Tories urge council to close or rent out empty offices

As more backroom staff work from home, Conservative councillors are calling for a look into the benefits of “downsizing” council office space.

Conservative councillor Alistair McNair plans to ask Brighton and Hove City Council for a report detailing the occupancy of council buildings and setting out how many staff work from home.

Councillor McNair intends to propose a motion noting “the unnecessary costs to the taxpayer being incurred from the council maintaining and heating buildings which now largely sit empty”.

He said that other councils had downsized their properties since the coronavirus pandemic, adding that “downsizing the council” could help the budget, “including by leasing empty office space or selling unneeded premises.”

Papers prepared for a meeting of the full council next Thursday (2 February) cited Canterbury City Council which is selling its offices and moving into vacant space in a shopping centre.

Conservative councillor Samer Bagaeen said that, in 2021, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council spent £5 million converting its town hall to rent out to other companies.

He said: “Under this arrangement, council staff would use approximately one third of the building, with the rest rented out. This is a clever way for a council to use its assets to generate income.

“In 2022, city councillors in Canterbury agreed to move the council’s offices into vacant space within a shopping centre in Canterbury.

“We have asked for space utilisation values in Hove Town Hall and other council buildings as we believe the central and well-connected location of our estate would mean it could be put into productive uses, such as co-working spaces, to generate much-needed revenue. This is the time for creative and fresh thinking.”

Councillor McNair said that town halls were “secular cathedrals” and should be the “beating heart of civic life”.

He said: “They can only be that heart if staff are working there and residents can go there, are drawn there even, as tourists often are, to receive help and support.

“Both Green and Labour have made it clear they support the current policy of staff working from home. As a result, our town halls are empty and lifeless.

“The council seems to have forgotten the importance of its buildings acting as meeting places.

“Residents frequently complain that they cannot access help, they cannot see anyone, even speak to staff on the phone, and are asked to fill in forms or email in their complaints.

“Even the customer service centres are open only to those that ‘need support’ or ‘don’t have access to a computer’ – intentionally trying to put people off visiting in person.

“With the budget under such pressure, we have a duty to ensure our buildings represent good value for money.”

Councillor McNair said that his motion was not only about saving or earning money, it was about restoring the civic value of council buildings.

He added: “If other community groups or local businesses can provide services within council premises, appreciate the importance of people coming together to resolve issues, can offer that sense of community currently sorely lacking, a cost-benefit analysis should be explored.”

Brighton and Hove City Council is due to meet at Hove Town Hall at 4.30pm on Thursday (2 February). The meeting is scheduled to be webcast on the council’s website.

  1. ChrisC Reply

    The Tories seem to have forgotten that the Council sold Kings House in 2017 for £26m and consolidated a lot of staff into a refurbished Hove Town Hall.

    And there were plans to do what they ask at Brighton Town Hall but I think the costs were more than the benefits so not value for money,

    Besides who would rent the space? Lots of businesses have also reduced their own office space needs.

    • Timmy Reply

      The coworking space that has a few floors in the town hall would probably be happy to expand to take over any space in the building that became available.

  2. Pippa Reply

    Hove Town Hall could also have a nursery, a special school hub, an adult day skills centre and a centre for elders – maybe it would help place residents’ needs ‘front and centre’ of policy and decision making

  3. Christopher Hawtree Reply

    Much of Hove Town Hall is already rented out.

    Incidentally, it is curious that the Council always makes much of being a “city” but refers to the Town Hall.

  4. Jenny Mullins Reply

    I’d have more respect for the Tories’ argument if they hadn’t supported the loan for the i360, saddling council tax payers with the debt.

  5. Benjamin Reply

    It’s a good idea in principle; modernising one’s work environment for modern times is important. Is the upfront cost something that can be afforded at this moment in time? I’d be keen to see the idea explored, at the very least.

  6. Daniel Harris Reply

    What like priory house? the former council building in barts square, which is now short term holiday lets at what £250 a night, These tories are asking for there mates, the likes of whom will rinse this city dry, why not simply re-open services?

  7. Hendrik Reply

    “This is the time for creative and fresh thinking.”
    Yes, how about creative and fresh thinking about getting the staff back to work where they belong, where the public can meet them face to facei? But of course that would not suit the Greens or Labour.

  8. Jo Gough Reply

    There are many charities like RISE in B&H that are desperate for affordable, suitable safe places to provide our trauma informed services – due to lack of secure long term funding it is hard to acquire suitable space for our important work. The Council could provide dedicated space for a peppercorn rent and benefit from the added value provided by charities like RISE.

  9. Ian Elwick Reply

    Werks has provided affordable space in the city for 30 years helping thousands of businesses and social enterprises. We have a vision for workspace and coworking that is properly supported – far more than an expensive serviced office. If BHCC has the vision for this they should issue tenders to local companies like ours

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