how it will inspire the regeneration of Grays, but meeting chair Councillor Oliver Gerrish and vice-chair Councillor Jack Duffin remained sceptical.
When Mr Duffin questioned what will be offered for the community and not just hypothetically, a council officer admitted that ideas need to “be developed more” and said “it is going to be a bit of a chicken and egg” situation.
“The more people using it, the more facilities we expect to come on board,” he said.
“But the grand vision is that building hours will be extended into the evening hours and it will have more of a community-focus rather than just being a council building where you come for council meetings.”
Mr Gerrish said: “It feels like there is this ambition to put in place a new civic office and a lot of the perceived benefits will be tailing that rather than leading it.”
Initial plans for the redevelopment outlined how the existing building would be divided into two parts, with one side being retained for council use and extended, and the other converted into a residential area comprised of 120 flats. However, a council officer said that the latest plans show just 80 flats – almost half of what was originally planned.
He also admitted that the cost of converting half of the building into flats would be part of a separate budget to the £10million already allocated to the civic office project but the actual cost was not provided.
When Mr Gerrish questioned whether money for the project could be used elsewhere, Sean Clark, director of finance at the Council, said he “does not see it”.
“We have never turned down any schemes that have come forward and were needed elsewhere in the borough,” he said.
“At this point in time I can’t remember turning down projects by turning round and saying at this stage we don’t have enough money to do that.”
It was further explained that the cost of a refurbishment would be almost equal to the cost of building the extension – a suggestion that Mr Gerrish said he “struggles to see”.
The plans will next be discussed again by the council’s cabinet next week and the scrutiny committee has asked they do more work on explaining the community benefits.