With the move of council staff from Taberner House into the new Bernard Weatherill House now under way, Cllr Sara Bashford, cabinet member for community and voluntary services, explains why this is a great deal for the Croydon taxpayer.
There has been a lot of misinformation on the council's move into new offices put out in the last few years, not least from the opposition Labour group. In their leaflets they have made lurid claims about the cost of the new building (anywhere between £100m and £450m, depending on which of their leaflets you're looking at) and the impact they claim it will have on services.
Unfortunately, as with all political spin, if it is repeated often enough and boldly enough, some people will start to think that it might be true.
So what are the facts?
The most important fact to know is that Taberner House is worn out. Built in the early sixties, almost everything in it needs replacing. Its lifts are shot (lifts are frequently out of commission because spare parts to maintain them are so hard to get), as is its air conditioning (baking in summer, freezing in winter). Its very un-eco-friendly. It costs a fortune to maintain. And most significantly of all, it is completely the wrong shape for a modern council.
Back in the sixties, when Tab House was designed, the council had dozens of departments, all with their own front and back office (customer-facing parts and administrative parts). The council was made up of small teams, all working pretty much independently of each other. So a tall, thin building made perfect sense. It was easy to divide the building up so that each team built its own culture.
No business or council works like that any more. Instead of dozens of departments, we now have five. Instead of each team managing its own relationship with its users, we now have a contact centre which can handle just about any incoming enquiry (and yes, it's in Croydon not in Bangalore).
Instead of tall, thin buildings, modern organisations want low, wide ones so-called 'groundscrapers'. You don't have to take my word for this you can see it in the fortunes of the rest of Croydon's office centre. The tall thin buildings from the sixties are all being abandoned and replaced with ones shaped for the way modern businesses work. And it is the fundamental reason why Nestle left Croydon it needed a shape of building which wasn't easily available here and which London's high land values make much more economic to provide outside the M25.
So whilst we could have spent the £40m-plus required to move out of Tab House, strip it and refurbish it, then move back, it would have been a very unwise investment because it would still be the wrong shape.
Instead, we came up with a much more imaginative solution. We looked across our entire estate and realised that most of it needed replacing. If we consolidated into one building, we would make much better use of the space and it would free up lots of sites around the borough for regeneration. What if we could use the sites we freed up to redevelop for profit, and we could then use that profit to pay for the new main building we require?
This is the principle upon which the Croydon Council Urban Regeneration Vehicle (or CCURV, pronounced 'curve') works. Instead of selling off surplus land and then seeing private developers make a killing developing it, we do the development ourselves through CCURV. We are not property developers, so we needed a partner in CCURV which has that expertise, which is where John Laing comes into it. We provide the development sites, they provide the know-how and the commercial capital to develop out the commercial sites.
The analogy I use is this. Imagine you have an old house on a fairly big site. You've got a nice asset, but not much income. The house is falling to bits and, in any case, you really need a bungalow now. But you can't afford to knock it down and rebuild it, so instead you do a deal with a local builder. He knocks down your house and builds two bungalows on the land. You move into one, and together you sell the other. He takes half the proceeds from the sale, so he's happy. You give him your profit from the sale to pay for him building the bungalow you kept. So you now have a house that meets your needs but you didn't have to pay for it. This is how CCURV works.
So why is this in the interests of Croydon tax payers?
- It will sharply reduce our running costs to the tune of over £2 million per year.
- It saves us from having to pay well over £40 million to refurbish Tab House.
- It provides a building which is now the right shape and enables us to make major savings in staffing costs in essence we will need fewer managers because each will be able to manage a larger team
- It enables us to increase efficiency by offering better flexibility, easier home-working and run fewer seldom-occupied desks (everyone will be able to 'hot desk', so we will need to heat and light less space to cope with the same number of employees)
- It enables us to create space to accommodate many more public services in our public 'Access Croydon' space and offer you, the customer, a better service. At the moment, Access Croydon is a bit of a misnomer it really means 'Access the Council'. The new Access Croydon will be occupied by the council, the Citizens' advice Bureau, the Credit Union, the Department of Work and Pensions, Job Centre Plus, various voluntary services and so on. You really will be able to access almost the entire suite of public sector services through one space: a genuine 'Access Croydon'.
- The regeneration at other vacated sites will bring jobs and prosperity, both during construction and thereafter. Incidentally this is where Labour's £450m comes from: it is the value of all the regeneration which the BWH construction enables.
- And it is far more environmentally sustainable, reducing our carbon footprint considerably and halving our energy consumption.
So Labour is being deliberately misleading in the way it whips up opposition to the new building, entirely motivated by their desire to win seats at the council elections next May. Think of it this way: new council office buildings are never popular with the public and opposition parties always tell whoppers about luxury offices for bureaucrats!
Would we, in all seriousness, have been daft enough to embark upon this project, and risk the public backlash, unless there really was a sound commercial basis for doing it? Would we risk handing control of the town back to Labour on a whim? I think most people would accept, whether they are our supporters or not, that Conservatives are generally very rational and are known for being careful with public money.
This is a rational project, not a vanity project. It saves a lot of money in the medium term and should cost the tax payer nothing, because of the imaginative way we have chosen to fund it. It is a brilliant deal for the people of Croydon, offering better services and lower costs.
So when Labour knock on your door, telling you it is going to cost you thousands, ask them to show you where it is in the council budget? They won't be able to, because it's not there!