Row over public access as councillors sign off Shire Hall terms
Cambridgeshire County Council will proceed to signing final terms for the long-term lease of Shire Hall in Cambridge for use as a hotel and office building.
But concerns remain over public access to the site’s green spaces after a request for a “legal covenant” was rejected.
Both the authority’s former Conservative administration and the current joint administration of Liberal Democrats, Labour and independents have given assurances that public access will be preserved.
Yet a Conservative request to put in place a “legal covenant” on the site’s green space to “maintain public access and enjoyment” was rejected by the joint administration on Tuesday (July 6).
Conservative Councillor Josh Schumann argued it is the only legal way to ensure access, but senior figures in the joint administration accused the opposition group of “playing politics”.
Cllr Schumann said: “There is general angst and concern within the city of Cambridge about the public access. I am simply trying to ratify that at this stage because we don’t have another opportunity, this is our final opportunity.”
Council leader, Liberal Democrat Lucy Nethsingha, said she was happy to take the issue away and see what can be done, but had reservations about accepting the Conservative amendment “because I think that this report is a final decision, and if the request for that had any impact on the overall business case I think that would be a serious concern”.
Joint administration councillors, after taking advice from officers, said such a step should not be taken at this stage and without legal advice.
Director of resources, Tom Kelly, said: “My concern is really that we are at quite an advanced stage of the negotiations with three or four other parties. I don’t think there is any disagreement between anyone in substance that the green space should be protected and enhanced.
“My hesitation is that this would be a new issue or a new legal agreement to be introduced at a relatively late stage of those commercial negotiations and that could have unintended consequences.”
Deputy leader of the council, Labour’s Elisa Meschini, added: “We have been pressuring the former administration to do this for about three years, and it only comes as basically a wrecking amendment to a paper that is far too advanced for that to be taken today. I am utterly, utterly astonished, from people that actually should have the expertise to know what they are doing.”
The amendment was voted down by eight votes to seven, with councillors voting along party lines.
Labour’s Cllr Richard Howitt secured backing for his amendment that said the committee “notes that this includes binding arrangements for public ownership and access to the green space on the site”.
Cllr Schumann said his amendment “was recommended in a timely fashion because you don’t enter into legal covenants until contracts are drawn”.
He said: “You can say as much as you like, ‘well you had the chance to do it’. We are not the ones signing the contract, and we weren’t the ones who voted against an amendment which would have absolutely legally maintained public access.
“So all the virtue signalling in the world to say that we want to maintain public access to this green space is quite frankly nothing but words because the amendment that I put to this committee today would have absolutely ensured that happened.”
Cllr Schumann added: “It’s a real indictment of those people that represent the residents of Cambridge city that they have failed to stick up for them when they had the opportunity to do so. Doesn’t matter what happened before, this administration now will be the one that signs that contract without that legal covenant in place, and I hope the public remembers it.”
The county council is due to retain the freehold of its current Cambridge-based headquarters, but is planning to sell a long-term lease to developer Brookgate for use as an apart-hotel.
The council will retain ownership and management of the green space and some office space on the site.
The council is shifting to a “hub and spokes” model with a new headquarters in Alconbury.
Following the decision by Cambridgeshire County Council’s strategy and resources committee on Tuesday, the council will now enter into formal contractual arrangements with Brookgate to take on the lease.