Durham set to sell £49m HQ to university – without using it

Durham CC looks certain to sell its new £49m headquarters to its county city’s university – without ever having occupied the building.

The new HQ was planned and built when Labor controlled the county. However, 2021 saw its first change in administration in a century with the succeeding Conservative/Liberal Democrat/Independent coalition halt the move and instead launch a review of building’s future.

A special cabinet meeting next Wednesday will see members asked to agree the sale of The Sands to Durham University for an undisclosed fee. The university wants to use it as a business school.

The council’s cabinet is also expected to agree a business case for its office and civic accommodation to instead be located at Aykley Heads, to the north of Durham city center and near the present County Hall, along with office accommodation in Stanley. It is proposed that the current 1960s-built County Hall be demolished.

A Durham CC press release said the proposals would “provide a number of economic benefits”.

It said: “The costs of the and the alternative accommodation strategy would be more than offset by the proceeds of the sale of the building. The plans would enhance opportunities for the development of Aykley Heads as a strategic employment construction site and it is anticipated that the provision of office accommodation in Stanley town center will help to further regenerate the town.”

The sale of The Sands building to the university is subject to planning approval, with a decision by the unitary’s planning committee expected in July. It is recommended that should the university not progress with the purchase within a specified time period, the council should occupy the building.

Richard Bell (Con), cabinet member for finance, said: “The driving factors behind this work are ensuring that we provide good value for money for the authority and that any decisions we make are in the best interests of the county’s residents.

“We believe that the proposal to sell the building at The Sands to Durham University would achieve four aims: coupled with the redevelopment of the DLI Museum and Art Gallery, it would kick-start the wider development of the Aykley Heads strategic employment site; it would secure the university’s new business school in the heart of the city, bringing significant economic and commercial benefits – the university is a globally-ranked Russell Group university and is of considerable importance to the county’s economy and we are pleased to be working in partnership with it.

“Our proposals will bring the former Customer Access Point at Stanley back into use, again bringing economic and commercial benefits; and the sale will give us a surplus which we can invest across the county.”

When the new proposals were first published, Durham’s Labor group leader Carl Marshall called them “an obscene waste of time, money and effort”.

The business case for an alternative council HQ considered a range of buildings around the county, including a number in private ownership as well as those owned by the council. It was found that no one building could provide suitable accommodation.

The report to cabinet suggests new civic space at Aykley Heads, which would incorporate conference facilities for the city’s businesses. Additional office accommodation would be provided at another building being built at the site, along with the refurbishment of the former Stanley Customer Access Point, which is vacant.

James Rowlandson (Con), cabinet member for resources, investment and assets, said: “We have considered the options for our future office and civic accommodation requirements and have set out a business case for a new approach.

“Building a large development at Aykley Heads would significantly reduce the space available for development by other investors. However, the proposal for a smaller civic space with office accommodation elsewhere on the site would ensure that opportunities for the future redevelopment of Aykley Heads as a strategic employment site can be maximised.”

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