Shropshire Councillors are to discuss demolishing the unloved Shirehall and replacing it with a civic centre in the Shrewsbury Loop. The Shirehall site will be sold, presumably for housing. The potential location of the civic centre has not been revealed (I think Riverside would be a good location). More details may be given at the Shropshire Council meeting on Thursday morning.

There is a lot of sense in this proposal. Staff and councillors are now largely working from home. Shirehall is a vast, unwelcoming, energy inefficient, concrete monstrosity. A smaller, more accessible civic centre makes better sense. But it should be called Shropshire Civic Centre to reflect its county wide role, not Shrewsbury Civic Centre which makes it sound like a town facility.

Council leaders are asking councils to give permission for a further £1.15 million to look at the case for a civic centre. At this point I get nervous. The council allocated £1.5 million to look at refurbishment of Shirehall. That proved to be a waste of money. We can’t waste any more.

The sprawling Shirehall estate

In October 2018, Shropshire Council announced a £25 million plan to refurbish Shirehall. Built in 1967, a major upgrade for the sprawling building was long overdue. But £25 million would be as much as the building cost to build in the first place (adjusted for inflation).

Shirehall in 1967

These plans seemed to be well advanced at the time and council officers said they were talking to potential retailers for part of the site. Councillors were, however, only allowed to see a redacted version of the refurbishment plans. The section headed “Commercial Opportunities” was completely redacted. Councillors allocated £1.5 million to continue examining the case for refurbishment. Dreamy designs were drawn up for the £25 million project.

Shirehall dreams in 2018

These ambitions faded and work was ‘paused’ in August 2019. It is not yet clear how much money was wasted on this daydream venture but it must be in excess of £1 million.

The coronavirus epidemic changed everything overnight. Shirehall, like so many buildings, was emptied of staff. Only essential employees who could not work from home were allowed into the building.

Homeworking proved not to be much of a problem. There were the usual technology glitches and learning curves as people got used to working from spare rooms, bedrooms and comfy sofas. But if the Shirehall refurbishment scheme wasn’t dead already, it was now. Deputy leader Steve Charmley set out the context in a reply to a question from Councillor David Vasmer at the 6 July cabinet:

“Responding to the Covid epidemic has changed how we deliver services to our residents and will inform how we will work in the future. Our focus will be to reduce the cost and time associated with journeys which are not necessary and particularly to buildings which are carbon inefficient and expensive to operate. We will reduce what we spend on buildings and continue to invest in our staff and digital infrastructure to improve our service delivery.”

Over 95% of staff who worked at the Shirehall before the pandemic have been working from home and from other locations during the lockdown period. One in ten of those who responded to a staff survey said they want to work from home, or a mixture of working from home and the office in the future.

That was true for councillors also. I don’t miss Shirehall or the travel. But I do recognise that casual encounters and office chatter are important in any business. A one minute conversation in a lift – okay no one talks in lifts – a conversation over coffee or an encounter in a corridor can join up dots in your head.

Getting rid of Shirehall and moving to a small more welcoming civic centre is the right direction of travel. The out-of-centre location of Shirehall isolates decision makers from the daily experience of citizens in Shrewsbury and across Shropshire. Relocation to the town centre will bring new footfall to the Loop.

A civic centre must go hand in hand with devolution of functions to small offices in the market towns. Back in November 2018, I argued for demolition of Shirehall and devolution:

Shropshire Council is one of the largest employers in our county. Yet it has concentrated most of its staff in Shrewsbury. That sucks jobs and expenditure from the rest of the county. It also means that its view of Shropshire is dominated by Shrewsbury and rural areas barely get a look in.

There is a different model. Back office operations could be devolved around the county to give the rest of the county would get an economic and democratic boost. Shirehall should be knocked down and replaced with a mix of offices and homes.

I called for council officers to examine a devolved option, where staff are dispersed around the market towns. Deputy Leader Steve Charmley assured the council that all options would be looked at included a devolved model. At a recent cabinet meeting (6 July 2020), Peter Nutting talked about more people working from the market towns. He said the council no longer needs or desires a centralised estate when most people are now working from home.

But there is nothing about devolved working from the market towns in the paper to be discussed on Thursday. Will the council have small local offices – as it used to? I will be asking that question.

Given Shropshire Council’s abandonment of grandiose plans to refurbish Shirehall, it should ensure it is committed to the civic centre project and doesn’t throw more good money after bad.

A town centre civic building will be more sustainable. It will be modern and energy efficient. It will also be placed for promoting sustainable transport. Shirehall boasts 500 car parking spaces, including reserved spaces for directors and cabinet members. Any staff driving to the new civic centre will obliged to use public car parks (though I bet there will be an underground parking area for the top brass). Better still council staff who need to go to the civic centre will use the park and ride or town bus services. Even better than that, those that live in Shrewsbury could walk or cycle.

I support the principle of a Shropshire Civic Centre but more council service functions should be devolved to market towns.

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