By Local Democracy Reporter Simon Finlay
Sessions House, the landmark headquarters of Kent County Council, will go on the market tomorrow, the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) has learnt.
The sale is to be handled by Montagu Evans, a property consultancy specialising in selling public buildings.
The property, off Week Street in the centre of Maidstone, will be sold as whole or chopped up into five separate blocks.
A 12-page full-colour brochure has been produced as part of a co-ordinated marketing campaign to find a buyer.
There is no price tag on the property, also known as County Hall, but potential buyers have been invited to submit bids by December.
The brochure states: “Rare opportunity to acquire the whole or part of a listed building in the heart of Maidstone.
“The whole building is surplus to requirements and we are inviting interest from parties (either for part or all of the building) on an all enquiries basis. Unconditional and subject to planning offers considered for a long leasehold interest.”
Much of Sessions House is empty, shut on safety grounds, and with an historic lack of maintenance will continue to deteriorate.
KCC has made no secret of its plans for “disposal” of the 227,000 sq ft building in recent years and the need to move to premises fit for the 21st century.
The building, designed by Sir Robert Smirke in the Greek Revival style, is 150 years old next year.
Due to go live
In an email to members, deputy leader of KCC Cllr Peter Oakford writes: “As you may recall I recently took a decision to undertake some further market testing of Sessions House, Maidstone.
“I am pleased to confirm that the campaign led by our real estate agents is due to go live at the end of this week with bids due in December.
“This will include an advert in the Estates Gazette and marketing material along with a focused campaign across a range of sectors.
“The further market testing is an important part of the process which will inform the options and the next steps moving forward.
“Bids are planned to close in December and following an assessment of the options I will be in a position to consider next steps and report an update to the Policy and Resources Committee next spring.”
A copy of the Montagu Evans PDF document was circulated to elected members on Tuesday and passed to the LDRS.
It states that Sessions House is subject to a restrictive covenant in favour of the Ministry of Justice as much of the estate overlooks Maidstone Prison. Vacant possession is available on completion, it adds.
A recent KCC document stated: “Historic under-investment in the estate over many years has created a significant maintenance backlog.
“As a result of this backlog and the limited suitability of buildings, many services are delivered from buildings that offer a poor user experience.
“In some cases, staff and service users have had to work in restricted and challenging environments due to condition problems which have resulted in the need to temporarily close areas of buildings or a whole building due to health and safety concerns.”
Nearby Invicta House would be refurbished for continued use by KCC staff, the brochure said.
On the subject of what the building may be turned into, the brochure says “the principle of development is supported for all uses, noting the town centre location but cognisant of the marketing exercise and viability”.
However, any residential scheme, including affordable housing, would be “subject to viability”.
Earlier this week, Cllr Antony Hook, the leader of the Liberal Democrat, pointed out many of Sessions House’s many current shortcomings – including a plastic mop bucket placed near the council chamber to catch rainwater through a leaking skylight.
Cllr Hook added: “It’s a beautiful old building and has a real, imposing presence and, with a sympathetic approach, it could be put to great use. You could see a boutique hotel with cafes and restaurants with its wide open frontage.
“It could prove to be a landmark for people to visit. It’s a grand building for a county council but not as it stands.”
Conservative councillor Simon Webb said: “We haven’t got any option but to sell it – the repair bill for Sessions House would be enormous.
“We haven’t the money to fix the building and it is just going to fall into further disrepair. We need to sell it to someone who can look after it. It’s common sense.”