CONSTRUCTION of a new state-of-the-art £14m police headquarters has been halted – by the discovery of a single newt hundreds of yards off site.
Outgoing Durham Police chief constable Jon Stoddart cut the first sod on the force’s long-awaited new HQ in Durham City last October.
But, since then, no work has been done on the Aykley Heads site.
The Northern Echo can now reveal that the delay is due to a single Great Crested newt having been found some distance away, near the East Coast railway line.
Frustrated police chiefs say every day of delay is costing the cash-strapped force £2,000 – meaning the hitch has already cost up to £250,000.
The force offered to build log pile “newt houses” on the site, in case the newt migrated while construction was taking place, but officials from Natural England, the guardian of England’s natural environment, demanded more be done.
It is understood that the agency did not feel the police’s plans were robust enough.
The force then returned with an improved offer in mid-December but, nearly two months on and well beyond a deadline of January 17, they are still waiting for NE’s response.
Temporary Chief Constable Mike Barton said: “We are an organisation that enforces the law so it’s obvious that we’ve got to follow the law as well. We’re comfortable with that.
“But there’s a slight degree of frustration. I want to get into the new headquarters, so we can start making the savings from having a much smaller building.”
The current 1960s-built HQ costs £1.6m a year to maintain, needs £4.7m of repairs and chiefs say it is no longer fit for purpose. Its successor will be £2,000-a-day cheaper to run, saving around £750,000 a year.
The newt was found well beyond the proposed headquarters site. However, its discovery triggered the imposition of a 500m exclusion zone, which reaches onto the plot.
Assistant Chief Officer Gary Ridley said: “We’re trying our best to get this resolved as quickly as possible but unfortunately we’re in the hands of a statutory agency.
“We’re sitting here with a scheme that’s ready to go.”
When contacted by The Northern Echo, a Natural England spokesman issued the following statement: “We are treating this case as the highest priority.
“We are working flat-out to process the licence application and hope to complete this in the next few days.”
The quango has suffered major funding cuts in recent years, leaving officials extremely overworked.
It has been reported the Government is considering going one step further and merging it with the Environment Agency, under its “bonfire of the quangos”.
Durham Police gained planning permission for the new HQ last June. The force plans to demolish its current base, just across the road, to make way for around 230 homes.