EXCLUSIVE: Horsham District Council set to sell headquarters and move in with county council

Park North, Horsham District Council office. Photo by Derek Martin
Park North, Horsham District Council office. Photo by Derek Martin

In a pioneering cost saving bid, Horsham District Council is poised to sell its prime headquarters in the town’s North Street - and move in with the county council across the road.

Chief Executive Tom Crowley wrote to all HDC staff this afternoon (Tuesday, November 26) to say the office sharing scheme which is being jointly investigated by the two authorities could produce ‘substantial savings’.

A district council spokesman said: “This would allow the district council to dispose of its two office buildings in North Street to release much needed cash and save substantial sums on running costs.

“The arrangement could also be financially beneficial for the county council as the costs of running the single building would be shared by the district.”

The proposal currently under investigation would see all HDC’s office based staff moving into the county council’s building - which was formerly part of the RSA complex.

Although the building is currently branded County Hall North there is likely to be pressure to find a more neutral and embracing name - possibly reverting to the original ‘Parkside’.

A combined customer service area would also be created.

A business case is now being prepared to test the viability of the idea with a view to the move taking place in the middle of 2015.

As part of this process, options for the future of the existing district council offices - located next door to the council-owned Capitol theatre - will be explored including the potential for re-development of its current North Street buildings.

Ray Dawe, Leader of HDC, said: “This is an exciting idea which could save the public purse locally a substantial amount of money.

“It is precisely the type of innovation we must strive for, would support our business transformation programme and could be an example for other areas.”

It comes just weeks after HDC announced a major review of its internal organisation - which would remove an entire tier of management and save some £200,000 each year.

The council plans to remove all eight heads of service roles - the current management structure which sits between function heads and the two directors - but strengthen specialist positions.

It will also reinstate a third director who will be a highly qualified planner to overcome criticism of the council’s planning function.

In all, 28 posts will be removed and replaced by 25 - but the cost savings arise because eight of the 28 are at a senior level.

The council wants to ensure that its organisation going forward is ‘fit for purpose’ as well as maximising efficiencies and cost savings.

Referring specifically to the proposed sharing of offices, Louise Goldsmith, Leader of West Sussex County Council, said: “This is what modern local government is all about – councils coming together to look at ways of being more efficient and effective in the best interests of our residents and taxpayers.

“This is a move that will also improve joint working between us and the district council.

“A combined customer service area would also be a very useful one-stop shop for residents with enquiries about both county and district services.”

The two leaders say it is too early to say what savings the plan could produce.

Mr Dawe said: “We will need to see the conclusions of the business case, but we do believe they will be substantial. Both councils will keep local residents fully in the picture as the plans start to take shape.”

In his letter to staff, Mr Crowley said: “This is an opportunity that has potential to save us significant sums; to provide more modern and flexible accommodation with ample meeting rooms; and to foster closer joint working which could lead to more opportunities to improve and share services. It will also enable us to develop a joint customer service facility so we can offer a joined up response to residents who get frustrated by not knowing who to contact on various issues of concern.”

Writing in this Thursday’s County Times newspaper, Mr Dawe will again highlight the financial pressures that councils are facing - and HDC’s innovative approach to resolving them.

“Councils have received 40 per cent less money from central government in grant since 2010. This has been necessary to help cut public spending and reduce the country’s deficit. Last year the Department for Communities and Local Government outlined 50 ways to save money and now the Taxpayers’ Alliance has come up with a list of 201 ways to save money. While these reports make good media stories and sound simple, most councils have already worked hard to meet the challenge and made significant savings. As councils wait to hear the 2014-15 financial settlement from the Government, it is certainly important that councillors up and down the country share as many ideas as possible to cut out spending while still attempting to provide quality services.

“What is the challenge? It is essentially to do ‘more with less’.

“While we value all help and advice in meeting this challenge, councils trying to respond to doing ‘more with less’, given that most of their costs are in staff, also face another unprecedented challenge - that of keeping employees on side against a constant backdrop of pay freezes, pension reform and job cuts.

“While on paper it may sound easy to make cuts, council employees also have to deal with a background of, and fallout from, frequent political and media criticism of the public sector, which portrays the workforce as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Councils everywhere face a massive challenge in achieving the cuts required of them without fatally damaging staff morale and undermining delivery of services.

“Clearly we need to skill up our workforce in very different ways from the past and at Horsham District Council we have been running a transformation programme to promote more flexible working and cut out all unnecessary bureaucracy. Staff will need to take on more responsibility and accountability, with fewer people in the chain of command. All of that requires a different skill set for individuals and managers.

“From my observations, our staff are not in denial about the implications of the financial savings they are required to make, or about the scale of likely future reductions, nor are they dragging their feet in accepting the changes needed in structure and systems in order to respond. Senior managers have had to communicate to staff a complete picture of the bleak longer-term financial situation but also keep the show on the road. So yes, while it is absolutely right that we work hard on the agenda of doing ‘more with less’ and emulating private sector levels of productivity, it is also important to understand that in this time of rapid change, council management, elected councillors and the public have to recognise that keeping employees on side in such circumstances is also a difficult but important task.”