Council accused of unfairness over halted Twyford Library project

James Aldridge, local democracy reporter

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A project to install a new library in the old Polehampton Boys' School building has stalled

Wokingham Borough Council has been accused of favouritism and unfairness over the cessation of works to Twyford Library.

The accusations have been levelled by councillor Clive Jones , the leader of the opposition at the council, following the cessation of a project to house the Twyford Library collection inside the Old Polehampton Boys School building.

The halting of the project was announced at the council’s executive committee meeting on Thursday, September 30.

The executive committee was due to continue to fund the relocation of the library into the boys' school building and arrange a lease so that renovation works inside the building could take place.

But the lease decision was put on hold because of a 'recent and rapid increase in building costs' according to Cllr John Halsall, the leader of the council (Conservative, Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe).

Now, Cllr Jones (Liberal Democrat, Hawkedon) has called for the council to state how much the relocation and upgrade project would actually cost.

Cllr Jones said: “We’ve asked to know what the original quotation was and what the revised quotation is.

“We’re being told the cost of timber and building materials have increased so there’s a substantial increase in the cost of the library project.

“But the cost of timber has subsided to the levels they were a few months ago.

“It’s not just me saying that, Professor David Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank of England’s montery policy committee has said the same.”

He then accused the ruling Conservatives of unfairly stopping the library project while millions have been invested to regenerate Wokingham town centre, arguing that it is unfair that ‘£150million’ has been spent on Wokingham town centre while the library project has been stalled.

Cllr Jones said: “The council has spent £150million on Wokingham town centre, which looks better than it used to be, but £150million over five to six years is an awful lot of money, then they go and pull the Twyford Library project.

“They say ‘we have to pause this indefinitely’. I think we need to see how much they’ve gone up.

“Are all parts of the borough going to be treated fairly? And what else is going to be put on hold and cancelled?”

Twyford Library is currently in a temporary building  in Polehampton Close, the opposite side of the road to the Old Polehampton Boys School building.  The long term plan is to rehouse the collection in the boys school building.

However, in order for the rehousing to take place, extensive works are required inside the building, which include installing a heating system and insulating the roof and walls so that library users and staff can use the building in comfort, and making the building wheelchair accessible.

The library project is the brainchild of the Polehampton Trust, which owns the boys school building.

Although the project is headed by the trust, it does not have the necessary funding to pay for the upgrades, which is why it has sought financial support from Wokingham Borough Council.

The entire project was originally costed at £716,065, however, the council’s executive committee have effectively halted the project  due to the rising cost of materials.

In response to Cllr Jones’ claims, a leading councillor has rejected the claimed ‘£150million’ figure for the regeneration of Wokingham town centre, and argued the regeneration and the library upgrade are two very different projects.

Cllr Bill Soane (Conservative, Loddon) executive member for neighbourhoods and communities, said: “The Wokingham town centre works were part of the essential infrastructure required to support more than 4,000 new houses and apartments being built to the edges of the town.

“The regeneration was delivered as a self-funding project, with works paid for by income from the sale of the homes built on the site and ongoing commercial rents, rather than relying on any tax-payer funds.

“Unfortunately, 100% self-funding isn’t a model we can use for the Twyford library improvements as there is no opportunity to offset costs with residential development on the site and therefore public borrowing will be required.

“The impact of handling the Covid-19 pandemic response, as well rapidly increasing costs for areas like social care, energy and general construction costs, mean we need to take a prudent approach to how we spend public funds and ensure we achieve value for money.

“As with many of our programmed capital projects we have taken the decision to pause works where costs have increased to give us time to review the situation and look at options.

“As a council we remain committed to making sure our residents have the great quality facilities they need and, as stated at the Executive meeting, we remain supportive of the principle of the new library at Twyford.

“In regard to Wokingham regeneration we do not recognise the figures provided.

“In total the works at Peach Place, Elms Field and Carnival will cost £125million.

“Profit from residential sales is being used to offset this cost, leaving us with an end debt of £52million on a commercial asset worth £96million.

“Whilst this could be sold to generate a one-off profit, our intent is to retain the asset as it generates an excess income of around £2.8million a year from rents which we can use to fund essential services and projects across the borough for years to come.”

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