Councillors on Durham County Council’s Planning Committee have approved plans to change the use of a £50m building from being the new office headquarters for the Council, to instead being used for higher education purposes by the Durham University Business School.
The Waterside building, which occupies a 1.4 hectare site on Freemans Place in the Sands area of Durham City, was initially meant to become the new headquarters for Durham County Council. In 2019, the Labour administration announced that they intended to move the council out of their current base at County Hall into the new building.
The news will be much welcomed by the University, after Palatinate revealed in March that the Durham’s estates plan was facing problems due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Under the stalled original plan, the Business School would have been moved to a facility in Elvet Riverside on the former site of Durham Baths in 2021. Hence, the handover of the Waterside building to the University provides a ready-made solution for the delays to the Business School’s relocation.
Durham County Council will meanwhile likely press on with plans to develop a new civic centre at Aykley Heads, close to the site of their current headquarters at County Hall, instead of moving into the new Waterside building.
It follows a change in governance at the Council in 2021, which saw the Labour administration replaced by a joint administration of Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Independent councillors, Durham County Council re-considered plans to move their headquarters to Waterside. In April, it was revealed that Durham University were in talks with the Council to purchase the £50m building, with councillors approving the proposition in a cabinet meeting that same month.
At a meeting of the Council’s planning committee on 5th July, councillors heard from various stakeholders involved in the planning permission to change the use of the Waterside building. They heard from objector Dennis Southwell, who after seeing his request to defer the meeting being rejected, went on to suggest that the plans were undemocratic.
Southwell told the committee; “This group have never asked the residents their thoughts on the new headquarters in Durham. They are just playing politics. Have residents been given all the facts and advantages of having the staff working there? The city’s dying on its feet. Ask the local shop owners and staff.
“The residents are fed up with the administration. They will have no respect for this committee if you approve this application from the university. What do residents think of democracy at Durham County Council? Actions speak louder than words”.
Southwell also warned that “If you approve this application the building will be sold and Durham County Council will be nomads forever. Durham County Council will never have a fit-for-purpose headquarters. What a legacy for this historic Durham county planning committee. If you do not refuse this application, the redevelopment of Aykley Heads could be put back three years. What about employment?”.
The committee then heard from Pro-Vice Chancellor (Global) for Durham University, Professor Claire O’Malley. She explained how “Durham University Business School is central to the university’s success, and it’s playing a key role in the regeneration of our county…The business school is currently worth £83m a year to County Durham and supports around 600 jobs”.
Should the Business School be moved to Waterside, O’Malley said that the move would be worth £30m per year to County Durham by 2032, and would support an additional 170 jobs. She also reassured councillors that the move “is not about increasing student numbers at the business school. It is about providing excellent facilities for an excellent faculty.
“Durham University Business School aims to ensure that more Durham University graduates stay here in the North-east, start new businesses, boost productivity, raise income levels and reduce unemployment. I hope that is a vision we can all support”.
Councillors on the committee were also told that groups such as the North East Chamber of Commerce, Visit County Durham and Business Durham all backed the plans for the Business School on the basis that it would encourage more visitors and jobs in the area.
However, the City of Durham Trust have asked for details to be resolved because they were concerned about the risk of flooding, as well as Durham County Council Labour Group who expressed concerns about the differential impact the Business School would have on the local area, compared to if the building became the council’s headquarters.
There was a short debate about the issue of how many people would use the building at any given time. Councillor David Boyes said “This was supposed to be for 700. Now we’re talking about 2,500+. I’m very concerned of the effect this is going to have on the city centre”. In response, O’Malley said that it would be “unlikely” that the building would be used at full capacity, while Councillor Patricia Jopling argued that “It was going to be thoroughly underused with this council and in my view, this can only benefit the university and this authority”.
In the end, councillors decided to side with the recommendations of the planning officers to approve the plans, handing the Waterside building to Durham University. Upon the announcement, Professor O’Malley said in a statement; “We are pleased to have received approval for the Change of Use of The Sands building to be a new home for Durham University Business School.
“The relocation will enable the Business School to continue to thrive, and bring significant benefits for the city, county and region. Today’s decision allows us to progress this project to the next phase and we will be sharing further updates in due course.”
Image Credit – Waseem Mohamed