Epsom and Ewell Times has reported on the woes of Woking, the gaps in Guildford budgets and we have spelt out the thorny financial crisis of Spelthorne. Now Surrey Heath may move to asbestos lined offices to preserve its existence. These crises contrast with Epsom and Ewell Borough Council that consistently balances its books. Chris Caulfield reports:
Surrey Heath Borough Council could close its headquarters and move into the vacant, asbestos-lined House of Fraser site as it tries to get out from under its “existential crisis” of its “sheer levels of borrowing”.
It comes as the council’s leader Shaun Macdonald said the borough was as little as two years away from effective bankruptcy.
The council is seeking ways to cover its £176m debts and has launched a project to look into the relocation of civic offices – and papers published as part of its Thursday, September 14, performance and finance scrutiny committee suggest it is considering moving staff into the vacant House of Fraser building in Camberley.
Surrey Heath Borough Council bought the House of Fraser building in 2016 for £18m. The store closed its doors in May 2023 with the lease expiring in August 2023.
Today the building is said to be worth just £2.9m and requires “multiple millions of pounds” to refurbish. House of Fraser closed the branch in Park Street in May.
The council says it has been working on alternative plans for the building, “including complete modernisation and refurbishment, improved retail and hospitality areas, offices and community facilities such as health and civic uses”.
According to council documents, it has been negotiating with commercial tenants for the entirety of the third floor, as well as the entirety of the ground floor, and half of the first floor.
“The second floor could be a potential location for Surrey Heath Borough Council’s relocated office and the remaining half of the first floor for a relocation of Surrey County Council’s library.”
It could make the move as early as 2026.
Commenting on the council’s treasury management activity report during the same meeting, Councillor Richard Wilson (LD, Bagshot) said: “It seems pretty obvious that the council has effectively an existential challenge because of just the sheer level of borrowing we’ve got. “This all stems back to 2016 when those failures in decision making on oversight and scrutiny but I wonder if there has also been a failure in treasury management in the period after 2016 while interest rates were still low?”
He also asked whether the loans could have been handled in a “different” way the council could have avoided the “existential crisis” it has now.
Details of the potential move were published as part of the council’s property and economic development service performance report.
A spokesperson for the council said: “In common with many buildings of this age, asbestos is contained in the fabric of the former House of Fraser building, which is safe if not disturbed. “This would need to be removed by specialist contractors as part of any future plans.”
House Of Fraser Camberley (Image: Google Street View)