- Posted by: Canterbury Labour
- Category: Latest News
Residents are quite rightly questioning the need for new offices for the Council (letters, last week). However, having asked the same questions – and many more – during the early stages of this idea, I have moved from being sceptical to being generally supportive. Let me explain why.
Firstly, the existing offices are neither organisationally efficient nor capable of becoming “carbon neutral’, due to appallingly bad design. Not only is 45% of the floor area used for movement around the maze-like building, which still has to be heated, but the teams are isolated in very separated areas which are inflexible. Worse, the design includes multiple internal courtyards, increasing the amount of external walls through which heat escapes. On top of that the physical structure is deteriorating. If the council were to remain in the property it would cost several million pounds just to make it weatherproof and renew heating and other systems. So remaining there is not an option.
Given that, the Council has taken steps to minimise the effective cost, by only considering building on land it already owns. Freeing up the existing site for disposal for housebuilding is, on current figures (which I have questioned), likely to almost fully fund construction of new offices. Those who argue that this money could be better spent have, I think, missed the point that without sale of the Military Road site the money wouldn’t be available at all.
The question “why now?” has also been asked. Simply put, this is a four year project, so it’s not actually “now” at all. Delaying makes the problems in the existing offices worse and simply increases the Council’s total carbon emissions. Deferral simply puts at risk the move towards a carbon neutral operation by 2030, which is our target.
Some people may think that the Council should rent rather than build its own offices. Sadly, through it may seem an obvious solution, it is not how local government finance works. Renting would directly increase the Council’s operating costs – that is, the funds would come from the money allocated for service delivery. Fairly obviously, with the Council under extreme financial pressure, that would mean cuts to services, which is the precise reverse of what residents want. The Council really would be spending Council Tax on itself in that situation. By raising the capital costs of constructing a new building through sale of its land, the true net cost of the new offices is as close to zero as the Council can get.
None of this, of course, addresses any of the issues around carbon neutral operation. So far as I am able to tell, critics are correct that the carbon cost of construction – known as embedded carbon – has not been accounted for when claiming that the new office will be “carbon neutral”. That is something I am pushing to get included in the “whole life” calculation of the new building. But since the other options all have significant carbon emissions aspects then it is hard to see how new offices could actually be worse than those.
Finally, there is the issue of location. In general, Labour supports the idea that customer facing services should be near residents. A hub-and-spoke solution with satellite offices in Whitstable and Herne Bay would be very beneficial, especially if and when Housing services return in-house. Nonetheless, the main functions of the Council and its support services need to be better integrated. That can only be achieved by being on a single site, ideally in an office which us much better designed along modern working practice lines. When looking at site options, the Council’s officers carried out a professional appraisal, with external advice, based primarily on the need for carbon neutral operation and travel-to-work for the staff. At the end of that process, Wincheap offered the best combination of outcomes and the only truly carbon-neutral operational design potential. There are aspects of that choice which have been questioned thoroughly already by myself and other Councillors, and some are still not convinced. But decisions need to be taken. We cannot dither on this, and half-measures will not deliver the climate change impacts we all desperately want to achieve.