St Helens Borough Council has unveiled ambitious plans that will see sweeping changes to its current office accommodation and buildings.
The council, like many others, drastically changed the way that most of its workforce operated when the country went into lockdown due to Covid-19, and council buildings such as the Town Hall, Wesley House and Atlas House were forced to close. All office-based staff have worked remotely since March, thanks to technology. However, the council now wants to take advantage of these new ways of working and is reviewing how it can use its estate more efficiently.
In the plans that were announced to staff this week by Chief Executive Kath O’Dwyer, previously office-based staff were informed of the move to a hybrid work model, which would see staff being offered the opportunity to work more flexibly from a variety of locations, including their home, within the community, or with partners rather than in a specific location, with a focus on work being something you do rather than where you do it.
Part of these plans would see Atlas House become an agile hub for office staff, while the Town Hall would maintain its focus as the recognised democratic seat of the council, where Cabinet and Council meetings would be held, as well as wedding ceremonies, civil partnerships and events.
Office space in the Town Hall would no longer be required, and this would allow for the potential development of commercial opportunities and increased community usage. This would also make the building more accessible to local people, therefore retaining the heritage of the building and its place within the town centre and residents’ lives.
Wesley House and Lincoln House will be retained in the short term, with plans to vacate both buildings in the medium-long term future.
A public consultation was held on the potential future use of the Gamble Building back in March this year, and although a report to Cabinet highlighting the findings from the consultation has been delayed due to Covid-19, initial feedback has shown an overwhelming desire by local people to see the building used as a community arts, cultural and educational space.
With this in mind, and taking the first steps towards this realisation, the opportunity has been taken to move the current office accommodation out of the building, with the council’s Integrated Care Services and St Helens Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), who were both previously housed in the building potentially relocating to Forster House. The Archives Service will remain in the building.
These plans would also support the wider regeneration of St Helens Town Centre and the borough. English Cities Fund (ECF) plan for the town centre includes a £200m commercial and leisure investment that would completely transform the town centre, including the addition of top-quality office space.
Atlas House, as the most modern of the council’s office accommodation, is the most cost-effective council building to transform into an agile hub for office staff, but the council has an eight-year lease on the building. In the medium term the council could potentially look to develop a new building in the town centre within the regeneration area, to coincide with the expiry of the lease on Atlas House. As well as housing council services this building could also co-locate other local services and partners, further supporting the council’s wider One Public Estate vision, to rationalise and re-imagine some of the public sector buildings in the centre.
The council has also recognised its need to look wider than St Helens Town Centre to the district centres, and the plans provide further opportunity to examine locality working, allowing services to be provided closer to the communities and residents who use them and facilitating a greater understanding of the needs of residents in that particular area. These locations could again provide a hub in which various local services and partners could be based.
St Helens Borough Council Leader David Baines said:
“These proposals are hugely significant and very exciting. The pandemic has given businesses and organisations the opportunity to think about the way they work, their use of office accommodation, and their expectations and demands on staff. Even before Covid the council was determined to modernise and become more effective and efficient, and during lockdown we have been looking at how we can be a better employer and how we can better use our office and building space.
“Like all other local people, I want us to retain our historical buildings, and importantly these proposals safeguard the future for public use of St Helens Town Hall, The Gamble Building and Earlestown Town Hall. It’s important these are enhanced and protected for future generations so that they can play a full part in the daily life of our communities.
“Crucially, I want council staff and services to be accessible to the communities we serve. The location of co-located buildings across the borough will allow residents easier, more local access to a variety of services, and at the same time I want to make St Helens town hall more open. Since becoming Leader of the Council last year I have wanted to make it a more familiar place for residents, and I want us to invest in improving areas such as the Assembly Hall to make it a suitable venue for concerts, events, conferences and community activities.
“These proposals are early evidence of the impact our new top team of senior officers are having. They are looking at the council with fresh eyes and new ideas. While we face unprecedented financial uncertainty, we’re making sure we’ve got our own house in order so we’re in the best possible place to meet head on the challenges in front of us.”
Councillor Kate Groucutt, Cabinet Member for Corporate Services, Estates and Communication said:
“Over the last few months the council has been able to maintain most of its staff working from home, while continuing to provide an efficient service for residents. This was made possible by some timely investment in our IT just prior to Covid.
“We now want to build on that foundation, and develop a workforce and organisation that is more agile, one which can adapt to offering services to our residents when and where they want them, and in a way that it is more accessible to them. This way of working can also result in substantial cost savings to the council including using the buildings we do retain more efficiently, reducing the need for equipment and furniture, making savings on utility costs and resource costs such as printing and photocopying, as well as in the longer term the relinquishing of actual buildings. All this amounts to money that can be better spent on our services and residents.
“Last year the council declared its commitment to a climate change emergency, and these ambitious plans will go some way to reducing our carbon admissions and addressing our environmental agenda. By reducing our buildings and assets, and maximising the space that we do have, we are not just paying lip service but are actually tackling the difficult issue of reducing our carbon footprint.
“And it’s not just our buildings, by encouraging an agile workforce we are also encouraging more sustainable travel with staff making less journeys at potentially quieter times, and in relation to locality working providing both residents and employees with the opportunity to walk or cycle to access services available more locally to them.”
Over the coming months the council will reconfigure Atlas House into an agile hub for office staff, which will be fully operational by December.
Plans are being developed for the future reconfiguration of the Town Hall, that will be informed by further engagement with the public.