Why struggling English councils are building new offices

When Sunderland’s Brutalist-Modernist civic centre — a series of hexagonal blocks, with fortress-like walls clad in dark brown brick — was unveiled in 1970, it was quickly dubbed Alcatraz by locals unable to find the exits.

Now, less than 50 years after its opening, the one-time architectural award winner is destined for the bulldozers as Sunderland city council prepares to move to a new £61m City Hall on the site of a former brewery.

Sunderland is the latest in a wave of cash-strapped English councils, ranging from Tory-controlled Cambridgeshire to Labour-run Durham, that are building new headquarters to accommodate shrunken workforces, kick-start redevelopment projects and cut costs.

Graeme Miller, Sunderland council leader, insists the new headquarters are a cost-effective way to spur economic regeneration in the area while also freeing up land for redevelopment and cutting the costs of maintaining an ageing building. The construction project would serve as “a mark of confidence to other investors, signalling to private sector developers that Sunderland is a good place to invest”, he said.

Sunderlands’s new £61m HQ, which is beinb built on the site of a former brewery © Mark Pinder/FT

At Cambridgeshire council, Josh Schumann, chairman of the commercial and investments committee, said its new headquarters offered “a unique opportunity” to switch funds spent on maintaining buildings towards frontline services.

The capital cost of many schemes runs into tens of millions of pounds, although councils insist they will result in long-term savings.

But critics say councils gripped by austerity should not be building themselves new offices. They argue that local government bodies should instead make better use of existing assets and point out that some of the chosen sites are unsuitable. Some also ask whether councils should instead be sharing their administrative operations.

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“In the current environment, councils spending money on themselves is not a good look and very hard to defend,” said Niall Hodson, leader of Sunderland council’s Liberal Democrat group.

The Local Government Association estimates that over the decade ending in 2020, councils in England will have had their central government funding reduced by 60 per cent. The cuts have resulted in a drop in staff numbers, and less demand for office space.

Cambridgeshire county council’s Shire Hall building ‘is not ideal for flexible or digital working, the council says © Alamy

Conservative-controlled Cambridgeshire county council is giving up a six-acre site in central Cambridge that has been a seat of government since William the Conqueror built a castle there in 1067. It says it is switching to a “hub and spoke” model of distributing council offices throughout the county, and that its present 1930s Shire Hall building “is not ideal for flexible or digital working”. It is instead planning to build a new £18.3m headquarters in rural Alconbury, where a new town is being developed, that will house 700 staff sharing 350 desks versus Shire Hall’s 1,300 desks.

Warwick district council is also proposing to downsize from its current site to a new £24.5m office and residential building in central Leamington Spa that it says will be cheaper to run and will benefit local businesses by bringing council workers into the town centre.

However, local Labour MP Matt Western said the council could cut costs by moving into empty space owned by Warwickshire county council. Mr Western, who calls the new HQ a “vanity project” has gathered an 8,335 signature protest petition. “Until you know what the future of local authorities looks like, why on earth build a brand new office?” he asked.

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Durham county council is also preparing to move its offices from a site just outside the city centre to free it for a planned new business district. It says its new building, at a central riverside location, will cost less than modernising the current headquarters. However, Roger Cornwell, an independent parish councillor and vice-chairman of City of Durham Trust, was among 1,000 people who objected to the £48.4m scheme He said the design was “an uninspiring monolith” that would impinge on the area’s historic surroundings.

Research this year by the Local Government Information Unit and the Municipal Journal found that more than 80 per cent of English councils were investing in commercial developments to supplement their revenue this year, and that 57 per cent wanted to sell council assets. Government rule changes in 2016 meant that councils can now spend the proceeds from selling public assets on measures that have upfront costs but reduce spending long-term.

Maintenance costs are stacking up at Harrogate council offices © Alamy

However, the policy can pose uncertainties. Harrogate borough moved to a newly built £11.4m headquarters more than a year ago. Its former base, a listed Victorian building, was to have been redeveloped as luxury flats, but last month the proposed sale fell through after the developer failed to submit a full planning application. The council is incurring maintenance costs for the vacant building while it looks for another buyer.

Northamptonshire county council is selling its new offices to avoid insolvency © Alamy

Struggling Conservative-led Northamptonshire county council also offers a cautionary example to councils considering building new offices. To avoid insolvency, it has been given special permission to use proceeds from selling its headquarters. It was built in 2017.

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