By Local Democracy Reporter
A PLAN to rebuild the council’s civic offices has been granted planning permission, representing a major step forward for a project that has faced significant opposition.
The council’s planning committee met to discuss the plans for a second time on Thursday night after previously refusing to grant planning permission due to the impact it could have on the surrounding area.
Nothing was changed in the plans following that meeting but a council report explained that consultations took place with the design council, an urban design officer and a conservation advisor, who each said they had no objections to the plan.
One of the biggest concerns raised about the plans has been how it will be beneficial to the community, particularly as officers recommended that planning permission is granted because “the benefits outweigh the harm”.
This issue was raised again at the meeting with the planning committee’s vice-chair, Labour Councillor Mike Fletcher struggling to get a clear answer from planning officers.
“There are references to the significant benefits that outweigh harm but other than repeating the phrase, I am still waiting to hear clearly what the council’s planning department sees as significant benefits,” he said.
Officers attempted to defend the claim, saying that there would be a registry office, a bigger reception area and it would provide improved access to the High Street.
A matter that Mr Fletcher summed up as, “so we get a registry office”.
Officers hit back explaining that there will also be a new council chamber, meeting rooms and a cafe. Furthermore, it was highlighted that it would cost more for the existing building to be refurbished than for a new building to be built.
Meeting chair, Conservative Councillor Tom Kelly, said: “I have looked at this excessively and I think ultimately if this was to end up at an appeal – I’m not saying it would – I do not think there is sufficient grounds to reject the application.
“That’s the difficulty with planning you sometimes have to vote for the applications you don’t like.”
Labour councillors have campaigned heavily against the plans and the vote could have shifted in their favour but two Labour members of the committee, Councillors Gerard Rice and Councillor Sue Shinnock did not attend the meeting.
Councillor Gary Byrne of the Thurrock Independents suggested a delay to the meeting until the two councillors were in attendance but the suggestion was dismissed as there was no justification on planning grounds.
It is understood that Mr Rice was not in attendance because his party has suspended him pending an investigation related to a planning issue.
The £9.78 million development will house a new council chamber, confidential interview rooms and a café that will be available for use by the public and staff members.
Sections of the building will also be available for hire as event spaces out of business hours, with the possibility of it staying open for 24 hours.
The existing building will be split in half with one section continuing to be part of the civic centre and the other being converted into 80 new flats. Income from the flats is expected to contribute £2.8million towards the project.
In the year since the plans were revealed, the Local Democracy Reporting Services has revealed that construction will lead to the demolition of four independent businesses as well as a local park which was dedicated to D-Day planners. The council announced in July they had purchased the buildings the businesses currently occupy, despite not having planning permission for the project.
The council has also refused to say how much they paid for the properties, claiming details are “commercially sensitive”. However, it has been confirmed that the money came from a separate budget to that planned for the civic offices, indicating that the overall cost of the project may be much higher than originally thought.
Council officers have warned that more than half a million pounds has also been spent on design work and if the project is not given the go-ahead, that money could be lost along with an undisclosed amount paid to contractors.
Speaking after the meeting, a spokesperson for Thurrock Labour said: “Contrary to some reports, three Labour councillors were in attendance at Planning Committee yesterday evening, but two were prevented from voting on the Civic Offices item on a technicality.
“We are looking into how this can be challenged. As residents know Thurrock Labour has consistently opposed this plan and will continue to do so”.