Council chamber plans may cost £650,000

CASH-STRAPPED county council leaders have earmarked £650,000 to revamp their grand debating chamber in a move that could make it one of the most luxurious in Britain, the EADT can reveal.

CASH-STRAPPED county council leaders have earmarked £650,000 to revamp their grand debating chamber in a move that could make it one of the most luxurious in Britain, the EADT can reveal.

Essex County Council leaders have set aside the cash after grumbles the historic chamber at Chelmsford's County Hall was out of date and in dire need of upgrading.

Adorned by stunning murals, maps and coats of arms from all the county's districts, the chamber was donated by the Courtauld family in the 1930s and has been the centre of local democracy in Essex for generations.

But councillors claim the sound system is so faulty they cannot hear each other during debates, while others have complained about uncomfortable seats.

And after council leaders were left red-faced in front of important business figures by a lack of presentation facilities, officials were pressed to draw up plans for what could be the first drastic overhaul of the chamber in 70 years.

Lord Hanningfield, Conservative leader of the council, yesterday told the EADT several options would be put before new members after the elections later this year.

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Outlining a grand vision, he said councillors would have the chance to build themselves a state-of-the-art conference centre befitting the country's largest county.

But he insisted there would be no impact on council tax, which was announced last week at £917.73 for Band D households for 2005/6, a rise of 2.9%, the lowest ever percentage increase.

However, the plans were attacked by a Labour councillor, who claimed the money involved was “excessive” and would hit taxpayers in some way.

A total of £650,000 for the project has been signed off by Tory council cabinet members who met yesterday to agree huge capital programmes for the next few years.

Lord Hanningfield said: “The chamber has not had a revamp for 70 years and we've had a lot of problems with the acoustics and the microphones.

“Chelmsford does not have modern conference facilities and this would be the chance to provide one for the town, which could then be hired out and allow the revamp to be self-funding.

“It will be for a new council to decide what it wants to do, but they will be given a number of options and I'd imagine there will be some sort of public exhibition for the plans.

“It would have to go through a proper business case, but at the top end of the budget the overhaul would be quite drastic with brand new audio-visual facilities and new seating.

“At the lower end, it might be that members would just want new microphones - a lot of people like the old chamber as it is and I understand that.

“Whatever happens, there will be no impact on council tax and it will improve County Hall.”

But Julie Young, Labour county councillor for the Wivenhoe St Andrew ward, said: “Whatever Lord Hanningfield says, this money will come from the public purse and hit taxpayers one way or another.

“I'd support any upgrade of a microphone system, but £650,000 would be an excessive amount to spend on a council chamber, which is perfectly adequate and comfortable.

“When money needs to be spent on things like vital community care assessments, it's extraordinary that this amount of funding could go into facilities at County Hall.”

A new microphone system installed at Colchester Borough Council's debating chamber in 1998 cost £38,000.

n Essex County Council cabinet members yesterday agreed a £1.3billion revenue and services budget for 2005/6, a 5.8% increase on this financial year. They also signed off £169.9million in capital project payments due in 2005/6.

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