Green light for Taunton Deane Council move to County Hall

Cllr John Williams.

Cllr John Williams.

First published in News by

NEGOTIATIONS to create a “one-stop shop” of councils and public services for Taunton Deane’s taxpayers have been given the green light by councillors.

The process of talks paving the way for the borough council to move its offices to County Hall, home of Somerset County Council, was voted for by 29 of its 52 councillors on Tuesday night.

Deane Council leader John Williams said: “The figures demonstrate that a relocation to County Hall, and taking space there, was by far and wide the best solution for our community, not only financially, but it would create a public sector hub where anyone with business with the council could visit.

“This kind of one-stop shop is the direction in which councils are moving across the land.”

The move means the public would benefit from a sell-off of Deane House, the town council’s current home, which is currently worth “in excess of £2million”, says Cllr Williams, though the “best offer” would be sought.

“The thing is to leave it as flexible as possible for its future, for example, if somebody wanted to buy it for employment.

“It was suggested on Tuesday night that it become a major health centre for that part of Taunton because the existing health centres around the town are all under pressure in terms of space and capacity.

“Now we’ve taken the decision and know where we want to go we can investigate all the options and find the best deal for the Taunton Deane community.”

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2:08pm Thu 21 Aug 14

SocialistParty-SomersetBranch says...

In the interest of providing another viewpoint to that of John Williams, Conservative Party leader of Taunton Deane Council, Somerset branch of the Socialist Party are posting this Taunton Deane Unison response, as presented to the Corporate Scrutiny Committee 19th June.

Whilst the Somerset branch of the Socialist Party agree with most of the points raised in this response, it is to be stressed that this response(posted below) is entirely provided by Taunton Deane Unison and does not necessarily (or entirely) reflect the views or position of the Somerset branch of the Socialist Party.



Corporate Scrutiny Committee 19th June
Council Accommodation
Comments from UNISON
General

The proposal shows signs of being an attempt to rush Taunton Deane into renting space at County Hall, even though this is arguably not the best option for the Borough Council, its staff or the future of Taunton. It also seems doubtful that it is in fact cheaper than a new-build office at Firepool.

Nowhere does the report address the negative economic impact that closing its offices would have on the north end of the town centre. This is likely to be quite significant. Elsewhere, public investment in new buildings continues to be used as a tool of regeneration – Taunton Deane is proposing to disinvest, with the associated economic decline.

It seems wrong for the crucial information on which a decision will be taken to be contained in a confidential appendix. The financial information and assumptions must be placed in the public domain, and not hidden behind a cloak of ‘commercial confidentiality’.

Comments on the Report by the Director of Housing and Communities

2.3 ‘Moving customers away from face-to-face interviews’ is a concept that has recently been criticised by the National Pensioners Convention – millions of older people are not on line, and are unlikely to acquire access to the Internet in the foreseeable future.

2.9 The ‘Public Sector Hub’ idea is based on an urban myth. People do not approach the Council on, say a planning or environmental health issue and then decide to engage with a range of other, unrelated public sector services.

2.10 The example quoted of the ‘hub’ at Shepton Mallet is different in one very important respect to what is now being proposed. In that case, Mendip District Council retain control of their own offices – as do all the other Districts in Somerset. The District Councils are then able to rent space to other agencies. This is the exact opposite of what is being proposed for Taunton, which willleave the Borough Council as a tenant.

The ‘hub’ concept may therefore work for the other Districts, but it does not work for Taunton Deane, and will leave the Borough Council in the unique position amongst the other Somerset Districts of having no accommodation of its own.

Once the Borough Council moves in to rent part of County Hall, it will have the County Council’s ‘thumb on its windpipe’. There is no guarantee that the occupation of part of County Hall would in future not become markedly less convenient or more expensive from the Borough Council’s point of view – the situation will be largely outside its control. This is conceded by the Council’s own finance officers who state that ‘…although a 6% cap has been factored in for the first 5 years, we currently have no indication of how the lease/rental cost may move beyond that horizon’.

There is another sense in which it would be wrong for the Borough Council to end up as a tenant of the County Council. County Hall has empty space in significant part because the authority has deliberately cut staff and services, to the point that some of the latter are now almost laughably bad. (The County can’t even cut the highway verges regularly in Taunton). It is not clear exactly what value would be added (to use the jargon) by moving in with the County Council. Taunton Deane will in reality be paying rent to subsidise a cuts programme by a County Council which has already managed to part company with two Chief Executives, and is if anything diverting investment away from Taunton Deane to other parts of the County (exemplified by its designation of the modest town of Frome as a growth area).

4.2 Although there is inevitably a degree of subjectivity in these exercises, it seems hard to justify why ‘public perception’ should be given such a high rating. Surely what matters is what is genuinely the best value for money. It would be a mistake to base a decision on a hypothetical, superficial public reaction to a new council office building if that was actually the more cost-effective option. Besides, the Council could also point to its vacation and sale of the much larger site of the Deane House.

Other local authorities, such as Northamptonshire, are proposing new council office buildings to allow them to vacate rented accommodation elsewhere in their area. Yet Taunton Deane is proposing to sell its own accommodation, move some of its staff to less convenient locations and pay rent to another party!

4.3 It seems clear that plans are being considered to require up to 115 Taunton Deane staff to work from West Somerset House at Williton. Apart from being extraordinary to suggest that one third of the Council’s workforce should be relocated 15 miles away in a neighbouring local authority, this does not seem physically possible. It is not solely a question of accommodating the additional desks within the offices at Williton. The centre of Williton would not be able to
accommodate the car parking required by the additional staff (at times it is already almost impossible to find space to park at Williton), and being in a much more rural location than Taunton, most people will have no option but to drive to work.

One can well imagine the reaction from traders and the local community who would find that their car parks were full up with Council employees, and that there was nowhere for shoppers etc. to park.

Williton would also be a highly inconvenient location for many TDBC
employees to have travel to work – as well as being 15 miles (35-40 minutes) from Taunton, it is very much further for people who currently live south, east or west of the County town. Already a great deal of time is being staff by staff travelling between Taunton and Williton – a round trip takes 1 – 1.5 hours out of the working day.

4.4 It is not clear why a DCF (discounted cash flow) of 25 years is used. A new office building could be expected to have a significantly longer life than 25 years. Use of a shorter period of time could well have the effect of skewing the analysis. 60 years is used for some forms of transport investment.

After 25 years the Borough Council will be in inferior office accommodation at County Hall that will then be 75 years old (over 100 years in the case of A Block).

6.0 The Taunton Public Service Hub seems a deeply flawed concept, for a variety of reasons. For example, it seems extraordinary for it to be suggested that the library might be located there, and on the first floor – County Hall would not be a convenient location for users of the facility, being remote from the main shopping area; indeed almost invisible from any public thoroughfare.

If the library is not to occupy its current site in Paul Street, the question arises as to what will happen to the Borough Council’s Tourist Information Centre. That cannot sensibly move to County Hall – it needs to be in an accessible location in the town centre for visitors to Taunton (as indeed, does the library!)

It seems clear that this proposal is being rushed through to suit the County Council’s internal deadline for its ‘public sector hub’. It would be entirely wrong for this to occur – adequate time must be allowed for any proposals to be formulated, and concerns properly answered.

8.0 The proposal appears to rely on a rushed sale of the Deane House site within 3 years. Such haste seems highly unlikely to result in an acceptable form of development on what is a key site in the middle of Taunton. It seems that Planning Policy staff have not been consulted about this, which seems wholly unacceptable. The Council will also need to address the future of Flook House, whose position prevents the Deane House site from having a proper frontage to Station Road. This is not mentioned anywhere.

9.0 Although the report refers to ‘..be that County Hall or Firepool…’ the
references in the ensuing table imply that County Hall has already been
decided upon and that this process is not therefore a genuine consultation on alternatives. Given the major implications for the terms and conditions and staff arising from a change of workplace location, this is not appropriate. As already noted, some aspects of what is being proposed appear fundamentally unsound.

Comments on the DTZ paper
It is not clear why it apparently costs 8 times more per annum to occupy Deane House than the annual energy costs. No breakdown is given to support the statement made.

Why has the option of a new build on the Council’s own land, rather than a virtual freehold or lease, not been addressed?

Section 2 – Future Operational Office Requirement

Whilst DTZ state that the current space standards at Deane House are too generous, there is reason to think that the standard proposed of 6 sq m per person is too low: staff in Sedgemoor have sometimes found themselves with nowhere to work owing to too few desks having been provided. Forcing staff to work at home to alleviate space
problems would not be acceptable.

As already noted, the suggestion that up to 115 Taunton Deane staff may in future work at Williton, is not realistic. Such a proposal raises serious concerns in terms of staff travel to work, and parking at Williton (which is in short supply already).

Section 4 – Overview of the Options

It seems clear from the DTZ report that no other public sector organisation has actually committed to taking up surplus space at County Hall. The County Council may well be seeking to induce Taunton Deane to move there to stave off the embarrassment of its ‘public sector hub’ not actually working.

The Borough Council is being offered part of Block A at County Hall, which is a listed building accompanied by the constraints that this designation imposes.

It appears that the County Council is only prepared to make 900 sq m of floorspace available, which is substantially less than the Borough Council requires. Even on this basis, however, it appears that Taunton Deane will have to pay an annual rent plus rates of around £250,000.

It appears that the County Council propose to charge TDBC a substantial sum for each parking space they require as part of the relocation. The County Council are proposing to allocate 25 parking spaces to Taunton Deane, but this figure is grossly inadequate.

Taunton Deane currently has around 65 ‘Essential car users’, and there is no reason to think that this number will decline in future. It may even increase, given the emphasis on shared services and greater travelling between sites, as staff will be required to cover a wider range of duties. On top of this, there are also around 100 employees who are defined as ‘casual users’, many of whom are currently able to park at The Deane House.

The Borough Council would have to fund the purchase and running costs of additional pool cars, and provide space for them on-site, to meet the travel requirements of staff who would no longer be able to bring their own vehicle to the Council’s offices.

Essential car users have contractual rights, which despite previous comments from UNISON, the Council is clearly ignoring. This risks the possibility of a dispute with its employees over staff travel, as well as interfering with the efficient conduct of the Council’s business.
The provision of parking based on TDBC’s current operational requirements is likely to cost the Council an additional £100,000 per annum. This would increase the running costs at year 5 by 16% per annum – around 20% more than the Firepool option – a much more substantial difference than appears to have been allowed for.

The difference would be even greater based on the revenue estimates of the Council’s own finance officers.

For reasons explained, the assumed figure in parking charges that would have to be paid to the County Council appears a significant underestimate.

The quality of accommodation in Block A can only be guessed at, as there will be no ‘comfort cooling’…

Section 6 – Options Assessment – Financial

The figures need to be recalculated taking account of the need to pay for more than 25 car parking spaces in the County Hall option, which will increase significantly the Running Costs. Also, the DCF should be varied.

Section 7 – Options Assessment – Non-Financial

Tables such as the one in this section should be treated with scepticism.
No analysis has been attempted of the negative impact on the Station Road area of the closure of the Borough Council’s activities.

No analysis has been undertaken of the negative effect of the Borough Council failing to invest in its own regeneration scheme at Firepool – a marked contrast to locations elsewhere in the country.

Taunton Deane UNISON
13th June 2014
In the interest of providing another viewpoint to that of John Williams, Conservative Party leader of Taunton Deane Council, Somerset branch of the Socialist Party are posting this Taunton Deane Unison response, as presented to the Corporate Scrutiny Committee 19th June. Whilst the Somerset branch of the Socialist Party agree with most of the points raised in this response, it is to be stressed that this response(posted below) is entirely provided by Taunton Deane Unison and does not necessarily (or entirely) reflect the views or position of the Somerset branch of the Socialist Party. Corporate Scrutiny Committee 19th June Council Accommodation Comments from UNISON General The proposal shows signs of being an attempt to rush Taunton Deane into renting space at County Hall, even though this is arguably not the best option for the Borough Council, its staff or the future of Taunton. It also seems doubtful that it is in fact cheaper than a new-build office at Firepool. Nowhere does the report address the negative economic impact that closing its offices would have on the north end of the town centre. This is likely to be quite significant. Elsewhere, public investment in new buildings continues to be used as a tool of regeneration – Taunton Deane is proposing to disinvest, with the associated economic decline. It seems wrong for the crucial information on which a decision will be taken to be contained in a confidential appendix. The financial information and assumptions must be placed in the public domain, and not hidden behind a cloak of ‘commercial confidentiality’. Comments on the Report by the Director of Housing and Communities 2.3 ‘Moving customers away from face-to-face interviews’ is a concept that has recently been criticised by the National Pensioners Convention – millions of older people are not on line, and are unlikely to acquire access to the Internet in the foreseeable future. 2.9 The ‘Public Sector Hub’ idea is based on an urban myth. People do not approach the Council on, say a planning or environmental health issue and then decide to engage with a range of other, unrelated public sector services. 2.10 The example quoted of the ‘hub’ at Shepton Mallet is different in one very important respect to what is now being proposed. In that case, Mendip District Council retain control of their own offices – as do all the other Districts in Somerset. The District Councils are then able to rent space to other agencies. This is the exact opposite of what is being proposed for Taunton, which willleave the Borough Council as a tenant. The ‘hub’ concept may therefore work for the other Districts, but it does not work for Taunton Deane, and will leave the Borough Council in the unique position amongst the other Somerset Districts of having no accommodation of its own. Once the Borough Council moves in to rent part of County Hall, it will have the County Council’s ‘thumb on its windpipe’. There is no guarantee that the occupation of part of County Hall would in future not become markedly less convenient or more expensive from the Borough Council’s point of view – the situation will be largely outside its control. This is conceded by the Council’s own finance officers who state that ‘…although a 6% cap has been factored in for the first 5 years, we currently have no indication of how the lease/rental cost may move beyond that horizon’. There is another sense in which it would be wrong for the Borough Council to end up as a tenant of the County Council. County Hall has empty space in significant part because the authority has deliberately cut staff and services, to the point that some of the latter are now almost laughably bad. (The County can’t even cut the highway verges regularly in Taunton). It is not clear exactly what value would be added (to use the jargon) by moving in with the County Council. Taunton Deane will in reality be paying rent to subsidise a cuts programme by a County Council which has already managed to part company with two Chief Executives, and is if anything diverting investment away from Taunton Deane to other parts of the County (exemplified by its designation of the modest town of Frome as a growth area). 4.2 Although there is inevitably a degree of subjectivity in these exercises, it seems hard to justify why ‘public perception’ should be given such a high rating. Surely what matters is what is genuinely the best value for money. It would be a mistake to base a decision on a hypothetical, superficial public reaction to a new council office building if that was actually the more cost-effective option. Besides, the Council could also point to its vacation and sale of the much larger site of the Deane House. Other local authorities, such as Northamptonshire, are proposing new council office buildings to allow them to vacate rented accommodation elsewhere in their area. Yet Taunton Deane is proposing to sell its own accommodation, move some of its staff to less convenient locations and pay rent to another party! 4.3 It seems clear that plans are being considered to require up to 115 Taunton Deane staff to work from West Somerset House at Williton. Apart from being extraordinary to suggest that one third of the Council’s workforce should be relocated 15 miles away in a neighbouring local authority, this does not seem physically possible. It is not solely a question of accommodating the additional desks within the offices at Williton. The centre of Williton would not be able to accommodate the car parking required by the additional staff (at times it is already almost impossible to find space to park at Williton), and being in a much more rural location than Taunton, most people will have no option but to drive to work. One can well imagine the reaction from traders and the local community who would find that their car parks were full up with Council employees, and that there was nowhere for shoppers etc. to park. Williton would also be a highly inconvenient location for many TDBC employees to have travel to work – as well as being 15 miles (35-40 minutes) from Taunton, it is very much further for people who currently live south, east or west of the County town. Already a great deal of time is being staff by staff travelling between Taunton and Williton – a round trip takes 1 – 1.5 hours out of the working day. 4.4 It is not clear why a DCF (discounted cash flow) of 25 years is used. A new office building could be expected to have a significantly longer life than 25 years. Use of a shorter period of time could well have the effect of skewing the analysis. 60 years is used for some forms of transport investment. After 25 years the Borough Council will be in inferior office accommodation at County Hall that will then be 75 years old (over 100 years in the case of A Block). 6.0 The Taunton Public Service Hub seems a deeply flawed concept, for a variety of reasons. For example, it seems extraordinary for it to be suggested that the library might be located there, and on the first floor – County Hall would not be a convenient location for users of the facility, being remote from the main shopping area; indeed almost invisible from any public thoroughfare. If the library is not to occupy its current site in Paul Street, the question arises as to what will happen to the Borough Council’s Tourist Information Centre. That cannot sensibly move to County Hall – it needs to be in an accessible location in the town centre for visitors to Taunton (as indeed, does the library!) It seems clear that this proposal is being rushed through to suit the County Council’s internal deadline for its ‘public sector hub’. It would be entirely wrong for this to occur – adequate time must be allowed for any proposals to be formulated, and concerns properly answered. 8.0 The proposal appears to rely on a rushed sale of the Deane House site within 3 years. Such haste seems highly unlikely to result in an acceptable form of development on what is a key site in the middle of Taunton. It seems that Planning Policy staff have not been consulted about this, which seems wholly unacceptable. The Council will also need to address the future of Flook House, whose position prevents the Deane House site from having a proper frontage to Station Road. This is not mentioned anywhere. 9.0 Although the report refers to ‘..be that County Hall or Firepool…’ the references in the ensuing table imply that County Hall has already been decided upon and that this process is not therefore a genuine consultation on alternatives. Given the major implications for the terms and conditions and staff arising from a change of workplace location, this is not appropriate. As already noted, some aspects of what is being proposed appear fundamentally unsound. Comments on the DTZ paper It is not clear why it apparently costs 8 times more per annum to occupy Deane House than the annual energy costs. No breakdown is given to support the statement made. Why has the option of a new build on the Council’s own land, rather than a virtual freehold or lease, not been addressed? Section 2 – Future Operational Office Requirement Whilst DTZ state that the current space standards at Deane House are too generous, there is reason to think that the standard proposed of 6 sq m per person is too low: staff in Sedgemoor have sometimes found themselves with nowhere to work owing to too few desks having been provided. Forcing staff to work at home to alleviate space problems would not be acceptable. As already noted, the suggestion that up to 115 Taunton Deane staff may in future work at Williton, is not realistic. Such a proposal raises serious concerns in terms of staff travel to work, and parking at Williton (which is in short supply already). Section 4 – Overview of the Options It seems clear from the DTZ report that no other public sector organisation has actually committed to taking up surplus space at County Hall. The County Council may well be seeking to induce Taunton Deane to move there to stave off the embarrassment of its ‘public sector hub’ not actually working. The Borough Council is being offered part of Block A at County Hall, which is a listed building accompanied by the constraints that this designation imposes. It appears that the County Council is only prepared to make 900 sq m of floorspace available, which is substantially less than the Borough Council requires. Even on this basis, however, it appears that Taunton Deane will have to pay an annual rent plus rates of around £250,000. It appears that the County Council propose to charge TDBC a substantial sum for each parking space they require as part of the relocation. The County Council are proposing to allocate 25 parking spaces to Taunton Deane, but this figure is grossly inadequate. Taunton Deane currently has around 65 ‘Essential car users’, and there is no reason to think that this number will decline in future. It may even increase, given the emphasis on shared services and greater travelling between sites, as staff will be required to cover a wider range of duties. On top of this, there are also around 100 employees who are defined as ‘casual users’, many of whom are currently able to park at The Deane House. The Borough Council would have to fund the purchase and running costs of additional pool cars, and provide space for them on-site, to meet the travel requirements of staff who would no longer be able to bring their own vehicle to the Council’s offices. Essential car users have contractual rights, which despite previous comments from UNISON, the Council is clearly ignoring. This risks the possibility of a dispute with its employees over staff travel, as well as interfering with the efficient conduct of the Council’s business. The provision of parking based on TDBC’s current operational requirements is likely to cost the Council an additional £100,000 per annum. This would increase the running costs at year 5 by 16% per annum – around 20% more than the Firepool option – a much more substantial difference than appears to have been allowed for. The difference would be even greater based on the revenue estimates of the Council’s own finance officers. For reasons explained, the assumed figure in parking charges that would have to be paid to the County Council appears a significant underestimate. The quality of accommodation in Block A can only be guessed at, as there will be no ‘comfort cooling’… Section 6 – Options Assessment – Financial The figures need to be recalculated taking account of the need to pay for more than 25 car parking spaces in the County Hall option, which will increase significantly the Running Costs. Also, the DCF should be varied. Section 7 – Options Assessment – Non-Financial Tables such as the one in this section should be treated with scepticism. No analysis has been attempted of the negative impact on the Station Road area of the closure of the Borough Council’s activities. No analysis has been undertaken of the negative effect of the Borough Council failing to invest in its own regeneration scheme at Firepool – a marked contrast to locations elsewhere in the country. Taunton Deane UNISON 13th June 2014 SocialistParty-SomersetBranch
  • Score: 4
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