COUNCILLORS have agreed to finish the revamp of County Hall in Taunton – despite admissions that it would be “a hard sell for the public”.

Somerset County Council has been undertaking improvements to its headquarters, ensuring the heating system in County Hall and Shire Hall is fit for purpose and reorganising A block in County Hall to allow more staff to work in-house.

The entire project is expected to cost just over £10M, of which £7.75M was committed in the budget in February.

The council’s cabinet met in Taunton on Wednesday morning (December 19) to agree in principle to allocate the remaining £2.5M in next year’s budget.

The proposal will come before full council for final approval in February.

The project is expected will deliver annual savings of £723,000 by removing the need to hire out other space for staff.

Deputy leader Mandy Chilcott said she was hopeful that the annual savings generated by the work would increase over time.

She said: “My hope moving forward is that we can increase the saving figure as we use the building more efficiently.”

Councillor Faye Purbrick said the council needed to work harder to convince the public that the money being spent now would generate future savings.

She said: “I support the savings and everything else the project is going to deliver. I just hope we are getting that message across.

“We often hear a ‘spend’ talking about as though it could be spent somewhere else.”

The funding for the County Hall project comes from the council’s capital programme – meaning it can only be spent on major projects, building work or infrastructure.

It does not form any part of the council’s revenue budget, which is used for the day-to-day funding of front-line services.

The council can use capital funding to fund revenue projects, but only if it can demonstrate that the projects will be delivered in a more efficient way as a result.

Councillor Jane Lock, leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition group, questioned whether the project would deliver value for money in light of the ongoing conversations surrounding a possible unitary authority in Somerset.

She said: “There seems to be an assumption that the revenue will be forthcoming, and the services will still be running for the payback period. It is going to be a hard sell for the public.

“We are spending all this money on County Hall while the unitary debate is going on, and I wonder what messages it is sending out to our potential unitary partners? It may not be the choice of the partners in a unitary authority to have it based in Taunton.”

Council leader David Fothergill declined to comment on the unitary debate, but said other councils in Somerset had carried out refurbishment of their own headquarters.

He added: “We are planning for the services which are being provided externally to continue to be provided.”

The cabinet voted unanimously to approve the business case for the remainder of the County Hall upgrade. The final proposal for the work will come before the full council in February 2019 when the budget is set.

If the full council gives its approval, staff will be returned to A block in January 2020.