Officers defend plans for £200,000 plus ‘grand entrance’ to council offices

How the new chamber might look.

COUNCIL officers have stressed plans to build a new £9 million civic centre in Grays will benefit Thurrock’s residents.

The plan for the new three-storey extension to the council’s civic centre includes an “impressive and grand entrance” that will cost more than £200,000.

A council officer told the members of the council’s Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee on Tuesday (20 November) that it is a “critical project” which sets the tone for development in Grays and gives the council a presence on the high street that demonstrates a “commitment to transparency”.

The £9.78million 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 120 new flats. Income from the flats is expected to contribute £2.8million towards the project.

The council officer compared the plans to the Barbican Centre, a large multi-use performing arts centre in London. “I dare to say that emerging designs have shown signs of an elegant, handsome building”, he said.

Members of the scrutiny committee were less convinced.

The chair of the meeting, Labour councillor Oliver Gerrish said: “The real danger in perception and potentially the reality of this project is that people see a major regeneration of the civic offices at a time when it doesn’t feel like we are able to deliver many of the services that in an ideal world we would like to.

“The important thing to understand here is that this looks like a fairly major cost to the council with the benefit of that largely being the offices that we as councillors enjoy. That may not be the best message to send to residents.”

Mr Gerrish stressed that councillors need to know how residents will benefit before this goes ahead, adding that otherwise it would be a “very unfortunate step”.

Independent councillor Jack Duffin, deputy chair of the committee, also questioned how residents would view the council spending £205,000 on a “grand entrance” at a time their council tax bill is rising, although he did acknowledge the funding would not use council tax money.

“For some the only engagement they have with the council is paying their council tax bill, they want bins to be collected and they want the roads to be good and that is as limited as their connection is with the council. If we did a poll on how many people in Thurrock visit the civic centre id be surprised if it’s that high.”

It was confirmed that if the council chose to halt the project £4.8million of the capital budget could be invested elsewhere.

The plans will now go to the council’s cabinet who will decide whether the project should move to the next stage which will be a public consultation.