Nearly £2m has been spent by Falkirk Council as it tries to build a new headquarters and town hall – but there is still nothing to show for it.
A Freedom of Information request has revealed that since 2013, the combined cost of reports, studies, consultant’s fees and plans now stands at £1,843,640.
Now, council insiders have told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that as report after report has been produced and then ignored, staff are now utterly demoralised.
And they believe that constant criticism of the cost of new offices has been grossly unfair, given the dismal state of the buildings they were working in.
One said: “Watching the debate back in June I was really hopeful that employees would get a decent place to work in – instead of a building that has asbestos everywhere; a cleaner’s cupboard where they rinse out toilet buckets where we are expected to wash out our cutlery and plates.
“The same place where a four foot by four foot window is blown in across someone’s desk; where a toilet waste pipe explodes across an office ensuring that every desk and the carpet is covered in human faeces; and a lift that hasn’t worked for three years as they can’t get parts – yes, that is my working place.
“A new HQ isn’t something fancy – just an office where the roof doesn’t fall in or the windows cave in on people’s desks.”
Over the years, there has been hope after hope that something was finally happening – but in September, when the latest plans were sent back to the drawing board yet again, they turned to despair.
The other member of staff said: “Watching councillors behave like this is so awful – I’ve seen friends really upset because they have put so many extra hours over the day job to help get reports demanded by councillors ready – again.
“They haven’t a clue and change their mind so often that we have no idea where we are going.”
The insiders claim that at least three people are leaving their jobs because of this.
“They are fed up because they are highly qualified professionals constantly undermined by councillors who have no idea what they are talking about.”
The reports included a structural survey which cost of £55,879.
Later reports, which are not detailed separately, include a parking survey, an economic impact study and a business plan for the arts centre.
There are also feasability studies, transport assessments, a parking survey and legal advice.
Much of the money was spent in 2016, when the then Labour-led administration wanted to build a new office on the site of the NHS-owned Westbank Clinic.
The town hall theatre would move to the new Forth Valley College, which was then still in the planning stages.
The SNP – then in opposition – refused to back the project, and a political storm grew around its £20m cost.
Detailed architects’ plans were drawn up but – with an election looming – the plans were shelved, at a cost of £1.2m bill.
The SNP point out that they had no power to stop the plans – and they stand by their opposition.
The SNP group leader, Cecil Meiklejohn, said: “The SNP have been clear that while our HQ building was at the end of life any investment should not just be about new office accommodation but it should be about adding value to the town.”
The SNP took power in 2017 – with plans for a £45m building, combining offices, a new theatre and studios, a new library and an advice hub.
But despite being the largest party, they do not have a majority and the combined votes of Labour and the Conservatives can defeat them.
It has been, they admit, hugely frustrating.
Mrs Meiklejohn said: “Officers have worked tirelessly in the best interests of the Council as a whole, and not on party political lines as some would have you believe, and have done so in the best interests of the Council and the people of Falkirk.
“To have their reports dismissed in the way that they have is very demoralising,”
Officers were asked to look at the various possible sites that could be used, how the cost could be contained, available parking available, carbon footprint, transport, business plans, theatre layouts and land ownership – among others.
And by September 2021 it seemed that, finally, a decision would be made, with a site on Falkirk High Street and Cockburn Street looked likely to go ahead.
The first site appraisal cost £79,000.
The second – comparing the chosen site with the original site at Westbank – cost a further £53,065.
In the end, after spending nearly £600,000 in total since 2018, neither option was approved.
In response to the FOI, Conservative group leader, James Kerr, said: “The Conservative group wants a solid plan in place to rejuvenate Falkirk Town Centre, I think all parties are agreed on that.
“However, that does not mean we accept the first proposal put in front of us.
“The risks of rushing into a project at massive cost to the taxpayer are significant, no one wants a white elephant left in the middle of Falkirk.
“We are willing and ready to work with other parties and with Council officers to get a plan together we can all support.”
But some staff have come to think that while councillors are keen to ask questions and call for reports, they are not so good at listening to the answers.
The insider said: “People I know have been reduced to tears by the constant changing of ideas – this is actually hurting Falkirk.”
The municipal buildings are now empty and they will be demolished soon, with staff moving to temporary accommodation.
But the future of the town hall remains unclear.
The SNP say they will continue to press ahead with their plans – but it remains to be seen if they can take others with them.
The Labour group was approached for comment.
Story by local democracy reporter Kirsty Paterson