Council's single site plan back on the agenda?

Date: Monday 7th August 2017

EDEN Council’s controversial single site plan could be resurrected as the authority struggles to solve staff overcrowding at its Penrith offices.

Officers have been asked to produce a report to go before the full council in January as the search for a solution enters its seventh year.

The council voted in April, 2016, to defer any decision to sell offices at Mansion House and put on hold any extension of Penrith Town Hall. Staff are currently squeezed into Mansion House, the town hall and an annexe at its rear.

The authority’s human resources panel toured the buildings to see the problems for itself. Some managers are working “remotely” from their teams and some staff doing the same job are scattered across different rooms, wings and buildings.

The situation has been deemed neither “efficient” nor “productive” by council bosses, who are not ruling out a wide range of options, including a return to the single site plan for the town hall.

Three council-owned buildings in Corney Square could be incorporated into a town hall extension. One of the buildings is leased to Gaudium Ltd., a home health care service, while the others, a former antiques shop and a vacant Polish shop, are empty, with their short-term lease available.

The three properties could either be refurbished into offices or entirely demolished to build a new extension, a report has suggested. A far less costly alternative could be the installation of portable buildings in the rear car park of Mansion House.

But managers are concerned that the existing situation could increase “sickness absence” in staff and poor “health and wellbeing”.

“Research demonstrates that supporting a healthier lifestyle and work life balance, including location and type of work location, has a direct impact on the council in attendance,” said a report.

Parts of Mansion House and the town hall are also not compliant with the Equality Act 2010, brought in to protect people from discrimination in society and the workplace.

Some parts of the council buildings are difficult for people with a disability to access, although areas that the public frequent are compliant, the report said.

“A move to a single site with the construction of the extension will improve the accessibility of the council’s buildings and meet the needs of disabled people,” it added.

No decision has yet been made and the council’s human resources and appeals committee has asked managers to start the ball rolling again with a further report. It is expected to go to a meeting in November and could be aired before full council in the new year.

Two of the most outspoken opponents to the cost of the single site plan now head the human resources and appeals committee — John Lynch (Con, Penrith East) is its chairman and Mike Eyles (Lib Dem, Penrith East) his deputy.

Possible alternative options include refurbishing both Mansion House and the town hall. Mansion House, however, poses a headache because it is a Grade II listed building in a conservation area. This would make it “difficult and costly” to carry out alterations.

In the coming years, the council plans to put more emphasis on customers serving themselves at the town hall.

An improved reception area and customer contact centre with computers could be made available for the public. This would help “reduce demand” on officers.

Some customer services staff would be needed, however, to help those unfamiliar with the technology. Any such proposal would require a redesign of the town hall interior.

The council is also keen to look at what else it can do to support staff. This would include honouring “flexible working requests” to allow workers time off for child care and parental care.

Ideally, it also wants to provide facilities where staff do not have to eat at their desks. The introduction of showers and possible changing rooms to encourage exercise before work or at lunchtimes may also be considered.