Durham University in talks to purchase Council’s unused £50m building

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Durham County Council may sell its new £50m headquarters to Durham University following a review of the development initiated in June 2021, after the leadership of the Council changed hands.

The proposal would see The Sands site become the new home of the University Business School. The Council, meanwhile, would look to develop a new civic centre at Aykley Heads, just north of the city centre.

Located across the river from the Radisson Blu Hotel, the new offices were completed in March. They were originally intended to provide a new home for the Council, who are looking to move out of their current home, County Hall, built in the 1960s.

The move was met with a mixed response when it was first announced in 2019. Protesters gathered in Market Square argued that the relocation made little economic sense. In response, the then Labour Council justified the development by claiming that it would “reduce costs” and “boost the economy” in the city centre.

Following the change in leadership, the Council now looks to be reconsidering. There will be a cabinet meeting to assess the outcomes of the review on 27th April.

Palatinate reported in March that the University was falling behind on the projects outlined in its Estate Masterplan, one of which was a new home for the Business School at Elvet Riverside. The Sands site presents them with a ready-built solution.

The Labour Council justified the development by claiming that it would “reduce costs” and “boost the economy”

However, the proposal is not without controversy; the Council’s announcement attracted criticism on social media. One local resident said that she didn’t want “more Council money spent on another headquarters”. She asked, “Why should the University benefit from a building we paid for?”

Alan Charlton, one of the objectors when the Headquarters construction plans were announced, told Palatinate he did not see it as a ‘win-win scenario’: “The perception of Durham University gaining even more land and buildings grows, as do the unresolved questions about the new purpose of the undeveloped former swimming pool site.”

The University previously had plans to build the new Business School on the site of the former swimming baths on Elvet Riverside. However, last year the Environmental Agency advised that the proposal would “pose a significant flood risk”. The City of Durham Parish Council also formally opposed the development.

Mr Charlton continued: “What next for the University? How soon before the City gets renamed the “City of the Durham University? Is this ethical, ecological, regenerative and transformational?” and questioned whether, what he characterised as “the acquisitive rapid growth mentality of the University of Durham”, was compatible with the environmental needs of the community.

However, one Claypath resident, Janet George, said she would be “much happier” with the University in the building: “There was a long and bitter battle not to have any building encroaching any further onto The Sands, and the Council felled many mature trees and destroyed established wildlife habitats against public opinion.

“The Sands was an unsuitable place for council offices for a number of reasons and we were faced with the prospect of large quantities of traffic as hundreds of staff commuted down unsuitable roads. Now I believe the University will be able to avoid heavy car traffic and will make better use of the building.”

“The Sands was an unsuitable place for council offices for a number of reasons”

As planning permission has already been granted, a new application for change of use has been submitted by the University. A decision is expected by July of this year.

Furthermore, the proposal will be subject to a public consultation directed by Durham County Council.

A Durham University spokesperson told Palatinate: “Durham University is at the forefront in boosting education, employment and infrastructure in Durham and supporting sustainable economic growth in North East England.

“The University, together with our many partners, is keen to build a sustainable future for its students, staff, Durham City and the wider community and direct its investment wisely for the benefit of all.

“Our University Strategy, 2017-2027, includes carefully planned targets for development and improvement to enable Durham to continue to be a world-leading university.

“Durham University Business School is among the leading business schools in the UK, Europe and the world”. The spokesperson added that “[a]n independent study has shown relocating the Business School to The Sands could increase its value to the economy by over a third, as well as creating 153 new jobs by 2031/32.”

Durham Councillor Richard Bell also offered comment, saying: “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.”

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