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COUNCIL HQ: Former call centre emerges as favourite

COUNCIL HQ: Former call centre emerges as favourite

Image: LDRS

A FORMER call centre base is the frontrunner to become a new home for hundreds of Middlesbrough Council staff.

Fountain Court, on Grange Road, was put on the market by Firstsource last summer.

Now Middlesbrough Council leaders will decide whether to buy the offices as a new headquarters for hundreds of authority workers.

A council report has listed Fountain Court as the “preferred option” to accommodate staff.

If the purchase is agreed, workers could begin moving over from the crumbling Civic Centre in autumn 2022.

Centre North East was the favourite to become the council’s new base before the pandemic hit – with a plan to “renovate and re-energise” the 19-storey tower.

But last year, Middlesbrough Mayor Andy Preston warned the tower was “three to four times” larger than the council needed – and the move could cost as much as £40m to £50m.

A total of £150,000 was set aside for a study to examine alternatives – with leaders promising to look at a “greener alternative” HQ which would last 100 to 200 years.

Fountain Court has now emerged as the favourite – with a council survey showing it scored higher than four other options, including Centre North East, Centre Square and Gurney House.

The three-storey offices are now vacant after Firstsource staff moved over to Centre Square.

Its proximity to the Town Hall and wider benefits from stopping the building sitting empty are two reasons behind the bid to buy it.

Papers show it could accommodate 335 desks in its 38,000 sq ft of office space – with no requirement to let out vacant offices elsewhere on the site.

And an executive report showed a recent survey showed the Grange Road site was in “sound condition”.

The report added: “Although it requires refurbishment, it would be possible to achieve a very high standard of fit out and an excellent working environment for staff.

“As it is by far the most economical option to purchase, a good proportion of the investment can be allocated to ensuring a high internal specification.”

Council officials believe the original budget for a move to Centre North East will cover the purchase and fit out of Fountain Court – with estimated savings of £6.8m when the site is compared with a similar sized new building.

However, extra surveys are still to be carried out to “fully understand” the costs.

Officials say the refurbishment will cost up to £4m if the proposals are backed.

Middlesbrough Mayor Andy Preston said: “The Civic Centre is quite simply no longer fit for purpose – and we’ve been exploring options for some time now.

“Alongside that, the pandemic has changed everything over the last 12 months – and that includes the office space we need as a council.

“The vast majority of staff have been working from home throughout and we won’t need the same amount of office space in the future.

“Fountain Court represents the best value of all the options available to us and will save us up to £7m compared with earlier proposals.

“Not only will we be saving a considerable amount of money, but we will be bringing empty offices back into use, and keep the council right at the heart of all the amazing things happening in the town right now.”

The price-tag for Fountain Court has not been disclosed – and is set to be agreed behind closed doors at next week’s executive meeting.

Property firm Rightmove shows the offices are on the market for £1.95m at the moment.

Many council staff have worked from home during the pandemic.

A shift to “locality working” – where more staff are based away from the town centre and in wards – will also mean less office space is needed in a new council base.

Officials say this has meant a move to CNE would be “more expensive and risky” – with a reliance on renting out the unused space to other tenants.

Past calculations by the authority estimated there was a need for 63 desks for every 100 staff at the council.

But new number crunching reckons 50 desks per 100 people will be enough as the town emerges from the virus.

Officials say more “collaborative” spaces, fewer desks, and fewer formal meeting spaces will be needed in the council’s new headquarters.

Mr Preston scrapped a past masterplan to move council staff to one of two new Centre Square offices after his election in 2019.

The current council office building is attached to the Town Hall – and has been home to many of the council’s departments for nearly 50 years.

But its dilapidated state has seen efforts to move its 650 staff gather pace over the past decade.

Council leaders are aiming to sell the Civic Centre to a developer once they leave – with the hope it could be refurbished or demolished to make way for a new development.

In November, Mr Preston revealed two “significant” property developers had approached the authority about converting the ageing offices into living space.

Council leaders will discuss and vote on the purchase of Fountain Court next Tuesday (March 16).

Words: Alex Metcalfe, Local Democracy Reporter

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