Row over public access rumbles on for Shire Hall

Shire Hall in Cambridge for use as a hotel and office.

The county council will proceed to signing final terms for the long-term lease of its headquarters Shire Hall in Cambridge for use as a hotel and office. - Credit: Archant

The county council will proceed to agreeing a long-term lease of Shire Hall, Cambridge, for a hotel and office building while concerns remain over public access to the site’s green spaces. 

Both the former Conservative administration and the current joint administration of Liberal Democrats, Labour and independents have given assurances that public access will be preserved.  

But the Conservatives criticised the new joint administration after a request to put in place a “legal covenant” on the site’s green space to “maintain public access and enjoyment” was rejected on July 6. 

Conservative councillor Josh Schumann argued it is the “only legal way” to ensure access.  

But the joint administration accused the Conservatives of “playing politics” and questioned why the Conservatives had not put in place such a covenant when they were in charge.  

Taking advice from officers, joint administration councillors said such a step should not be taken at this stage and without legal advice.  

Cambridgeshire County Council is due to retain the freehold but is planning to sell a long-term lease Brookgate for use as an apart-hotel. 

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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.  

Cllr Schumann acknowledged that both the former Conservative administration and the current administration had made repeated assurances that public access would be maintained, but said some members of the public were not satisfied with those commitments.  

“This issue is not going to go away,” he said, adding “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”.  

Conservative councillor Chris Boden said the amendment “shouldn’t be necessary” because it is “doing no more than the paper assures us is going to happen anyway”. 

But he said it would give assurance to residents “because a legal covenant does have real teeth, it really can be enforced”.  

The leader of the council, Lucy Nethsingha, said she is “happy” to take the issue away and see what can be done. 

However, she said she had “reservations” about accepting the Conservative amendment “because I think that this report is a final decision. 

"If the request for that had any impact on the overall business case, I think that would be a serious concern”. 

The council’s director of resources, Tom Kelly, said the Conservative amendment “is something that is difficult to fully consider the implications of on the spot, so I have reservations as well”.  

“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,” he said.  

Deputy leader of the council, Labour’s Elisa Meschini, said: “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.  

Cllr 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”.  

He 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.”