County council offices could be sold off or leased in part

Hertfordshire County Council offices, Hertford. Picture: DANNY LOO

Hertfordshire County Council offices, Hertford. Picture: DANNY LOO - Credit: Picture: DANNY LOO

Parts of Hertfordshire County Council could be sold off, leased, or redeveloped, as part of a review of working practices it has emerged.

Under normal circumstances, the Hertford County Hall is used by more than 2,000 council staff every day but during the COVID-19 pandemic, almost all of those staff have been working remotely, from home.

And there is said to be significant support among staff for home-working to continue for two or three days a week – even after the pandemic.

The council has already been looking at increasing remote working – enabling staff to spend more time working from home or at local ‘touchdown’ sites.

It has also already reduced office capacity at Apsley, in Hemel Hempstead – cutting the council's annual budget by £1.2m.

Councillor Ralph Sangster, who is responsible for highways at Herts County Council. Picture: David H

Executive member for resources Ralph Sangster - Credit: Archant

Executive member for resources Cllr Ralph Sangster says the “history” and “iconic situation” of County Hall would have to be recognised in any future plans and he does not think the council would "walk away" from County Hall.

However, he draws a distinction between the 1939-built original building – which includes the entrance, council chamber, and ballroom’– and the more recent extensions and grounds, which he says could be used for other things.

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“We won’t be occupying all the buildings we currently occupy," Cllr Sangster added. “We have already made approaches to assess how much of County Hall we need to maintain to carry on the work we need to do."

Bosses at the county council say they had been looking at working practices and the future use of buildings before the pandemic but this has sped up due to COVID-19. 

And the approach is included in the county council's budget proposals, published in advance of the council’s cabinet meeting on Monday (January 18).

It highlights more flexible working environments, sharing buildings, and a new asset management plan, as well as referencing the need for COVID-secure buildings and locations for testing and vaccinations.

And it states: “Many of us will work at home or in the community, combined with using office spaces when we need them.

“With this flexibility comes better work/life balance, a reduced environmental impact, financial savings, and opportunities to deliver services differently to better meet the needs of a changing Hertfordshire.”

Commenting on the approach, director of resources Scott Crudgington acknowledges that the one person, one desk model may already be a thing of the past.

But he stresses that technology will need to be right and buildings adapted in the right way to allow collaboration before any changes are made to the use of existing buildings.

The county council’s budget documents – known as the integrated plan’– were published in advance of the cabinet meeting on Monday (January 18).

And following a series of meetings, they will be considered by a meeting of the full council on February 23.

There are also plans to close the county offices in Hertford, Hemel Hempstead, and Stevenage between Christmas and New Year, as part of a bid to save up to £10,000 a year.

Currently the County Hall, in Hertford, offices in Apsley,  Hemel Hempstead, and the Farnham House and Robertson House buildings, in Stevenage, are closed for a couple of days over the festive period.

But council bosses say that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that working from home is possible.

They have estimated that closing the buildings between December 21 and January 3 would save around £10,000 – including heating, ventilation, and heating and utility costs.

“Within this period footfall as well as operations throughout these sites decreases,” says a budget report.

“The current COVID era has established that it is actually possible to work considerably from home, which directly supports the Corporate directive of how the Council business will be managed.

“The study was based on the cost of running HVAC, boiler, utilities and other.”

Meanwhile, the document also proposes a review of current security patrols of vacant council-owned properties.

It suggests that as part of that review existing patrols – including guards and dogs – could be replaced by CCTV or remote monitoring arrangements, at a saving of around £50,000 a year.