A CONTROVERSIAL decision to build a new headquarters for Durham County Council is to be reviewed by the authority’s new regime.

And the future of a treasured regimental collection is also to be looked at by the alliance of councillors now in charge at county hall.

The new joint administration, made up of Tories, Lib Dems and three independent groups, established after last month’s elections has wasted no time in tackling some of the most contentious issues it faces.

Top of the agenda is the new riverside office at the Sands to replace its current ageing base at Aykley Heads, which has been earmarked for the development of a business park.

Now, Durham County Council’s new cabinet is being asked to agree to an ‘options appraisal’ for the new building at the Sands, whilst also reviewing options for the existing headquarters site at Aykley Heads.

A report to the meeting, next Wednesday, June 16, says the appraisal would look at alternative uses of the building on The Sands as well as continuing with the proposed use as a new headquarters “to ensure best value and economic benefit from the council’s investments”.

The new headquarters was designed to create a smaller, more modern and efficient building. A capital budget of £49.1m was allocated for construction of the new headquarters.

Work began on site in 2018 and the facility is “substantially built” with a target completion date of October this year. Savings of £275,000 are currently anticipated from the relocation to the new headquarters.

The meeting will hear that the new joint administration is proposing to review the use of the new building as well as considering options for the existing headquarters at Aykley Heads “whilst ensuring a focus remains on creating strategic employment opportunities in the city”.

Cabinet is being recommended to agree to an options appraisal which would include an assessment of opportunities, costs, risks and the implications of any proposals that are brought forward.

If agreed, the results of the appraisal will be reported to cabinet no later than September 2021.

Councillor Richard Bell, cabinet member for finance, said: “The new cabinet wants to ensure that all options for the use of the headquarters building are fully considered and a full options appraisal will provide us with information on which to base our decisions going forward.

“The review will be undertaken as quickly as possible whilst providing an evidence-based assessment of future options available for the building and our headquarters’ functions.

“There is also an opportunity to consider how the wider Covid recovery can be taken into account in our future plans.”

Cllr James Rowlandson, cabinet member for resources, investments and assets, said: “As part of reviewing the council’s priorities, we are very keen to ensure that we are making the best possible use of all our assets and getting the best return for our investments.

“The new building at The Sands is clearly a significant asset and investment and we believe it is only right that a timely and full options appraisal is carried out to make sure we proceed with the most appropriate use for it.”

Cllr Elizabeth Scott, cabinet member for economy and partnerships, said: “The options appraisal if agreed would consider both progressing with the site’s development as the council’s headquarters and other potential uses so it is important to stress we are not ruling anything in or out.

“This is a really important period for our economy amid the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and that is why it is vital that we make sure we are putting The Sands site to the best possible use whilst ensuring we provide the strongest possible opportunities for new jobs in the city and across the wider county.”

Meanwhile, the new joint administration also wants to to review all options for the display and storage of the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) Collection and archive, which comprise more than 200,000 historic documents and 15,000 objects – as well as the former museum building and grounds.

The museum was controversially closed five years ago and the collection moved to Spennymoor. The present plan is to move the collection to a new history centre, Mount Oswald Manor House, but campaigners fear that would amount to “putting it into storage”.

The local authority’s cabinet will be asked to approve proposals for a full review, with a report setting out options for the display of exhibits to be prepared and brought back to councillors by September.

The report will include an assessment of the opportunities, costs, risks and implications of any proposals, as well as ensuring the review takes account of the plans for the £19.6 million History Centre, currently under construction in Durham City.

The DLI Collection belongs to the Trustees of the Regimental and Chattels Charity of the Former Durham Light Infantry and the Regimental Museum of the Former Durham Light Infantry. In 1967, the council agreed to care for the collection and built a museum close to County Hall in Aykley Heads. The review will include engagement with the DLI Trustees and interested parties.

In October 2015, the council’s then Cabinet agreed new arrangements for the storage and display of the DLI Collection, including the relocation of the collection to the DLI Research and Study Centre in Spennymoor, while the archives were moved to Durham County Records Office.

A programme of touring and permanent exhibitions was established to encourage people to engage with the collection, along with educational activities and loans to other institutions.

Current plans are for both the collection and the archive to be brought together at the redeveloped Grade II listed Mount Oswald History Centre site.

Cllr Elizabeth Scott, the council’s cabinet member for economy and partnerships, said: “As the custodians of the DLI Collection, we have a responsibility to ensure it is properly cared for and maintained for future generations.

“We also have a duty to celebrate our proud military heritage and to ensure that our DLI heroes receive the respect and honour they deserve.

“The purpose of this review is to take a fresh look at the options available to us for the collection, archive and current site now and I would like to reassure people that the best interests of the collection will be central to any decisions made.”

Cllr Richard Bell, deputy leader and the local authority’s cabinet member for finance, said: “At this point, we are keeping an open mind but we are very much focused on protecting the collection and looking at how we can encourage as many people as possible to discover the stories and treasures within.

“Before any decisions are made, it is important we have a clear understanding of what options are available and the costs and risks associated with them. However, we know how much the DLI Collection means to our communities, which is why we are seeking for the review to be completed and brought back to cabinet by September at the latest.”

l Cabinet will meet at 9.30am on Wednesday, June 16 in the Council Chamber at County Hall.

Due to social distancing requirements spaces for members of the public are very limited and anyone interested in attending in person must register in advance by emailing Democraticservices@durham.gov.uk

The meeting will be broadcast live online at https://www.youtube.com/user/DurhamCouncil and members of the public are being encouraged to follow the proceedings this way.