With the move of council staff from Taberner House into the new Bernard Weatherill House now under way, I thought it’d be useful to explain why the Council’s decision to build a new HQ is a good deal for Council Taxpayers.
There has been a lot of misinformation put out in the last few years, not least from the opposition Labour group. In their leaflets they have made claims about the cost of the new building (anywhere between £100m and £450m, depending on which of their leaflets you're looking at) and implied this is being paid for by Council Taxpayers.
Unfortunately, when misinformation is repeated often enough and loudly enough people will start to think that it might be true. I wanted to tackle the misinformation head on. So what are the facts?
First, Taberner House is coming to the end of its natural life. Built in the early sixties, almost everything in it needs replacing. Its archaic lifts are shot (frequently out of commission because spare parts to maintain them are now very hard to get hold of), as is its air conditioning making the building baking in summer and freezing in winter). As a building, it’s expensive to maintain, environmentally unfriendly and ill-suited for modern requirements.
Croydon Council could have spent an estimated £40 million moving everyone out, patching it up and then moving everyone back, but that would have been poor use of taxpayer money because it would have had to be patched-up again in a few years time and some of the flaws are fundamental to the design of the building.
Instead, the Council came up with a much more imaginative solution. They looked across all of the properties that they own and realised that most of them actually need replacing. They realised that if they consolidated all their major services into one building, then it would free up lots of sites around the borough for regeneration – something Croydon desperately needs. They embarked on a scheme to use the sites they owned to redevelop them for a profit, so they could then use that profit to pay for the new HQ, so that taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay a penny.
This is the principle upon which the Croydon Council Urban Regeneration Vehicle (CCURV) works. Instead of selling off surplus land and then seeing private developers make a killing developing it, the Council are the ones that do the development through the CCURV. As they are not property developers, they needed a partner that has that expertise, which is where John Laing comes in. The agreement is that the Council provides the development sites; they provide the know-how and the commercial capital to develop out the sites.
Imagine you have an old house on a fairly big site. You've got a nice asset, but not much actual income. The house is falling to bits and, in any case, you really need a bungalow now because you don’t need as big a house as you once did. 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 him for building the bungalow you kept. So you now have a home that meets your needs but you didn't have to pay for it. This is how CCURV works. That’s why the new Council building hasn’t cost Croydon taxpayers the ludicrous sums that Labour are claiming it is. In fact, it saves taxpayers’ money:
● It will sharply reduce the Council’s running costs to the tune of over £2 million per year.
● It saves the Council from having to pay well over £40 million to refurbish Taberner House.
● It provides a building which enables the Council to make major savings in management costs – in essence they will need fewer managers because each will be able to manage a larger team as a result of having fewer, larger floors, which means larger teams can be located in one place.
● It enables the Council to increase efficiency by offering better flexibility, easier home-working and run fewer seldom-occupied desks (everyone will be able to 'hot desk', so they will need to heat and light less space to cope with the same number of employees).
● It enables the Council to create space to accommodate many more public services in its public 'Access Croydon' space and thereby offer residents a much better service. The new Access Croydon will be occupied by the council, the police, the NHS, the Department of Work and Pensions, Job Centre Plus, various voluntary services and so on. Residents really will be able to access almost the entire suite of public sector services through one space.
● The regeneration at other vacated sites will bring jobs and prosperity, both during construction and thereafter.
● The new building is far more environmentally sustainable, reducing the Council’s carbon footprint considerably and halving its energy consumption.
If you’re still not convinced ask yourself: would the Conservatives running the Council, 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?
Moving into Bernard Wetherill House (named after one of my political heroes) is a rational project, not a vanity project. It saves a lot of money in the medium term because of the imaginative way my colleagues on the Council have chosen to fund it. It is a good deal for the people of Croydon, offering better services at lower cost.
So if Labour knock on your door and tell you this efficient building 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.