Leaving Shirehall is 'golden opportunity' for Shropshire Council, says deputy leader

Plans to relocate Shropshire Council’s headquarters have created a “golden opportunity” for a new Shrewsbury town centre base, the authority’s deputy leader has said.

Shirehall in Shrewsbury
Shirehall in Shrewsbury

But other councillors remained unconvinced after proposals for a new civic centre in the Pride Hill Shopping Centre were discussed at a committee meeting.

There was criticism that not enough information had been provided on how the preferred option – set to cost around £12.5 million – was arrived at, and why the possibility of building a new office block on the Shirehall site had been discounted.

Tim Smith, the council’s assistant director of commercial services, told the performance management scrutiny committee that the Covid pandemic had proven that a building as large as Shirehall was no longer needed.

Shirehall stands at over 20,000 square metres, while the potential space in the Pride Hill centre would be just over 5,500 square metres, but Mr Smith said additional capacity would be created elsewhere in the county.

He said: “The smaller footprint that’s being assumed here doesn’t mean to say that there aren’t other places around the county that staff and partners could use as what we call ‘drop down spaces’ and desks.”

Mr Smith said the wellbeing of staff was a key consideration, and the council was keen to ensure staff could spend adequate time with their teams and access a workspace away from home when needed.

Rental

He said: “It’s really important to say that the town centre venue looks smaller, and it will drive footfall, if agreed, into the town centre, which we believe is much needed – but it isn’t the only answer.

“It is part of a much wider picture and network of places in which our staff can work.”

Mr Smith said there was “strong interest” from five other public sector bodies in being co-located within the new civic centre, which would provide rental income for the council.

Mark Barrow, the council’s director of place, said: “Rather than having officers travel in and out of Shirehall to distant parts of the county, there would be other places they can drop into, in particular market towns, around the county, as use as a bit of a hub.

“This would cut down that central commute into and out of Shrewsbury.

“One of things we want to do is make sure that for those people that do struggle to work at home we can find a way of making that work in this new model.

“This really is the new shape of services for the council in a number of ways and it reflects our agility, using technology.

“What we have shown through the pandemic is that we can work entirely remotely.”

Mr Barrow said he envisaged a model whereby staff would work 40 per cent of the time at the civic centre or other hub, and 60 per cent of the time from home.

He added: “What the pandemic has done is accelerate our confidence in our ability to work differently. We don’t want people to have lots of paper, it’s about using technology going forward.”

Public transport

Mr Barrow said the town centre location would also enable staff to use public transport, and work alongside the other public sector partners which had all expressed a wish to be in the town centre.

But Councillor Roger Evans, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrat group, said he was disappointed that the option of building a new headquarters on the current Shirehall site had been “written off” with no consideration.

The five options outlined in Mr Smith’s report were the Pride Hill centre, Riverside centre, Guildhall, and two unidentified privately-owned buildings.

Councillor Evans said: “There is one option that is not mentioned here at all and that is to rebuild on the present Shirehall site.

“I am amazed that that hasn’t been considered and looked at. It’s an ideal site, the land is free, we have just got to put a building up.”

Mr Barrow said this option was not on the table as the site was considered too large, in line with the council’s new ways of working, and would cost around £20 million.

Committee members also said they were concerned about staff wellbeing and whether the views of council employees were being heard loudly enough.

Disabilities

Councillor Cecilia Motley said it should not be assumed that because home working had been necessitated by the pandemic that this was something all staff were happy and able to continue doing.

Other members questioned how staff and members who rely on cars would access the new civic centre, particularly those with disabilities.

Mr Barrow said a thorough travel plan would be presented with the full business case when the plans are debated by the full council at a meeting next month.

Councillor Alan Mosley, Shropshire Council’s Labour group leader and the leader of Shrewsbury Town Council, said he was supportive of the proposals which he said aligned with the aspirations of the Big Town Plan.

Summing up, deputy leader and portfolio holder for assets, Councillor Steve Charmley, said: “I think this is a golden opportunity to inject some footfall and spend into the town centre, utilising a facility which we have got within the Pride Hill centre, taking up the lower ground floors and still leaving the upper floor for leisure use.

“I am pleased that Alan is supportive because this does stack up as a big piece of the Big Town Plan, but I do take on board that there are details that need to be worked out.”

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