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Council buildings project moves forward

How the reconfigured council reception area could look in Kendal Town Hall, allowing easier access and improved facilities for customers.

A scheme to reconfigure the town hall and South Lakeland District Council’s (SLDC’s) main offices in Kendal has been endorsed by councillors.

Members of SLDC’s Cabinet yesterday (Wednesday, 6 February) unanimously approved the next stage of the project, which aims to improve access for customers and put the council ‘at the heart of the high street’.

The meeting heard how the scheme would improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the accommodation at the council’s HQ at South Lakeland House and Kendal Town Hall, saving the council money in the long-term.

Introducing the report to Cabinet, Councillor Jonathan Brook, SLDC’s deputy leader and portfolio holder for Housing, People and Innovation, explained how a buildings review was completed in 2017 as part of the council’s ‘Customer Connect’ innovation project.

The review looked at how the council could best use its buildings to support Customer Connect objectives to transform and modernise the way SLDC works and provides services for its residents and businesses.

Several options were considered around the future of the offices at South Lakeland House and use of Kendal Town Hall, including staying at the present site and refurbishing or moving to a new shared ‘public sector hub’ in Kendal with Cumbria County Council and the Lake District National Park (LDNPA).

The review concluded that the option that gave best value-for-money for the taxpayer would be to stay at South Lakeland House. The shared public sector hub project was ruled out as being too costly and leaving uncertainty over the future use of the town hall.

Under the proposals put to Cabinet, South Lakeland House would be re-modelled so that around half the office space would be available to let to other organisations, with the main reception areas for the public moving to Kendal Town Hall.

The full scheme for the town hall and South Lakeland House is costed at £4.9m, which the business case shows would be fully repaid through savings from a more efficient building, reducing business rates and maintenance costs and additional income from letting out surplus office space, and would generate total savings of £450,000 over 10 years.

Councillor Brook told the meeting: “Doing nothing is not an option. To do nothing would involve significant ongoing cost in repairs and maintenance for both buildings. It would leave us with under-utilised space, a deteriorating working environment and missing out on the opportunity for generating additional income and creating space for new businesses.

“In the long-term this is not a recipe for success, nor will it address the ongoing financial pressures this council will face.

“It is a significant sum of money, but when you consider that just across the street in Kendal £1 million is being spent by a private sector company on a pub refurbishment then this helps put it into perspective.

“For us to achieve a new business enterprise centre, to help create jobs and support business, create much-needed high-quality office space in Kendal to let out to business and generate income, achieve a much-needed refurbishment of the town hall, that will make it more accessible, create more community use and meeting space areas, as well as new office space for the council to support Customer Connect, then an investment of under £5 million represents good value.

“Doing this now will future-proof this council and the services it provides for this area in the most cost-effective way for our residents.’’

Councillor Graham Vincent, portfolio holder for the Economy, praised the scheme’s proposal to include a  ‘Mintworks 2’ within South Lakeland House, a new enterprise centre for start-up businesses to build on the success of the existing Mintworks hub on Highgate.

Councillor Vincent said: “This is consistent with our strategy to support the local economy and job growth.’’

Ulverston Councillor Mark Wilson described the project as showing “real vision.’’

Councillor Wilson continued: “What a future legacy this will create. It is absolutely on the button and is absolutely the right thing to be doing now, it is a splendid opportunity.’’

Seconding the motion to endorse the proposals, Finance portfolio holder Councillor Andrew Jarvis said: “This is an ambitious scheme but we are an ambitious council.

“This is not about creating shiny offices for ourselves, it’s about making the best use of these buildings, vastly improving accessibility and putting the council at the heart of the high street.

“It is about creating flexible high-quality office space that can generate an additional income flow and about safeguarding the future of the town hall.

“This is prudent plan where we are more than covering the cost of our borrowing and it delivers the efficiencies and savings in the long-term to address budget pressures in the future. We need to get on and do this.’’

The report to Cabinet explained how the project will allow a much-needed refurbishment of Kendal Town Hall, to improve its use and secure its future.

The report says: “The investment will enable more operational activities to take place in the town hall, releasing space in South Lakeland House for alternative income generation.

“The additional space created following investment will increase the range of events that can be accommodated. All existing user groups can be accommodated within the new scheme and the council will explore the use of the space by other user groups.’’

In response to questions about ensuring the heritage of the listed town hall is protected and preserved, Councillors were reassured that the designs are just at a concept stage and that great care is being taken and conservation experts are being consulted so a sympathetic scheme is delivered.

Under the proposals the main reception areas for the public would move to the front of the town hall to make visiting the council much more accessible and user-friendly, especially improving disabled access.

More meeting spaces for community groups would be incorporated along with improved facilities for Kendal Town Council officers.

SLDC Leader Councillor Giles Archibald said: “This scheme will deliver significant social  benefits as well as supporting business growth and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the council’s services.’’

Cabinet approved in principle the investment in South Lakeland House and Kendal Town Hall and recommended to Full Council that this is included in the capital programme, as well as authorising officers to progress to the next stage of technical design.

A further, final decision to commit to the capital costs required for the scheme will be taken later this year following a tender exercise.

The full Cabinet report and the business case document is available here.