Town Hall

Developers with plans for Council property must tread carefully

By: SA Mathieson
Published: Tuesday, November 4, 2014 - 15:02 GMT Jump to Comments

Many councils own valuable buildings and need to save millions, creating opportunities across the board. Awareness of local sensitivities, as always, holds the key.

Many councils are in a similar position to people who have lived in London for a few decades and fear a Labour government’s mansion tax. On paper, based on the value of their property, they are rich; but fixed assets don’t pay bills.

For an increasing number of councils, the answer is to sweat those assets, either by outsourcing or selling their headquarters. Recent issues of Council News Monitor have featured Essex County Council looking for a partner to run most of its shire hall; the London borough of Ealing planning to turn most of its castle-like town hall into a hotel and flats; and Worcestershire County Council looking at renting out parts of its county hall. In each case, the council will retain ownership.

Other councils are going further. Enfield Council in London has sold its former town hall, Swansea City Council want to do likewise with its civic centre and Leeds City Council is looking at selling off nearly £100m of property over the coming years – although from a portfolio worth around £8bn, and the city’s palatial town hall is not on the block. Kirklees Council is undertaking a review of its £1.2bn property portfolio, hoping that communities may be willing to take on the running of some buildings.

Town halls vary enormously, and so do the resulting opportunities. Some are handsome landmark buildings with great potential for re-use. In these cases, councils are likely to want facilities management firms to run the buildings, while retaining ownership and keeping some functions on-site. Other town halls, generally those built during the Cold War, look like they were designed to survive a nuclear war – and few people will miss them. In these cases, including Swansea, local authorities are more likely to want to sell up.

Councils leaving buildings will need to move to others. The trend here is towards consolidating several offices into one, with the aims of saving money and letting people interact more easily. The latter can include staff from other public sector organisations: Southend-on-Sea Borough Council is moving to a refurbished office building called Margaret Thatcher House, and hopes a team from Essex Police will join it. (The Conservative party group is indeed the largest on Southend council.) Northampton County Council has just selected a preferred partner, Galliford Try, for a new £47m headquarters that will consolidate several offices.

If the old buildings are unloved, replacing them is unlikely to be controversial. But if it’s a case of running or even buying a more glamourous town, city, county or shire hall, some potential suppliers might be put off by the political aspects. These can’t be avoided; such buildings will continue to hold a political and civic charge, even if they change their use.

So businesses need to use a bit of sense. Plans are going to have to get past both the local authority and the local community; turning a much-loved council building into an enclave of luxury is unlikely to go down well. A mix of functions including public use and the creation of local jobs should be part of any wisely drawn-up proposal.

Ealing may turn its town hall into a hotel and flats (getwestlondon)

Essex looks for partner to run most of county hall (press release)

Worcestershire may rent out part of county hall (Bromsgrove Advertiser)

Enfield sells former town hall for £2m (press release)

Swansea in talks to sell civic centre (South Wales Evening Post)

Leeds plans £100m in sell-offs (Yorkshire Evening Post)

Kirklees Council's estate is worth £1.2bn, but it can't afford to maintain it (Huddersfield Daily Examiner)

Southend moves to Margaret Thatcher House (press release)

Northamptonshire selects Galliford Try for headquarters (The Construction Index)

All of these articles and press releases appeared in Council News Monitor, which is now open to subscriptions at just £2 a month for email bulletins every working day. Click here to find out more and subscribe.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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