Council leaders have agreed to sell their newly-built headquarters to Durham University, hailing the new plans as "a good deal on anybody's money".

A Labour MP was accused of "political spin and gutter politics" as Durham County Council's cabinet today (April 27) agreed on new proposals about a new HQ.

The existing County Hall is earmarked for demolition, but the council will not now move into the new £50m Sands building in the city centre as the previous Labour-run administration had planned.

Instead that new building will be sold to Durham University to develop and expand its business school.

The new joint administration run by Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Independents now plans to construct another new "modest-sized civic building" and conference centre at Aykley Heads, near the current HQ, and use two other buildings.

They will occupy council-owned offices already under construction at Aykley Heads and refurbish and reuse a large, run-down Grade II listed building in Stanley which the council has been unable to sell.

They say the new plan will save the council money, meet post-Covid needs, bring jobs, kick-start investment, income and regeneration, and fund levelling up with the sale profits.

Read more: LIVE - Durham County Council discuss plans to sell HQ

Labour have slammed the project as "a complete waste of everyone's time and money", with their North Durham MP Kevan Jones writing an open letter expressing concerns about the costs.

The Northern Echo: Kevan Jones MP. Picture: Northern Echo.Kevan Jones MP. Picture: Northern Echo.

At a special cabinet meeting Cllr Richard Bell, deputy council leader and cabinet member for finance, said the new civic and conference centre, with the redeveloped DLI Museum and Art Gallery, would kick-start the Aykley Heads development.

He said: "This is no finely balanced decision we are being asked to make here.

"The case is compelling. This is good deal on anybody's money and is further proof of cabinet's bold and ambitious vision for the future of our county.

"This will provide significant flexibility for the council's office accommodation, as well as broader regeneration opportunities and increased use of existing assets.

The Northern Echo: Cllr Richard Bell. Picture: Sarah Caldecott.Cllr Richard Bell. Picture: Sarah Caldecott. (Image: Sarah Caldecott, Newsquest)

"I am convinced the alternative strategy will result in accommodation staff will be proud of.

"We are required to prove that the sale of The Sands is in the public interest.

"And, while I cannot say how big a surplus this option will generate, I can assure the public that after the sale has been completed and the new accommodation has been built, the council will be significantly better off than if we move into The Sands.

"A significant capital surplus will be generated."

Read more: MP questions plan to sell The Sands HQ to Durham University

Read more: Durham Council leader responds to MP's letter on HQ plans

He said the proposals would safeguard and create up to 780 jobs, helping support the economy with the university business school's global reputation, and ensuring the council would "do its bit in levelling up".

"Selling the Sands building is clearly good for the university and that benefits the council and the people of County Durham too," he told the meeting.

Cllr Mark Wilkes, cabinet member for neighbourhoods and climate change, said: "This is an exemplary plan.

"Residents made it very clear to us they didn't want the Sands building. They've also said they want levelling up across this county.

The Northern Echo: Cllr Mark Wilkes. Picture: Durham County Council.Cllr Mark Wilkes. Picture: Durham County Council.

"Post-Covid, we don't need as big a building. Post-Covid, we need a building that's far more flexible."

Cllr Paul Sexton said he was "extremely disappointed" in Kevan Jones MP's letter about the proposals, disputing his assertion that it was a "political decision".

He said: "It's a practical decision.

"Overwhelmingly, people want a shiny new building. We get that, and that will happen.

The Northern Echo: Cllr Paul Sexton. Picture: Durham County Council.Cllr Paul Sexton. Picture: Durham County Council.

"I'd really like to say to my MP, we are working very very hard for our residents and this political spin and gutter politics is not welcome."

Council leader Cllr Amanda Hopgood said the proposals offered "a fully costed, value-for-money alternative" with a net gain.

The Northern Echo: Cllr Amanda Hopgood. Picture: Northern Echo.Cllr Amanda Hopgood. Picture: Northern Echo. (Image: Sarah Caldecott, Newsquest)

Cllr James Rowlandson, cabinet member for resources, investments and assets, said: "The university will be the ideal owner for the building.

"The expansion of the business school is a great fit for County Durham."

Labour group leader Cllr Carl Marshall has said the plans were "an obscene waste of time, money, effort and... a mistake that will be felt for generations".

The Northern Echo: Cllr Carl Marshall. Picture: Northern Echo.Cllr Carl Marshall. Picture: Northern Echo. (Image: Northern Echo, Newsquest)

He added: "This council has a purpose-built, made-to-measure HQ built and ready to move into - to even think about building a third or fourth HQ is farcical."

A planning application to change the Sands building's use for the university is expected to be considered in July.


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