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New council HQ branded a £37million “white elephant” at time of budget cuts

Harlaw Park could become the new home of Aberdeenshire Council.
Harlaw Park could become the new home of Aberdeenshire Council.

Controversial plans to relocate Aberdeenshire Council’s HQ stalled yesterday amid concerns about investing £37million on a potential “white elephant”.

Opposition councillors moved to block the plans to shift to Inverurie and questioned the timing of the project given the looming budget cuts.

But the SNP-led administration believe leaving the ageing Woodhill House in Aberdeen for a modern, purpose-built facility will save money in the long-term.

Last month they revealed plans to relocate to the town’s Harlaw Park, which is currently home of Inverurie Loco Works FC.

The new headquarters would have a floor space of nearly 100,000 sq ft made up of offices, meetings and a civic space. If approved, construction could begin in 2019 with the offices open by 2021.

Yesterday, members of the policy and resources committee met for talks on how to progress with the project.

Opposition councillors branded the new-build as a “white elephant”, and questioned the strength of the business case behind the move.

Councillor Karen Clark, deputy leader of the Alliance opposition group, insisted the committee did not have enough information to make a decision.

“I think this is being presented as a done deal which is troubling,” the Liberal Democrat leader said. “It became a political football in the Inverurie by-election to win votes.

“It’s about fundamentals – why are we moving? As taxpayers, we have to be convinced it is the right thing to do. There are many risks and many assumptions.”

Mrs Clark said she was unconvinced that a “bespoke headquarters” for 1,500 staff could be built at the same cost as a new academy.

She added: “We need to be very careful on what we’re signing up to.”

She was backed by fellow Banchory councillor Jill Webster, who said: “The big question for me is will this just be a big white elephant? I was pretty disturbed there were so many omissions in the report for us to make decisions.

“Most residents don’t care about where the HQ is. They want decent services, decent leisure facilities and even decent public toilets.”

And Ellon councillor Isobel Davidson added: “There could be a public perception that while everyone else is having they services cut the council is building itself a nice new HQ.”

But council officers and administration members reiterated that the move could save the taxpayer money by cutting costs.

Chief executive Jim Savege said: “I’ve been very clear to the team that the priority is spending money on providing services not on maintaining buildings.

“Fundamentally public services will still need to be provided, offices for staff will need to be provided.”

Council co-leader Richard Thomson said he was sick of hearing about the “strange species” of white elephants during the debate, and insisted the current Woodhill House site is outdated.

He was backed up by provost and fellow SNP councillor Hamish Vernal, who proposed the committee approve the business case for the Harlaw Park plan and take the proposal to the next stage.

Mr Vernal said: “In terms of a white elephant we don’t want one in Aberdeenshire. We’ve got one in Aberdeen – we’re sitting in it. Its about decentralising and dispersing our staff.

“You need to be fleet of foot. What we’re being asked for is approval for the next stage to get the detail you asked for. Time is of the essence.”

Mr Vernal’s motion won by majority vote but the Alliance members forced the final decision on how to progress to be taken by full council.

The Alliance is currently the largest block of members in the chamber and could block the proposals.

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